Reviews for “Strong As Sandow”

Strong As Sandow: How Eugen Sandow Became The Strongest Man on Earth has now been reviewed by most of the major review journals. Here’s what they have to say:

School Library Journal, starred review
Sparked by his own passion for bodybuilding and physical fitness, Tate recounts the story of Eugen Sandow (1867–1925) in this inspirational picture book. The biography begins during Sandow’s childhood in Prussia, where he used sports and exercise to develop from a frail, skinny child into a robust, physically active young man and later into a world-famous strongman in the United States, with his own successful business enterprise. The text progresses chronologically, with references to various geographic settings and specific historical events. Tate’s mixed-media illustrations feature characters, especially Sandow, with oversize, highly expressive faces. The muted colors are appropriate to the historical setting. The artwork is chock-full of humorous, cartoonish details that greatly enhance the story. In the afterword, Tate provides additional biographical information on both Sandow and himself. He includes a few simple exercises for kids and a well-developed bibliography. This title would be a good companion to Meghan McCarthy’s Strong Man: The Story of Charles Atlas, reinforcing the themes of physical fitness and the importance of healthy choices. VERDICT An excellent introduction to a historical figure that will appeal not only to children already interested in sports and fitness but also to those in need of encouragement.

 The Horn Book, starred review
The life of Eugen Sandow (1867–1925), a Victorian-era bodybuilding superstar dubbed “the Modern Hercules,” is rife with mystery. Not only did his family destroy his belongings after his death, but articles and books on Sandow are often contradictory. Tate (a former bodybuilder himself ) reconciles these challenges by telling the story as “Sandow would have wanted it told”—with drama and flair. This decision could have easily resulted in an over-the-top portrayal of the subject; instead, Tate’s chronological narrative portrays an ambitious, hardworking showman with a drive for excellence—from “feeble” boy to acrobat, strongman, fitness guru, and creator of the first organized bodybuilding contest. And although admiring of Sandow’s impressive physique and strength, Tate is skeptical of the man’s purported antics (such as defeating a lion). Tate argues that Sandow was more than just a strongman; that his attention to both mind and body inspired the people of his time—and can inspire people today—to devote “more attention to their own health.” The digital illustrations—rendered in a gentle, textured black outline housing a warm color palette—show an approachable version of the athlete. Additionally, decorative caption boxes and some stylized lettering (seen on marquees and banners) help develop a period feel. Back matter includes an afterword, exercise techniques, a bibliography, an author’s note, and quotation sources. A powerful pairing with Meghan McCarthy’s Strong Man and Nicolas Debon’s The Strongest Man in the World.

Kirkus Reviews
Tate introduces his readers to one of the first international sports stars in a well-researched biography of bodybuilding strongman Eugen Sandow. Friedrich Wilhelm Müller began life in Prussia as a weak and sickly child who longed for activity. A boyhood trip to Italy changed Friedrich’s life, when he learned about the gladiators of Rome and their belief in daily strenuous exercise. Tate explores Müller’s life as a student, circus performer, and model as he grows (pun absolutely intended) into the professional strongman Eugen Sandow. Digitally created illustrations use dramatic grainy shadows that suggest the inky carbon smudges of old newspaper photos. As in many old newspapers, all the characters depicted in the story are white. Tate wisely introduces some diversity in the backmatter by showing a multiracial group of boys and girls as models for four simple exercises. The other strongmen that appear in the book present a range of physiques, a nicely designed if subtle hat tip to the idea that fitness can be reflected in different weights and sizes. Additional backmatter includes an afterword on Sandow’s life, Tate’s relationship with the sport of bodybuilding, and a bibliography that includes Web links when possible. The only thing that’s missing is a timeline, a feature that is always appreciated. Readers will find parallels with Meghan McCarthy’s picture-book biography of Charles Atlas, Strong Man (2007), but Tate’s celebration of Eugen Sandow makes a solid addition to any biography section.

