|Apr/May 2010 Reviews & Interviews|
Willie Perdomo uses a unique approach in his lovely story about the legendary Roberto Clemente. Although the player is obviously the focus in ¡Clemente!, it is written from the perspective of a young boy whose father "...is the president of the Greatest Fans of Roberto Clemente Club, Boogie-down Bronx chapter". The boy knows Clemente is important—his uncle is another fan who "...wears his Pittsburgh Pirates cap with his Sunday-church-suits," and for hero day at school the boy plans to write about him. But there is more going on here than a litany of stats (which are recited in poetic fashion) or traditional biography. This is a book about why so many people loved Roberto Clemente and continued to feel strongly about him long after his sudden and untimely death. In many ways it actually transcends Clemente's story to define fan loyalty for other sports greats—the ones who rise above the pack and make impressions that last generations.
Young readers will likely not grasp that bigger vision however—they will be intrigued by the ballplayer's life and the way the boy has been raised to idolize him. They will also be deeply impressed by Bryan Collier's stunning, rich illustrations. The textures seem to leap off the page here, giving them almost a three dimensional element. It's beautiful stuff, even when depicting a story that has such sad elements.
¡Clemente! impressed me more than I expected, both because it did not sugarcoat the plane crash that took the ballplayer's life and also because of the way one family's affection for their hero comes through so effectively. There are a lot of more conventional ways this book could have been written, but young "Clemente," (his father named him for the player, of course), makes for a comfortable narrator who is easy to identify with. His perspective makes a very famous man seem real and approachable and he makes you miss him, if you were never lucky enough to see him play. That's about as good as it gets with a sports book and why I rate ¡Clemente! so highly.
The daughter of baseball legend Jackie Robinson shares a personal story of his life off the field in Testing the Ice. Set in 1955 it recounts her family's move to Connecticut and the idyllic days that followed. With Kadir Nelson's full color, intensely personal artwork (inspired by Robinson family photos) filling the pages, the text relates how the ballplayer unwound with his family while also sharing some of the difficult victories he achieved on the field. After his retirement in 1956 however, he showed his children a particular brand of courage that impressed them more than anything.
One winter day, following their pleas for ice skating time on the nearby lake, Robinson, deeply afraid of the water and unable to swim, slowly made his way out onto the ice ahead of the children. Tapping with a broomstick he was determined to make sure it was safe and willing to face his fear to keep the kids safe. This small story is emblematic of the courage Robinson showed on the ball field and the fact that it is still so treasured by his daughter makes it that much more poignant—and also brings the American hero down to earth and a situation that young readers will easily understand. It's a smart way to make children who might know little of baseball still identify with Robinson and also interest them in the larger story that is only partly revealed here.
With its multi-racial cast of children surrounding the Robinson children, Nelson's gorgeous pictures and a story that is both sweet and a little bit exciting, Testing the Ice is a winter tale to be celebrated—and a perfect choice for reading aloud on days when the ice is not quite ready for skaters.
Hank Aaron idolized Jackie Robinson and his achievements loom large over the younger player's life in Henry Aaron's Dream. Author/illustrator Matt Tavares uses a slightly muted style to illustrate this autobiographical tale of Aaron's dream to play in the majors and the struggles he endured to get there. From early days when he held the bat the wrong way (left hand over right), to a career that started in the Negro Leagues and moved on to the Milwaukee Braves farm system, Robinson's legacy is ever present as racism leaves Aaron and his fellow African American teammates out from celebratory dinners (even when Aaron was the MVP) and forced to sleep in separate hotels.
Tavares pays special attention to the Negro League players, and the ones who came up too early to catch Robinson's star and could only watch as young men like Aaron got a shot at greatness they could never have. He makes it clear that Aaron never forgot those left behind as he blazed his own trail while demanding "race-related signs [be] removed from the Braves' ballpark" and that the team find a hotel that would accept all of its players. The book includes several exciting game moments as Aaron fulfils his dreams but fans of the game will take away a more significant story as they learn just how difficult it was for him and for all African American players for years after Jackie Robinson,. It's hard not to call this book inspirational but I will say the history does not get in front of the story. Henry Aaron's Dream is a book that makes you like Hank Aaron even more and hope their are continued accolades for a career that was truly full of greatness.
By Willie Perdomo
Illustrated by Bryan Collier
Henry Holt 2010
Testing the Ice: A True Story of Jackie Robinson
By Sharon Robinson
Illustrated by Kadir Nelson
Scholastic Press 2009
Henry Aaron's Dream
By Matt Tavares
Candlewick Press 2010