A Most Beautiful Thing

by Arshay Cooper

“Toward the end of class, Ken takes out a $20 bill and asks who wants it. Everyone starts calling out. ‘I’ll ask again. Who wants this?’

Everyone yells louder, ‘I do,’ while raising their hands. Ken screams, ‘Who wants this?’ When Ken looks at me, I just know he would give it to me. I need it. Everyone screams louder, ‘I do!’ until one student jumps up and grabs the bill out of Ken’s hands.

‘See, if you want it, you can’t just yell and talk about it, you have to get up and go get it. Period.’ This really got me, because I could use that 20 bucks, and the lesson was on point. As young people, we shout to the roof top that we want to go to college, make the NBA, graduate high school, win a race, or get a job. Those things will never come to pass if we just sit on our buts and say we want it. We have to get up, get to work, and go get it, because if we don’t, someone will take what is supposed to be ours, like that $20.”

Ratings & Reviews

Book Grade: A

A Most Beautiful Thing hooked me early on. Perhaps it was because I rowed crew in college. Perhaps it was because Arshay is a gifted story teller who paints the picture of his Chicago neighborhood with reverence and realism. Or, perhaps it was because from the start, I was rooting for this young team of rowers to find themselves – and support each other – through this sport. Whatever got me, I loved Arshay’s story and how he blends his teenage trials, rowing team challenges, and community awareness in a beautiful and touching way.

A Most Beautiful Thing revolves around the young boys who took a chance to become America’s first Black high school crew team in a part of the country where racial divisions and wealth divide neighborhoods and define opportunities. It is a book about sports, but it is also a book about Arshay finding leadership opportunities through the mentorship of the team sponsor, Ken, and living in a way that ensures he can meet his future goals.

Arshay and his teammates defy the odds and overcome their own fears to prove to themselves and others that they can accomplish whatever they set their minds to. Keep in mind that this book does deal with some difficult racial themes and addresses challenging ideas about income, family dynamics, drug abuse, domestic dysfunction, and more, and is honest about how some families in inner city neighborhoods cope with the obstacles stacked up against them. Overall, though Arshay does a wonderful job telling his timely story in an intriguing and inspiring way that will leave readers with lots to think about.

Movie Rating: R

A Most Beautiful Thing is a gritty and honest tale about life in inner city Chicago. With that in mind, there are repeated references to drug addiction, theft, violence, gangs, and prison. There is a lot of intense language – with many of the rowing teammates using the “n” word frequently. Racism – both against Blacks and by Blacks – is a central theme, and there is a brief section in which Arshay talks about police-civilian relationships in his neighborhood. This book – as a non-fiction memoir – does not sugar coat things. It is honest about how hard it is to feel safe in school and how gang tensions pop up in classrooms, on campus, and in the neighborhood.

This realness, however, only serves to make the story more authentic. Yes, it is really hard to hear some of the experiences that Arshay has had to deal with (from his drug addicted mother all but abandoning her children to Arshay having his books dumped out by police who accuse him of wrongdoing), but Arshay’s focus remains on the crew team for most of the story, allowing us to understand how this sport allowed him to escape the trials and tribulations of west Chicago while working toward goals. This book absolutely deals with difficult topics, so it is most suitable for more mature readers who can come away with a deeper understanding of how this sport changed the lives of the young men on the team in more ways than can be counted.

Would I Buy This for My Library: Yes

A Most Beautiful Thing is a quick and compelling read dealing with timely and timeless subjects. I might be biased about the power of the rowing team on the lives of these young men because I loved being on the crew team in college, but this book blends sports and life in a truly beautiful way. This book has so much that can be discussed and is a perfect non-fiction text for teachers looking to diversify their curriculum. Additionally, the documentary film – based on Arshay’s book – came out recently, and there is lots of media coverage regarding the team in the 1990s and today. This book is inspiring, informative, and touchingly real, and I am eager to add it to my library collection.

Bonus: This is the article that Arshay describes in the book – it is a fun way to round out a scene that was so important to the young rowers featured. This is a supplemental story that indicates that Manley’s crew team was not the first all-black crew team and serves as a good discussion about race and rowing.


Arshay Cooper grew up on Chicago’s west side with gangs, guns, drugs, and poverty. He has seen friends and family members impacted by the roughness of the neighborhood and nearly lost his mom to addiction. In spite of temptations to join different gangs, and the lure of dealing for easy money, Arshay is dedicated to his future and attends Manley High School in dreams of becoming a chef. He is fine flying under the radar, but everything changes one day when a group of visitors bring a fancy looking boat to the school and offer free pizza to anyone who wants to come talk about joining the rowing team. Thus begins A Most Beautiful Thing.

Although reluctant to join at first because rowing is traditionally a white man’s sport and football is way more accepted at Manley, Arshay is swayed and quickly becomes a leader on the team. With coaches Jessica and Victor leading practices, and Ken funding the first black high shool rowing team, Arshay begins to find his place and grows to bond with his teammates – a group of boys who he passed in the hall, but never really knew. With dedication, practice, and the promise of competing in far off locations like Philadelphia, Arshay finds that rowing – and Ken’s mentorship – forces him to challenge himself in ways that he never expected.

A Most Beautiful Thing deals with the reality of inner-city life, race in a historically white sport, and the power of overcoming. This sports-centric story is beautifully told through the eyes of 17-year-old Arshay and highlights the trials and insecurities of this young Black boy from west Chicago as he gets ready to face the world at large. Thrilling, heartwarming, and absolutely intriguing, A Most Beautiful Thing is a story worth diving into.

Book Talk Questions:

  1. Why does Arshay start rowing? Why does he continue to row?
  2. Arshay has a different relationship with his mother than his siblings have. Explain how his mother has changed and what Arshay’s relationship with her is.
  3. Arshay’s neighborhood in West Chicago is difficult. What is it like and what do he and his peers face everyday when going to and from school or practice?
  4. Ken is consistently shown as fearless. What does he do to show the boys confident leadership and what are some of the lessons they learn from him outside of rowing?
  5. Arshay repeatedly states that rowing is the ultimate team sport. Why is this an extra challenging sport for the Manley High School boys with this mentality and understanding?
  6. How is race a factor throughout the story (particularly in races, bus trips, college visits, etc.)?

A Perfect Read for Fans Of…

  • And Still We Rise by Miles Corwin
  • The Seven Seat by Daniel J. Boyne
  • The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
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