Publishers Weekly
Tate (Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions) sheds light on a fascinating Victorian-era celebrity: Eugen Sandow (born in 1867 Prussia as Friedrich Wilhelm Müller), who helped usher in competitive bodybuilding. “Skinny” and “feeble” as a child, Sandow was fascinated by the physiques of classical statues, and he parleyed that interest into a career, ditching university to become a circus acrobat before embracing a life as an artist’s model, weightlifter, and performer. At one event in New York City, Sandow’s feats of strength led to gasps and faints, though perhaps due to his physicality: “His chiseled muscles were things of beauty.” Strong, crayonlike lines bring definition to those muscles in Tate’s dynamic illustrations, and closing pages detail the not-always-reliable information available about Sandow, Tate’s bodybuilding past, and exercises for young readers.

“Strongest Man on Earth”? With competing reports, self-promoting hype, and Louis Cyr (of Debon’s The Strongest Man in the World, BCCB 5/07) on the strongman show circuit, it’s hard to award that title to Eugen Sandow with certainty. He is, however, considered the father of body-building, and he turned himself from a scrawny kid into a bundle of muscle. After an exhausting career as strongman, Sandow, no longer as bulky and buff as he was in his heyday, “launched the Great Competition,” a men’s body-building contest that assessed not only an impressive physique but also overall health and athleticism. While Louis Cyr and other muscle-flexing contemporaries have passed into the history and record books, Sandow lives on as the gold-plated statuette awarded annually to Mr. Olympia. The grunting, hefting, and posing are presented here with a liberal helping of humor, and if viewers aren’t rolling on the floor over the early twentieth century body-builder’s costumes, they will be over Sandow’s own stint as a life model in an art studio. As engaging as Sandow’s story is, endnotes command equal attention, particularly the historical follow-up in the afterword and Tate’s own body-building interests and experience (complete with photograph) in the author’s note. Source notes, a bibliography, and suggestions for some simple strengthening exercises are also included.

Shelf Awareness
“Tate’s biography of one of the first international sports stars is welcoming to the young reader with approachable text and rich digital illustrations.”

Debuting the Strong As Sandow, (The Official Trailer/Teaser)

Introducing “Strong As Sandow: How Eugen Sandow Became The Strongest Man on Earth” (Charlesbridge, Aug. 22, 2017)!

I was inspired to write on the subject of bodybuilding following my short stint with natural bodybuilding many years ago in Des Moines, Iowa. After a failed attempt at competing in 1997 at the Upper Midwest Bodybuilding Competition (under NANBF, at the time), I bulked up and competed again in 1998. That year, I won a first- and second-place trophy. It was such a fun experience! After that, I wanted to write a book about bodybuilding, but I couldn’t figure out an angle.

Strong Man: The Story of Charles Atlas: Meghan McCarthy

I considered writing about Charles Atlas. But there was already a picture book about him. It was written by author-illustrator Meghan McCarthy. It’s a fantastic book. But would the picture book market support two biographies on such an obscure person?

Then I experimented with writing a fictional character inspired by Charles Atlas. It was the story of a weakling mouse who was bullied at school, who built himself up to be “the Strongest Mouse in the World.” But that story was, well . . . stupid. I considered writing about Arnold Schwarzenegger. Or maybe Reg Park? I became frustrated.

One day while researching the topic of bodybuilders, I came across a picture of Eugen Sandow—and wow! I dug deeper and learned that, as a child, Sandow was weak and sickly, and he wanted to get healthy. I related to Sandow’s childhood story—that was my own story in many ways. I was a skinny kid who wanted to grow up to look like a superhero like The Incredible Hulk! I would write Sandow’s story. But that’s also where things got complicated inside my head.

Sergio Olivia

Maybe I should write about a black bodybuilder, I thought. I mean, I’d built a career on writing and/or illustrating stories about little-known, black historical figures—Willie Mays, Effa Manley, Ron McNair. And later, George Moses Horton, John Roy Lynch, Lonnie Johnson. Where would white, Victorian, Eugen Sandow fit in there? And how would folks respond to my writing a story about a white guy who, given the time period, would have likely performed to mostly white audiences? This story certainly wouldn’t fall under the umbrella of diversity. Was this my story to tell?

