Sports and Leisure

Brothers Growing Up

pedrojacket420Growing Up Pedro
Written and Illustrated by Matt Tavares
(Candlewick Press, 2015, Somerville, Massachusetts, $16.99)

Pedro Martinez was one of baseball’s most unbeatable pitchers in the 1990s and 2000s. In 2004, he helped the Boston Red Sox secure their first World Series victory in eighty-six years. But before he became one of Boston’s favorite adopted sons, he was a small boy from Manoguaybo, a little village in the Dominican Republic. He idolized his older brother, Ramón, the best pitcher he’d ever seen.

In Growing Up Pedro, writer and illustrator Matt Tavares tells the story behind Martinez’s sparkling career. In simple, present-tense prose, Tavares relates – and occasionally implies – the many obstacles Martinez overcame to achieve baseball stardom: poverty, injuries, his slender frame. But the picture-book biography is more than the familiar tale of hard work trumping hardship; it is a poignant account of two brothers who have never lost their love for each other or their home despite their success. (Ramón also won fame as a big league pitcher.) Tavares has a gift for capturing facial expressions and body language, and the book’s most arresting illustrations are those that convey the bond between Pedro and Ramon: a shared look, a quiet moment tossing a baseball at the mango tree near their childhood home.

Baseball fans will enjoy Growing Up Pedro, an inspiring biography of a modern legend. However, even readers who are less interested in sports will be moved by Martinez’s story and his abiding love and respect for his older brother.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

In the Saddle

9780544455955_hresThe Cowgirl Way: Hats Off to America’s Women of the West
By Holly George-Warren
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010, Paperback Edition 2015, Boston, $9.99)

What is a cowgirl? A cattle wrangler? A rebel? A fabrication of Hollywood and popular culture? In The Cowgirl Way, Holly George-Warren explores the lore and lure of this uniquely American figure: the book is, in many ways, a biography of the icon. George-Warren begins by discussing the pioneering women who found unprecedented freedom in the Old West as cattle drivers, ranchers, and even outlaws. She also explores how the entertainment industry – from Wild West Shows to rodeos to television and film – shaped and still continues to define our understanding of cowgirl culture. The Cowgirl Way should engage cowgirls as well as those interested in Western and women’s history.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

A Home Run for Springfield

Bunny Cover-thumb smllA Home Run for Bunny
By Richard Andersen
Illustrated by Gerald Purnell
(Illumination Arts, 2013, Bellevue, Washington, $16.95)

In 1934, a group of high school athletes from Springfield, Massachusetts stood up against segregation. When the American Legion All-Star baseball team traveled to North Carolina to play in a regional event, the boys experienced the ugliness of racism firsthand: Ernest “Bunny” Taliafero, the team’s most talented – and only black –player, was not allowed to stay in the same hotel as his teammates. During practice, spectators taunted him. Teams from other southern states threatened to withdraw from the tournament if Bunny played. The Springfield players had a choice: they could play if Bunny did not participate in the games, or they could forfeit the championships and return to Massachusetts together. Bunny’s teammates chose unity, and when they arrived in Springfield, the community accorded them a hero’s welcome.

In A Home Run for Bunny, Richard Andersen and illustrator Gerald Purnell celebrate Bunny’s achievements and the sportsmanship he and his team showed. The text derives much of its strength from Andersen’s unnamed first-person narrator, a former teammate who reminisces about Bunny, their childhood rivalry, and their time in North Carolina. Readers and listeners will feel as though they are listening to an elderly relative muse about an old friend. Purnell’s mixed media illustrations also suggest memory, the impressions people retain of each other at certain moments. In one spread, three images depict Bunny, a three-letter athlete, playing baseball, football, and basketball. In another, he leaps out of a black and white newspaper photo, in color and bearing a football. When the team travels south, the illustrations become starker and more realistic: they confer with their coach in a grey, grainy hotel room. On the train home to Massachusetts, the boys’ faces are soft and radiant in the moonlight that streams through a window.

A Home Run for Bunny is a moving story about loyalty and fairness. It is a reminder that ordinary people, even children, can choose inclusion over exclusion, unity over personal advancement.

-Dorothy A. Dahm


Crushing through History

Historical Heartthrobs cover lo-resHistorical Heartthrobs: 50 Timeless Crushes – from Cleopatra to Camus
By Kelly Murphy with Hallie Fryd
(Zest Books, 2014, San Francisco, $17.99)

As no human activity proves as universally absorbing as sex, many adult biographies focus on their subjects’ love lives. In Historical Heartthrobs, Kelly Murphy brings sex to the young adult biography, profiling fifty historical figures renowned for their physical appeal or personal charisma.

Murphy draws her subjects from the worlds of arts, letters, politics, sports, and fashion, including figures as diverse as Che Guevera, Coco Chanel, Ernest Hemingway, Frida Kahlo, John Wilkes Booth, Frederick Douglas, Marie Antoinette, Carmen Miranda, and Jim Thorpe. Some of her choices, such as Benjamin Franklin, may puzzle readers. She begins each profile with a brief summary of the individual’s life and accomplishments. Each entry also includes short headings about the subject’s sex life, overall significance, “Best Feature,” and “Heat Factor” on a scale from one to five. (Franklin gets a four!)

