Friday, June 27, 2008

WE ARE THE SHIP (NONFICTION) and many more baseball at-bats

NONFICTION
WE ARE THE SHIP: THE STORY OF NEGRO LEAGUE BASEBALL by Kadir Nelson (Hyperion)
"We look back and wonder, "How did we do all that?" It's simple. We loved the game so much, we just looked past everything else. We were ballplayers. There was nothing we would have rather spent our time doing.
Imagine that you are child in the box seats of the great baseball game of history, and sitting right beside you, giving the play-by play, is a man who had been around the block and around the bases of the Negro leagues of the early 20th century, a man who wanted to whisper to you all the secrets, truths and legends of his day before it fades past memory; imagine that can really happen, that such a gift can be given, and you have a sense of the spell cast by this formidable book. The dust is stirred, the crowd is heard, and the crack of the bat and the sting of the mitt sings, sings, sings in these pages. Via first-person voice (which takes a little getting used to, but then becomes incomparably warm and confiding), readers discover a parallel sports universe, a dream manifested by some powerhouse business visionaries who created a league of their own, with rules that bent (six foot curve balls, sharpened spikes for sliding, umpires chased over center-field fences?!) and heroes that were larger than life. Descriptive and well-researched chapters celebrate the greats, Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell and beyond, and allow us to travel across the country with them as far as the Jim Crow flies, across the border to Cuba, and then, so bravely across the color line. Stoic painted portraits capture the serene beauty and almost loneliness of the field, the power of every sinewy muscle of the bat-swinging, ball-throwing arms, the dignity of every set jaw, and a double-page fold-out group portrait of the "First Colored World Series" will take. Your breath. Away. Nelson managed to match if not out-do the stirring visual tribute he gave in Ntozake Shange's ELLINGTON WAS NOT A STREET, and proved that his pen is as mighty as his brush. (And that's pretty mighty!)

A grand slam of sports history, African American history and All-American history, it's sure to sweep the ALA awards series and is the perfect gift for any baseball fan, but even more than that, it contains a piece of America that every child deserves to know. (8 and up)


This review is dedicated to my son and the most ravenous sports fan I know,
Russell (who just turned 13...proud of you!),
and to the memory of my Grandpa Sy (1918-1993),
who was a white bat boy for the Philadelphia Stars...
how he would have loved this book!

In their honors, how about we go in for a few extra innings of baseball books?:

First things first, let's get the Jackie love-in out of the way:
JACKIE'S BAT by Marybeth Lorbiecki, illustrated by Brian Pinkney (Simon and Schuster) (6 and up) A fictionalized account from Jackie Robinson's bat boy is the vehicle for an accessible story about tolerance and how people even during times of terrible intolerance have still stepped up to the plate. Fans of Jackie Robinson will also love Myron Uhlberg's DAD, JACKIE AND ME (Peachtree) (7 and up), based on the author's experience of being the child of a deaf sports fan; the stirring scrapbook-style life story; PROMISES TO KEEP: HOW JACKIE ROBINSON CHANGES AMERICA by Jackie's daughter Sharon Robinson (Scholastic) (8 and up); STEALING HOME by Ellen Schwartz (Tundra) (10 and up), a well-developed novel about a mixed-race boy who finds hope and acceptance in his family and beyond, thanks to Jackie's rising star; then there's one of my very favorite children's books of all time, the brilliant novel IN THE YEAR OF THE BOAR AND JACKIE ROBINSON by Bette Bao Lord and illustrated by Marc Simont (Harper) (10 and up), about how baseball impacts a new immigrant. Gosh, if I could just get through reading that last chapter out-loud and not choking up...and I don't mean on my bat! Sigh!

HEROES OF BASEBALL by Robert Lipsyte (Atheneum) Gorgeous photos accented by commentary from an author who clearly loves and knows the game. Lots of pictures and lots of text, this one's a hot dog with all the trimmings for the hard-core young fan. (10 and up)

PLAYERS IN PIGTAILS by Shana Corey, illustrated by Rebecca Gibbon (Scholastic) Did you know that "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" was inspired by a player from the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in the tuen of the last century? Irresistible retro illustrations with smart, subtle humor add to this book's substantial charm. (6 and up)

BALLPARK: THE STORY OF AMERICA'S BASEBALL FIELDS by Lynn Curlee (Atheneum) Elegant and well-researched exploration of the history architecture behind the game's dreamiest fields, past and present. (8 and up)

BAT 6 by Virginia Euwer Wolff (Sholastic) An oldie but goodie (which means it's available in paperback), this provocative piece of historical fiction follows a girl's baseball team as two players struggle, one Japanese girl recently out of internment, and one girl who has lost her father in the bombing of Pearl Harbor. A brave storyline with plenty to discuss in mother-daughter book clubs or classrooms. (10 and up) A picture book on the same theme is the powerful BASEBALL SAVED US by Ken Mochizuki, illustrated by Dom Lee (Lee and Low) (8 and up).

