Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Celebrating 40 Years and Testing the Ice

Last week, at a lunch meeting of the Children’s Book Guild of Washington, D.C., I had the pleasure of hearing Andrea Davis Pinkney, honorary co-chair of the 40th birthday celebration of the Coretta Scott King (CSK) Book Awards, and Deborah Taylor, the current chair of the award committee, talk about the history and winners of these prestigious awards, which recognize outstanding children’s books by African American authors and illustrators. Pinkney, a vice president and executive editor at Scholastic, received a 2001 CSK author award for her book Let It Shine! Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters. Taylor is coordinator for School and Student Services for the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. Both women are passionate about the awards, which Taylor credits with bringing “deserving children’s book authors and illustrators to greater public attention, while inspiring new writers and artists to enter the field.”

Taylor noted that in 1985, only 18 out of the 2,500 children’s books published in the United States were eligible for the Coretta Scott King Book Awards. By 2008, that number had grown to 83 books. Taylor is most proud that the awards have helped to boost the careers of several young authors and illustrators, including Kadir Nelson, whose fascinating history of Negro League Baseball, We Are the Ship, was this year’s CSK Author Award Winner and a CSK Illustrator Honor Book. It also won the 2009 Sibert Award, making it the first book to claim both CSK and Sibert awards.

Nelson was a special guest at the Guild lunch, along with author Sharon Robinson, the daughter of baseball pioneer and American hero Jackie Robinson. They brought along their brand new picture book, Testing the Ice: A True Story About Jackie Robinson (Scholastic Press), which Sharon wrote and Nelson illustrated.

In an engaging first-person narrative, Robinson tells a story from her childhood that interweaves family lore with civil rights history—and is also a metaphor for her father’s legendary breaking of the color barrier in major league baseball. She starts with the year 1955, when the Robinson family moved to Connecticut. Sharon and her two brothers and their new neighborhood friends enjoy swimming and boating on the lake on their property, but her father always keeps his distance from the water. When the youngsters play inside the Robinsons’ house, they get Jackie talking about his historic career.

That first winter the lake freezes, and the Robinson kids beg their dad to let them go ice-skating. He agrees, but makes them wait while he tests the ice. With a shovel in one hand and a broomstick in the other, he inches out onto the snow-covered ice. In a flash of understanding, Sharon understands why she's never seen her dad in the water—he doesn't know how to swim. As she watches in fear, he taps his way to the center of the lake, then calls out, “It’s safe! Put on your skates!” The children cheer and Sharon thinks, “My dad is the bravest man alive.”

Nelson’s radiant paintings are magnetic. The baseball scenes throb with muscular energy and the family scenes glow with warmth. Many of the family scenes are based on Jackie Robinson’s personal family photographs. In one of my favorite spreads, we see the back of Jackie’s head and in front of him the rapt faces of his kids and their friends as he tells them the story of his entry into major league baseball, how he had to struggle to keep his temper from exploding amid the insults being hurled at him, and how sweet the victory was when he stole home in one especially tough game. I felt like I was one of those kids looking up at him, and I bet young readers will, too. This book is an inviting introduction to the man whose talent, courage, and perseverance on and off the field made him a hero to Americans of all colors.

1 comment:

Terry Doherty said...

It is gorgeous. I haven't read the story yet, I've been so mesmerized by the illustrations. Need to head over to the TBR and pull it off the pile.