The collective biography’s focus and Murphy’s breezy, irreverent style make Historical Heartthrobs a guilty pleasure, much like celebrity gossip. But this resemblance is also the book’s downfall: while amusing and often interesting, Murphy’s assessments lack depth and, occasionally, accuracy. For example, she writes that Lord Byron’s poetry “shocked Victorian audiences,” but Byron died in 1824, thirteen years before Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837. Murphy skates blithely over some ambiguities, including Chanel’s possible collaborations with the Nazis and Marie Antoinette’s real attitudes toward the peasantry. She also accuses writer Dorothy Parker of being shallow about appearances – a strange charge from the author of a book about attractive people. Finally, she examines her subjects’ sexual identities through a twenty-first century lens, celebrating Byron and George Sand as champions of GLBTQ rights. She forgets people of earlier eras did not think of sexuality in terms of orientation, but in acts.

None of this should detract from readers’ enjoyment of Historical Heartthrobs. However, it is a mere introduction to its subjects, and it often does them – and young adult readers – real injustice. Depending on our convictions, we admire some people for their courage and vision and revile others for theirs. When we look backwards, looks hardly matter.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

From Hard Times to Home Runs

from hardships to championships_hresGood Sports: From Hardships to Championships
By Glenn Stout
(Sandpiper, 2013, Boston, $5.99)

Professional sports have long promised success to talented kids from humble backgrounds. For them, an athletic career means not only wealth and fame, but a chance to build a better life for themselves and their families.

In Good Sports: From Hardships to Championships, Glenn Stout profiles five baseball players who overcame poverty, dysfunctional families, poor choices, and mental illness to join the big leagues. His subjects span much of baseball history, ranging from legend Babe Ruth to contemporary star Torii Hunter. Readers need not know much about baseball to enjoy From Hardships to Championships: Stout’s narratives should engage both ardent fans and those with little interest in the game. Among the book’s most gripping chapters are those that describe Jimmy Piersall’s painful battle with bipolar disorder and Ron LeFlore’s miraculous discovery in a Michigan prison. In all cases, their love of baseball compelled the men to work hard and make good choices.

Both spectators and athletes want their team to win. In From Hardships to Championships, Stout reminds kids – and adults – that hitting a home run or winning the World Series is only one triumph. The biggest victory may be getting to play in the first place.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

The Art of Persistence

AgainstAllOdds_hresGood Sports: Against All Odds
By Glenn Stout
(Sandpiper: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012, Boston, $5.99)

More than talent separates the best athletes from the merely good: perseverance has won many a championship. In Good Sports: Against All Odds, Glenn Stout offers five short biographies of players and teams who defied personal adversity and humiliating mistakes by playing their best. In some cases, their gutsy determination won them a trophy or a championship title; in others, a respectable defeat. But all the athletes Stout profiles – from 1920s college quarterback Roy Riegels to contemporary third baseman David Freese – faced embarrassment or even a career on the bench. They seized whatever chances fell their way and played as well and hard as they could – and for that, they could hold their heads high.

Glenn Stout’s collective middle-grade biography should inspire persistence and teamwork on and off the field. In addition to celebrating the athletes’ commitment to their teammates, Stout explores various facets of the sports themselves, educating middle-grade readers about the games they may already play and love. Like the best sports journalists, Stout captures the excitement of the game, especially the tension when only a few minutes remain in the contest and the outcome is still undecided. He seamlessly weaves his subjects’ individual struggles with his accounts of the key games in their careers. Readers of all ages will find themselves routing for his underdog heroes.

-Dorothy A. Dahm


Fielding for Fairness

Silent Star: The Story of Deaf Major Leaguer William Hoy
By Bill Wise
Illustrated by Adam Gustavson
(Lee and Low Books, 2012, New York, $18.95)

It is hard to imagine a silent baseball game: the crack of the bat, the cheers of the crowd, and the umpire’s calls are integral to most people’s experience of the sport. But one early pro demonstrated that hearing is not necessary for success. In the late nineteenth century, a deaf outfielder named William Hoy, set records in stolen bases, assists, and double plays, some of which persist today. After retiring from the major leagues, the resilient Hoy worked as a dairy farmer and personnel manager and served as a coach and umpire in deaf leagues.

In Silent Star, Bill Wise and illustrator Adam Gustavson tell William Hoy’s inspiring story. The picture-book biography follows Hoy from his boyhood in rural Ohio through his triumphs in the majors to his busy retirement. Wise’s clear prose conveys both the thrill of the game and the poignancy of certain moments in Hoy’s life, especially his victories on the field. Silent Star has too much text for the youngest readers and listeners, but it should engage early middle-graders. Gustavson’s oil paintings capture both the same excitement and restrained emotion. In one spread, a young Hoy retreats from a group of smirking boys, who have been bullying him for his deafness; his mouth is firm and his eyes wistful. In another, Hoy stands at home plate and signs a greeting to a pitcher: for the first time in his career, he is squaring off against a deaf opponent

Silent Star will alter the way both hearing and deaf children regard ability, disability, and competition. It is also a remarkable tale of one person’s persistence and success in the face of extraordinary odds – a familiar theme that can never be overdone.

