Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Baseball Bios and a Knockout

In honor of baseball spring training--and because I miss those afternoons sitting in the bleachers watching my son play ball when he was younger--I planned to highlight some baseball biographies in my blog this month. But at the library another book caught my eye, a big beautiful picture book with a knockout cover of a young woman beaming with confidence from the cockpit of a cherry red plane. There was no way I could resist Soar, Elinor! (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2010).

Written by Tami Lewis Brown and illustrated by Francois Roca, it's the story of Elinor Smith (1911-2010), who took her first flying lessons at age 10. Blocks had to be strapped to the rudder bar so her feet could reach it! At age 16 Elinor became the youngest licensed pilot--male or female--in the U.S. "Elinor lived to fly," writes Brown. "The sky was her playing field; the hum of the wind rushing through her plane's wing wires, her favorite song." Just three months after getting her license, Elinor performed the daring stunt of flying under four of New York's East River bridges, a feat no one else had attempted. Elinor showed the world that with talent, hard work, and fierce dedication to one's dream, there's no limit to how high a girl can soar.

And now to baseball. Ted Williams's dream as a young boy growing up in the Depression was to "walk down the street and have people say, 'There goes Ted Williams, the greatest hitter who ever lived.'" In No Easy Way: The Story of Ted Williams and the Last .400 Season (Dutton, 2010), my friend Fred Bowen, who writes a sports column for kids in the Washington Post, tells how Williams made that dream come true. "Ted knew that there was no easy way to be the greatest hitter who ever lived. No easy way to do the single most difficult thing in sports. To hit a round ball with a round bat. No easy way to be a .400 hitter." Illustrations by Charles S. Pyle help bring to life the summer of 1941, the last summer before American soldiers, including Ted Williams and many other baseball stars, went off to fight in World War II.

Henry Aaron's Dream, written and illustrated by Matt Tavares (Candlewick, 2010). Like his hero Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron was instrumental in the fight against racism, both in baseball and in America. I was a kid living in Atlanta when Aaron, playing for the Braves, was closing in on Babe Ruth's all-time home-run record in the 1970s, and I remember hearing about the hate mail and death threats he received from people who couldn't stand the idea of a black man becoming baseball's home-run king. In the jacket copy, Tavares notes that he when he set out to write about Aaron, he "expected to focus on his historic quest to break Major League Baseball's all-time home run record. But in researching his life, I found that the most fascinating part of Henry Aaron's story took place before he ever set foot on a Major League Baseball field--back when he was a skinny kid who held his bat the wrong way and who never gave up his dream of becoming a big-league baseball player, even when it seemed impossible."

Two terrific baseball biographies by Jonah Winter: You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?! (illustrated by Andre Carrilho, Schwartz & Wade Books, 2009) and Roberto Clemente: Pride of the Pittsburgh Pirates (illustrated by Raul Colon, Atheneum Books 2005). Kathleen Krull sang the praises of the Koufax bio in an INK blog a year ago: "Jonah Winter spins the tale in a folksy voice loaded with Brooklyn pizzazz. The illustrations of Andre Carrilho...ooze style. Best of all is the narrative arc. This picture book's pace is smart and snappy, with triumph coming late in the book, as it did in life: Far from an instant success, this was 'a guy who finally relaxed enough to let his body do the one thing it was put on this earth to do.'" Winter tells Clemente's inspiring story in an entirely different voice, in couplets that suggest the lilt of a Latino accent, the accent that caused some newspaper writers to mock Clemente when he first played for the Pirates in the 1960s.

A beloved family member of mine died recently, ten months after being diagnosed with a very painful type of cancer. I think that's one reason I was so moved by David Adler's Lou Gehrig: The Luckiest Man, illustrated by Terry Widener (Harcourt, 1997). Like the Iron Horse, my sister-in-law inspired the people around her with her grace, courage, and gratitude.

You don't have to like baseball--or flying--to love these books.


Anonymous said...

I wasn't familiar with the David Adler bio of Lou Gehrig; I'll have to check it out. One of my favourites is SHE LOVED BASEBALL: The Effa Manley Story, by Audrey Glassman Vernick and illustrated by Don Tate.

Marfe Ferguson Delano said...

I don't know that book--thanks for the tip!

Marfe Ferguson Delano said...

I just looked up SHE LOVED BASEBALL. If I had know about it sooner, I would have included it in my lineup! For others who are unfamiliar with her story, Effa Manley was the first woman to be inducted into the baseball hall of fame. She was the owner of a Negro League team and a tireless champion for her players. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention, Mrs. Pilkington!