8 Great Novels to Celebrate National Gymnastics Day
Every four years, I get obsessed with gymnastics. In between rounds of Olympic competition, I fall down the YouTube rabbit hole for yet another watch of Olga Korbut and Nadia Comăneci’s groundbreaking performances in 1974 and 1978 respectively. I watch documentaries. I look up phrases like double twisting double back. And I have it on good authority (or at least from Twitter) that I’m not alone.
Book Riot’s own Kelly Jensen wrote a few years ago about the fact that she wanted more novels about gymnastics.
Gymnastics novels are few and far between. It’s weird to think that, since gymnastics are so full of power, of drama, and of opportunities to exploit storylines. The girls (and boys!) who participate are fascinating and they deal with incredible pressures inside and outside the gym to pursue their passion. In a lot of ways, gymnastics offers a lot of the same potential stories as ballet novels do: girls (and boys, but especially girls) doing things with their bodies that are powerful, that command attention, and that demand strength, agility, and commitment.
Thankfully, since 2016 when she wrote that piece, we’ve had quite a few novels set in that world. However, in at least one way, they are still lacking: we definitely need more novels about gymnastics by authors of colour. The sport has been increasingly diverse in the U.S. in the last decade or so. All three gymnasts on the podium in this past summer’s National Championships were Black women, and in 2021, Sunisa Lee was the first Asian American to win Olympic gold in the all-around competition. We increasingly have memoirs by authors of colour: Grace, Gold and Glory by Gabrielle (“Gabby”) Douglas, Courage to Soar by Simone Biles, and I Got This by Laurie Hernandez.
I hope that in the future we’ll see more novels that reflect this new and improving reality of diversity in gymnastics. But in the meantime, let’s tumble into the pages of these novels.
Break the Fall by Jennifer Iacopelli
Like many of the protagonists of gymnastics-themed books, Audrey Lee is Olympics-bound. Or at least, that’s the plan — but that could all change when awful news comes out that rocks the team and threatens its balance. On top of that, she has to navigate a distraction: the new coach has a cute son…
The Flip Side by Shawn Johnson
Gold medallist Shawn Johnson brings us this YA novel about a high school sophomore who is keeping her identity as a hopefully-future-Olympian a secret from her classmates. Which would be hard enough even without the super cute guy she’s just met…
The Happiest Girl in the World by Alena Dillon
How much are you willing to sacrifice for your ambition? For Sera Wheeler, the answer is almost everything. Her family has given up much for, and been torn apart by, her Olympic dream. When her best friend speaks up about the team doctor’s behaviour, Sera sacrifices integrity as well as friendship by denying what she knows to be true, so that she won’t lose favour and her place on the team. The already sky-high stakes of her gymnastics career have been raised again — so now what?
Head over Heels by Hannah Orenstein
There weren’t many books I was able to settle into and read in (almost) one sitting in 2020, but Head Over Heels was a great book that totally held my attention (and sent me down the rabbit hole of YouTube videos and Instagram accounts). Hannah Orenstein is a former gymnast herself, so was able to bring a lot of great authentic detail to this book about a young woman who comes back to her home town to train the next Olympic hopeful. It’s about friendship, ambition, and female empowerment as much as it is about love.
The Little Communist Who Never Smiled by Lola Lafon, transl. Nick Caistor
If you’re at all interested in gymnastics, chances are that, like me, you’ve watched Nadia Comăneci’s perfect 10 routines on bars, beam, and floor at least a few times. This book is a novelisation of her extraordinary life.
Tumbling by Caela Carter
In this YA novel, we follow the fates of five different young gymnasts as they compete in the Olympic trials. If you like the ballet novel Tiny Pretty Things and getting inside the heads of driven young women competing against each other, this is definitely one to pick up.
Turning by Joy L. Smith
The darker side of both gymnastics and ballet are addressed in this YA novel, where Genie is facing a dance-less future after an injury. Her friendship with former gymnast Kyle helps her confront what happened, and heal. Kirkus calls this YA novel “a nuanced portrayal of disability, dance, and starting over.”
You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott
If you love Megan Abbott and/or don’t mind an ambiguous ending, don’t miss this one, which is told from the point of view of a mother who has sacrificed so much for her daughter’s Olympic dream — a dream put in jeopardy by a murder that shatters the gymnastics community.
Want to read more about the sport? Check out Gimme Some Gymnastics Books, Please and Gymnastics Books For All Ages.