As a kid, I loved larger-than-life real stories.

I drove myself crazy, questioning whether I should or shouldn’t be the person to tell Sandow’s story. One thing was apparent, though: the more I researched about Sandow’s life, the more captivated I became with this subject. Strongmen—and some strongwomen—who lifted horses and pianos over their heads, tore decks of cards with their bare hands, broke metal chains by expanding their chest? I was the kind of kid who loved anything related to Ripley’s Believe It or Not!

Like Sandow, I’m passionate on the subject of physical fitness. I’m a gym rat, working out is not outside of my experience. Race should not dictate who I should write about, I mean, white authors write about black historical figures all the time, why should I limit myself? The story of Eugen Sandow, who once wrestled a 500-pound lion was right up my alley. Sandow’s story became mine to to tell.

Sampson and Cyclops

Eugen Sandow accepts Sampson and Cyclops’ challenge

During the late 1800s, strongmen acts were a popular, money-making endeavor. Strongmen like the notorious Sampson and Cyclops entertained people by performing feats of strength (and trickery, in all honesty) at music halls all throughout Europe. I wrote about Sampson and Cyclops in my picture book,“Strong As Sandow: How Eugen Sandow Became The Strongest Man On Earth.

Each night following their performances, Sampson and Cyclops offered prize money to anyone who could defeat them in a competition of strength. It was none other than Eugen Sandow who beat them at their own game.

Below are some of the photos I used as reference to create the images of Sampson and Cyclops in my book:

Charles A. Sampson. Source:










Charles A. Sampson. Source:


Franz “Cyclops” Bienkowski. Source:
To strength and health!,



Source: the Mail, October 31, 1891



Eugen Sandow’s posing routine, minus the music–plus a backflip!

Click here to see Sandow perform (Library of Congress):

I first competed in natural bodybuilding in 1998, at the Upper Midwest Natural Bodybuilding Competition, in Urbandale, Iowa. Although the posing routines weren’t a part of the morning competition itself, they were a part of the evening show. Contestants performed their poses on stage to music, as the audience cheered us on.

The first year, I posed to The Backstreet Boys “Everybody.” The following year, I posed to Puff Daddy’s “It’s All About The Benjamins.” Little did I know at the time that Eugen Sandow probably performed some of the first bodybuilding posing routines.

In 1894, Sandow was filmed by none other than Thomas Edison himself–yeah, that Thomas Edison, aka, Inventor of the Light Bulb! The three films became the first motion pictures to feature a bodybuilder, and Sandow was the first superstar to perform before Edison’s kinetograph camera. In the three silent films, Sandow flexed his muscles in an energetic bodybuilding routine, one performance ending with a backflip. Now, don’t try that at home!

The films can be found at the Library of Congress website.

I Got Myself Some of Sandow’s Spring Grip Dumb-Bells!

These are way cool, yes! But what are they? They’re actual Eugen Sandow Spring Grip Dumb-Bells! They’re mentioned in the book, “Strong As Sandow: How Eugen Sandow Became The Strongest Man On Earth.” I got ’em on Ebay, and, no, they weren’t cheap. With seven springs, though, these are one of his later designs. I may use them at school visits–or not, considering these are probably more than a hundred years old. Next, I’d like to get my hands on one of his Developers. Read more about Sandow’s patented Spring Grip Dumb-Bells here!

What’s Up With The Medallion hanging from Sandow’s Neck?

he As per G. Mercer Adam, Sandow’s biographer, Eugen Sandow here wears an “Italian competition gold medal for wrestling” around his neck.

So when I initially wrote the picture book “Strong As Sandow: How Eugen Sandow Became The Strongest Man On Earth,” I thought Sandow was Jewish. After all, many websites claim him to be so.

In addition, in many of his photos, Sandow wears a huge Star of David-looking medallion around his neck. Certainly, that meant he was Jewish, I thought. This will be the story of a Victorian, German, Jewish, strongman, bodybuilder! But as I did my research,  I could not find a credible source (other than amateur bodybuilding blogs) that could proved him to be Jewish–a detail in a nonfiction picture book that had to be accurate.