Also an oldie-but-favorite on the baseball fiction shelf is Alfred Slote's FINDING BUCK McHENRY (HarperTrophy), about a boy who tries to "out" his school janitor as a catcher from the Negro Leagues. Plenty to learn and to discuss for baseball enthusiasts! (9 and up)

JUST LIKE JOSH GIBSON by Angela Johnson, illustrated by Beth Peck (Simon and Schuster) Seems African American men weren't the only ones to get hit by some discriminatory pitches, as young fan of the Negro Leagues takes a swing at her baseball dream in her pink dress. Language sails over the fence and the illustrator calls "I've got it!" with beautiful and evocative pastels. (6 and up)

THE SHOT HEARD ROUND THE WORLD by Phil Bildner, illustrated by C.F. Payne (Simon and Schuster) Folksy recounting of the legendary Brooklyn Dodgers' and New York Giants playoffs of 1951, told from the POV of the fans of the losing team. Wait'll next year! (6 and up)

HEY BATTA BATTA SWING!: THE WILD OLD DAYS OF BASEBALL by Sally Cook and James Charlton, illustrated in cool retro style by Ross MacDonald (McElderberry Books) What fun! Nicknames, slang, rule changes, changes in equipment and uniforms, legends and doctored baseballs make this required reading for any future umpires, commissioners, and present sports conversationalists. (7 and up)

PECORINO PLAYS BALL by Alan Madison, illustrated by Anna Laura Cantone (Atheneum) Hilarious account of a rookie's first little league game. (5 and up) Tee-ballers will also warm up to Leonard Kessler's classic I-Can-Read book, HERE COMES THE STRIKEOUT (HarperTrophy) (5 and up).

ROBERTO CLEMENTE: PRIDE OF THE PITTSBURGH PIRATES by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Raul Colon (Aladdin) The pride of both Pittsburgh and Puerto Rico, beautiful cross-hatched illustrations grace the picture book biography of a great hitter, fielder, and humanitarian. (7 and up)

BASEBALL CRAZY: TEN SHORT STORIES THAT COVER ALL THE BASES edited by Nancy Mercado (Dial) The title kind of says it all, doesn't it? Solid authors like Jerry Spinelli, John K. Ritter and Charles R. Smith help reluctant readers raise their page-turning averages with brief, high-interest sport spots. (9 and up)

ZACHARY'S BALL by Matt Tavares (Candlewick) Ever want to be one of the lucky few who catches a foul ball? The one Zachary's dad nabs at Fenway seems to have other-worldly powers to make baseball fantasies come true. Check out all of Tavares' baseball books (MUDBALL, OLIVER'S GAME, moments of magical realism captured in the alluring, black-and-white pencil style from the school of early Chris Van Allsburg.

THE BIG FIELD by Mike Lupica (Philomel) A sportswriting master creates a scintillating story of a mushrooming competition between boys, set against the backdrop of an impending chamionship game. Father-son dynamics, old school vs. new school styles and a real passion for the details and depth that make baseball our national pastime all converge to make this a home run for older readers. (11 and up) Some people are saying Lupica is the new Matt Christopher or John Tunis. But hey, don't retire these guys yet! Keep them in your rotation to get on base with intermediate readers who could use a squeeze play from sports fact to sports fiction.

If you have a baseball card collector in your home but still don't know Dan Gutman's BASEBALL CARD ADVENTURES (MICKEY AND ME, SHOELESS JOE AND ME and HONUS AND ME are a few to start with), you are in for a treat as addictive as peanuts and popcorn! These are highly imaginative and engaging stories in which characters on baseball cards come to life and lead young baseball fans in time-traveling jaunts. Just like baseball cards, you'll want to collect them all. (8 and up)

And finally, speaking of time travel, I just have to make sure everyone has a copy of Christopher Bing's rendering of Ernest L. Thayer's immortal poem CASEY AT THE BAT, a 2000 Caldecott honor winner. Stunning how-did-he-do-it illustrations in the style of turn-of-the century engravings, peppered with collaged remnants of baseball days past, perfectly frame the erudite language of the ballad and make it a home run even for modern readers. A great keepsake gift for any baseball lover of any age.

If you have a reluctant reader with a sporty streak, try this tack! On an index card, create a baseball diamond, and assign base values for books: a triple for a novel over 96 pages, a double for non-fiction, a single for a picture book, a home run for every four books read or two hundred pages...whatever motivates your player to round the bases without being overwhelming. Keep the cards all through the summer, and calculate the average through the season. Reward your rookie with a trip to the ballgame...go to the dugout early, and have the players autograph his or her favorite baseball book instead of a program!

Root, root, root for the readers...

3 comments:

A Mitch said...

Great Post!
Teammates by Peter Golenbock is a great book to go with Jackie and Me. It shows how PeeWee Reese took a stand that no one else would for Jackie. Awesome!
Robert Clemente's life story is so impacting on students as well.

A Mitch said...

Also, there is a great podcast by the poet Karen Zaborowski Duffy about taking a trip to the World Series. It's News Hour with Jim Lehrer: Poet reflects on Family and trip to the World Series. My class really enjoyed it.

Becky said...

A great book that I just finished reading is titled, "Pinch Hitter" by Dean Whitney. It is a very uplifting story. There aren't many fictional baseball books coming out these days. Pinch Hitter is one of the best I've read in years. And the ending left it open for a sequel.

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