-Dorothy A. Dahm





Into Thin Air

Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart
By Candace Fleming
(Schwartz & Wade Books, 2012,New York, $18.99)

Amelia Earhart’s disappearance is as much of her legacy as her record-setting flights. In Amelia Lost, Candace Fleming alternates between a chronological account of Earhart’s life and the events surrounding her vanishing over the Pacific Ocean. This approach lends the biography the feel of a suspenseful documentary film. Although audiences may be familiar with the details of Earhart’s last flight, Fleming’s cinematic retelling creates a sense of urgency about the aviator’s dubious ending.

Amelia Lost engages readers without compromising the book’s educational value. Textboxes provide additional information about early aviation, the era’s technology, and additional chapters of Earhart’s life. Nor does Fleming idolize her subject: she includes anecdotes that illustrate Earhart’s carelessness – the pilot did not take the time to learn to use the plane’s radio before her final flight – and her desire for publicity.

Indirectly, Fleming suggests Earhart may not have been the most talented female aviator of her generation. What she had in abundance, however, were ambition and daring – and an influential husband ready to advance her career by almost any means necessary. Earhart began a friendship with publisher George Putnam while he was still married to his first wife. Because Fleming is frank about this and other unsavory details of Earhart’s life, including the couple’s possible ruthlessness, Amelia Lost often seems more appropriate for young adults than middle-grade readers. Although the biography is aimed at eight to twelve year olds, children at the younger end of that age group may not comprehend the book’s ambiguity.

Although Amelia Lost is not a worshipful biography, it is, overall, an admiring look at a woman who pioneered uncharted territory in aviation and for women. A passage from a letter she wrote before her final journey still resonates: “Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.”

Dorothy A. Dahm


There Goes Ted Williams: The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived

Written and Illustrated by Matt Tavares
(Candlewick Press, Boston, 2012, $16.99)

Talent alone won’t get you to the top; hard work – and luck – are essential, too. In There Goes Ted Williams, Matt Tavares shows how persistence made the Red Sox hitter a baseball legend. In simple, present-tense prose, Tavares relates Williams’ journey from the sandlot to Fenway Park, including his triumphant final game. Along the way, readers see young Williams practicing his swing in front of the bedroom mirror; he also serves his country during World War II and the Korean War. Tavares captures the tension of the most dramatic moments in Williams’ life: his narrow escapes in combat and his returns to the game after military service.

If There Goes Ted Williams is about the virtues of determination, it is also about the joy Williams felt in the game. One of the book’s most captivating illustrations shows Williams, who has just hit a home run, bounding around the bases, his legs suspended in mid-air, his mouth open in a wide grin. He is not taunting his opponents; his is the celebration of a boy who has just realized his dream. Later, in the spread depicting Williams’ final home run, a slight smile plays over the batter’s lips as he runs around the bases. It is the quiet satisfaction of a man who can look back with pride on his life and career.

Dorothy A. Dahm

Dream Above Par

Twice as Good: The Story of William Powell and Clearview, The Only Golf Course Designed, Built, and Owned by an African American
By Richard Michelson
Illustrated by Eric Velasquez
(Sleeping Bear Press, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 2012, $16.95)

At eight, William Powell fell in love with golf. He even ran seven miles to visit the nearest golf course. When he arrived, he asked a golfer to teach him the game. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you your kind is not welcome here?” the man replied.

It was 1924, and golf courses, like so many other American public spaces, were segregated. And in this case, there was no pretense of separate but equal: black golf courses did not exist. The only way young William could study the game or set foot on a golf course was to become a caddy. So he did.

William Powell’s principal told him he would have to be “twice as good” as his white peers to succeed in any endeavor. In Twice as Good, Richard Michelson relates how Powell took that motto to heart, pursuing the game he loved despite the obstacles he encountered at different life stages. Eventually, he purchased farmland and built Clearview Golf Course where all people were welcome. He encouraged his daughter Renée to play golf although, as an African-American girl, she faced both racial and gender barriers. Despite the prejudice Powell encountered, he never stopped playing golf or hoping for a more just world.

Together, Michelson and illustrator Eric Velasquez bring to life some of the most poignant scenes from Powell’s life. Velasquez’s paintings capture the possibility golf courses held for Powell as well as the subtle hurts and humiliations he experienced. Michelson handles the nuances of bigotry deftly: readers meet white townspeople who know and like Powell, but will not cross the color barrier to help him. When a kindhearted white man presents him with a set of golf clubs, they share his astonishment.

Twice as Good’s final illustration shows Powell hugging his teenage daughter, love and pride evident in the smile spreading over his face. Renée Powell eventually became a professional golfer, the first African-American female Class A PGA member. Sometimes, the picture-book biography suggests, working twice as hard and being twice as good aren’t enough to get us where we want to be. But they may help the next generation. It is a hard lesson, and the only thing that makes progress possible.

 Dorothy A. Dahm