In the book “Sandow’s System of Physical Training” by G. Mercer Adams (Sandow’s biographer, supposedly  written with Sandow’s input), it states that Sandow’s family was Lutheran, and hoped the youngster would become a minister. Hmm, not much Jewish about that.

A scholarly article, “Jewish Masculinities: German Jews, Gender, and History,” says that Sandow’s parents were born Jewish. Double-hmm. Interesting.

From “Sandow on Physical Training: A Study in the Perfect Type of the Human Form” edited by Graeme Mercer Adam. Caption below photo: “Italian Competition Gold Medal for Wrestling.”

According to a librarian at the H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture & Sports, as well as Sandow’s biographer, G. Mercer Adam, the thing hanging around Sandow’s neck was an “Italian competition gold medal for wrestling.” Was there a religious connotation to its shape? I don’t know. Regardless, that doesn’t really clear up the question about Sandow’s personal religious affiliation–although, something tells me he wasn’t a church-going kind of dude. The confusion was enough for me to steer clear of making any definite claims about Sandow being Jewish in my book. I’m not saying he is. I’m  not saying he isn’t. But to avoid confusing my young readers, I downplayed the medallion in the book.

Edit: Here’s a credible article that claims that Sandow is of Jewish descent: This 101-Year-Old’s Uncle Was the Strongest Jew in the World. Read more:

Creating the Cover

I’ll be the first to admit, I look nothing like Eugen Sandow. After all, Sandow was German with a waxed, handlebar mustache. I’m an African American guy with a graying hipster beard. We do have one thing in common: we both like to work out and develop our muscles. For that reason–ahem!– I served as my own model for many of the scenes in the book, “Strong As Sandow: How Eugen Sandow Became The Strongest Man On Earth.

1. A thumbnail sketch of the cover. Typically, I do a lot of sketches, but with this book, I felt like I hit it on my first try–and so did my art director and editor!

2. I worked up tighter sketch in black and white. I showed this sketch to one of my critique buddies, illustrator Jeff Crosby, who said that my Sandow looked too scrawny. Oops, I guess there was too much of my skinny arms in that version (4).

3. On the final cover image, I beefed-up Sandow’s arms and shoulders a bit more. And I also gave him a smile, so he wouldn’t look so serious.

In addition to writing and illustrating “Strong As Sandow,” I also designed the cover. I was inspired by the design of a movie poster for “The Great Ziegfeld,” a 1936 American musical drama.  The movie was basically a tribute to Florence Ziegfeld (of the infamous Ziegfeld Follies), Eugen Sandow’s manager.

The poster uses a bold red background with a hefty yellow type font. And, by the way, did I mention that the movie also includes scenes of actor Nat Pendleton portraying Eugen Sandow?

Nat Pendleton in The Great Ziegfeld trailer.jpg More details Cropped screenshot of Nat Pendleton as Eugen Sandow from the trailer for The Great Ziegfeld

Researching at the H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture & Sports

Many of the resources that I used for the picture book “Strong As Sandow: How Eugen Sandow Became The Strongest Man on Earth,” came from the H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture website. As I wrote the story, I wished the Stark Center were an actual place–a brick-and-mortar building where I could go visit, sit down, and rummage through Eugen Sandow artifacts. Well, guess what? After I wrote and sold the manuscript, I discovered that the Stark Center is actually right here in Austin, Texas, where I live! It is a wonderful resource center that sits atop the University of Texas football stadium. It has a whole section dedicated to bodybuilding, bodybuilders, and has a huge collection of Eugen Sandow artifacts.

Well, of course, I made several trips over there, and spent many hours plowing through Sandow’s actual magazines and books–aged to the point that they were crumbling in my hands. The resources allowed me to double- and triple-check my facts, and also provided more visual reference for my drawings. Here are a few treasures that can be found at the H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture:

A bust of Sandow at the Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports
A painting of Sandow as a gladiator by Aubrey Hunt, Stark Center for Physical Culture
Mega books and magazines on Sandow at the Stark Center for Physical Culture