I love the careful, almost photographic style of illustrator (and now writer) Kadir Nelson and was thrilled to hear that he was working on a history of Negro League baseball for young readers. We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball was well worth the wait. Everything about this book is beautiful, even the copyright and dedication pages, which are lightly printed with quotations from Negro League greats such as Satchel Paige and Buck O'Neil. In my town, there was a baseball card store where former Negro League players used to sit around and tell stories over coffee, while adoring fans looked on. This book has the feel of a grandfather telling stories from way-back-when, during Jim Crow. And what stories they are! In nine chapters, called innings, of course, the stories flow with the cadence of the spoken word . . . and some of the bravado that often goes along with oral storytelling. "Some of those guys would spike their mother if she were blocking home plate." Can't you picture the old guys nodding their heads in agreement?
Though the stories flow in We Are the Ship, it's the artwork that is absolutely stunning. Nelson frames most of the illustrations from a perspective slightly below the level of the subject, as sports photographers often do. That allows the players to appear larger than life, towering over the reader. With its fascinating details about life as a black person in America, from Jim Crow through the current baseball era, this book will appeal to anyone interested in the history of baseball, African Americans and race. With all the talk of steroids and drugs in baseball this year, Nelson reminds us of another time, a time when players played for the love of the game.
A FAITHFUL COMPANION
Night Running: How James Escaped with the Help of His Faithful Dog, written by Elisa Carbone and illustrated by E.B. Lewis, is a true story that Carbone found while researching her young adult novel, Stealing Freedom. It tells the story of James and his dog, Zeus, who eventually make it across the Ohio River to freedom. James worries that Zeus will be a burden on the long trip, but it turns out that Zeus is one special dog one who will sniff out slave catchers, fight off other dogs and even pull his boy out of a river. Another gripping story brought to life with the watercolors of the incomparable E.B. Lewis, who knows how to sniff out a fantastic manuscript himself.
PLAYING WITH PASSION
Biographies are an important part of the books available for young history readers. Piano Starts Here: The Young Art Tatum, by Robert Andrew Parker, tells the story of someone I am embarrassed to say I had never heard of. But that is the magic of the story—I was drawn in from the first page and found myself thinking about Art Tatum for weeks. I went to websites to explore his music and was completely amazed that this jazz pianist, mostly self-taught and nearly blind since birth, found the prominence he did. Written in the first person and illustrated in Parker's familiar filmy watercolors outlined with pen, this biography reveals the author's obvious admiration for his subject. From the time Tatum started playing in clubs in 1926 at the age of 16, his short life spanned the heyday of the Jazz Age through the mid-1950s. Parker's telling makes it all so alive that it is hard not to want to know more. Children often ignore the end matter that is so important in books, but I hope they will read about the author and Tatum in the fascinating endnotes. For the child or adult who has a passion, whether musical or not, and is inspired by others who follow their passions, this would be a welcome gift.
REVISITING A TRAILBLAZER
Most children learn about George Washington Carver in school and are able to connect him with the words "peanut" and "sweet potato." Tonya Bolden explores Carver more seriously in George Washington Carver, a book to accompany a traveling exhibit on Carver from the Field Museum in Chicago. Filled with archival photographs, artifacts and Carver's own scientific drawings, this is a book to slowly savor. Maybe it's because Carver working in his lab reminds me so much of my own grandfather working in his pharmacy, but Carver has always been a hero to me. His dedication to the earth and his reverence for nature will surely resound with ecologically aware students today. I particularly enjoyed the tidbits that Bolden sprinkles into her narrative—Carver saving everything, even string; Carver knitting and doing embroidery; and, my favorite, a photo of Carver taking his early morning walk, specimen case in one hand, a branch in the other, and a flower tucked in his lapel. Reading about the research he completed with the most basic tools renews my admiration for him. Bolden's straight-shooting afterword addresses Carver's detractors (he did not publicly oppose segregation, which put him at odds with some in the Civil Rights movement) and brings him back into the fold of famous scientists. Now, I just have to hope that the traveling exhibit comes to my city (check fieldmuseum.org to see if it's coming to yours).
If you're looking for a new reference book on civil rights history for young children, David Adler's newest offering is a good place to start. Heroes for Civil Rights, illustrated by Bill Farnsworth, discusses eight men, two women and three groups of people who fought for civil rights. The heroes are arranged alphabetically, from Ralph Abernathy to Earl Warren. I especially enjoyed revisiting the stories of Fannie Lou Hamer and Fred Shuttlesworth, two lesser-known heroes. Adler includes Lyndon Baines Johnson and Earl Warren to remind children that some white people, too, fought for civil rights. Farnsworth's oil paintings remind me of the formal portraits we often see hung in businesses or schools to honor past presidents and principals. Sepia tones add to the serious presentation. It's hard to look in the eyes of murdered civil rights workers Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney without thinking about their ages—early 20s—the ages of my own children. Simple, spare and easy to navigate, this is a great resource for children who love history.
WHAT LIES BENEATH
Though the horrors of slavery are acknowledged in Jean Ferris' fine young adult novel, Underground, set in the Mammoth Cave region of Kentucky in 1839, they are mostly a thing of the past for Charlotte Brown and her beau, the brilliant cave explorer Stephen Bishop (a real-life figure). Their new owner treats them well, even allowing Stephen to explore and map caves on his own for days at a time. When Stephen brings Charlotte into Mammoth Cave for privacy as he teaches her to read, Charlotte finds a safe place to hide runaway slaves from the slave catchers and their dogs. She also discovers that she loves Stephen and that she has the inner resources it takes to lie in order to protect the runaways.
Though Charlotte and Stephen are the main characters of this novel, Mammoth Cave itself also figures prominently in the story. A beautiful but peculiar place, filled with blind fish, white crickets and sounds that resemble the voices of spirits, the cave seems to have a life of its own. Ferris weaves interesting details about the daily life of slaves into her fast-paced story. Historical information about the Underground Railroad is also seamlessly included in this suspenseful page-turner, as is an overall sense of respect for the cave itself.