A California author has won two children’s-book prizes for his account of the days when black baseball teams sometimes had to sleep in jails or funeral homes because hotels wouldn’t rent rooms to them
We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball. By Kadir Nelson. Foreword by Hank Aaron. Hyperion/Jump at the Sun, 88 pp., $18.99. Ages 8 and up.
By Janice Harayda
Quiz time, all of you who see yourself as experts on children’s literature: When was the last time you read a picture book that had a story told through first-person plural narration? Or that used original oil paintings for art instead of watercolors, collages, pen-and-ink drawings, or other more popular picture book media?
If you don’t know, you may have a sense of why Kadir Nelson has just won two major awards for We Are the Ship, an illustrated history of Negro League baseball. Nelson relies entirely on plural narration — a down-to-earth variation on the royal “we” — to tell the story of the black ballplayers who had to compete against themselves in a segregated America. And he illustrates his text with dozens of full-page oil paintings of celebrated players, owners, managers and umpires.
We Are the Ship reflects lapses you wouldn’t expect in an award-winning book, and Kevin Baker described some in his review in the New York Times Book Review. But it brims with vibrant details served up in a relaxed and conversational tone, all woven into stories you might hear from a ballplayer with his feet up on your porch in the off-season.
“We had a fellow named George ‘Mule’ Suttles, who played for the Newark Eagles. He was a big ’un. We used to say he hit the ball like a mule kicks. Fans would yell, ‘Kick, Mule, kick!’ and he’d take a great big swing like, Babe Ruth. He’d even thrill you when he struck out. Darn near screwed himself into the ground when he struck out.”
Nelson might have prevented some confusion if had he said up front that he was writing in “a collective voice, the voice of every player” instead of describing this postmodern device in an author’s note on page 80 that many children may never read. And some of his language may be anachronistic for a speaker of its day. (Would a player in the early decades of the 20th century have said “kinda,” “Hall of Famer” and “The man was awesome”?) The art is slick enough that paging through this book is a a bit like viewing a collection of high-quality movie stills.
Even so, We Are the Ship is informative and entertaining. Nelson shows the cruelty faced by players who at times had to sleep at the local jail or funeral home because they couldn’t afford rooms on the road or hotels would rent only to whites. But he balances such stories with lighter ones that keep his book from becoming bleak. How much of the fun has gone out of baseball in the era of steroids, big money and free agents? Nelson offers a clue when he reminds us that, in the early days of Negro baseball, Lloyd “Pepper” Basset used to catch some games in a rocking chair.
Best line: Manager Andrew “Rube” Foster sent signals to his pitchers from the dugout instead of having his catchers send them: “He’d puff signals from his pipe or nod his head one way to signal a play. One puff, fastball. Two puffs, curveball. Things like that.”
Worst line: No. 1: “The average major league player’s salary back then [in the 1940s] was $7,000 per month.” Dave Anderson of the New York Times, perhaps the greatest living baseball writer, says in The Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1940s (co-authored with Rudy Marzanot) that it was $7,000 a year, not a month. No. 2: Nelson says that the Depression–era numbers game (which involved betting on random numbers that would appear on stock-market pages or elsewhere): “Back then, it was a 100 percent illegal business; but nowadays it’s known as the lottery, and it’s run by the government.” This line is glib and misleading. The numbers racket and state lotteries have always been separate.
Recommendation? We Are the Ship has the format of a coffee-table book and, although marketed to children, may appeal also to adults.
Published: January 2008. We Are the Ship is the No. 1 children’s baseball book on Amazon.
Furthermore: Nelson lives in southern California. His first name is pronounced Kah-DEER.
On Monday We Are the Ship won the 2009 Coretta Scott King Award, which the American Library Association gives to “to African American authors and illustrators for outstanding inspirational and educational contributions.” The book also received the Robert F. Sibert Medal for “the most distinguished informational book” for young readers.
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© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.