Nope. Sorry. Not fair. Kadir Nelson, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but you’ve completely overdrawn your account in the creativity department. I could accept that you are one of the greatest living illustrators making his way today. I didn’t even mind how young and talented you were. That was fine. But dude, did I actually have to learn that you were a remarkable writer as well? Now wait just one darn tooting minute here, buster. How fair is it that most of us schlubs can’t drawn more than a stick figure or write more than a tortured haiku while you proceed to write AND illustrate what I’m going to have to call one of the greatest children’s books of 2008? Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t know how he has done it, but illustrator and first-time author Kadir Nelson brings us a baseball book that will make fans out the least sports-enthused children out there. Lush pictures, great text, and startling facts bring the story of Negro League baseball to life like never before.
Rube Foster was the founder of the Negro National League. Said he of his men, "We are the ship: all else the sea." As long as there has been baseball in America there have been African-American ballplayers. Men like Sol White and Bud Fowler. Before Rube Foster, however, there was no organized professional league. Then, on February 20, 1920, Rube called together owners of black baseball teams, like himself, and the Negro National League began. Through the collective voice of the players, we hear about these years and these men who played together. We hear about amazing plays, crazy rules, outright characters, and the greats. We hear about the hardships of being a player, including the low pay and the dangers of playing in the South. Finally, the book ends with Jackie Robinson, the integration into Major League Baseball, and end of the Negro Leagues themselves. With footnotes, a mass of factual information, a disarmingly engaging style, and portraits that’ll blow you away, Kadir Nelson has produced his opus and we’re all invited to watch.
We’re living in an age where text and image are growing increasingly inextricable. Where a full-length novel like The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick can win a Caldecott and a Newbery winner like Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz is filled to brimming with illustration. Even graphic novels are gaining more and more respect every year. Into the midst of all this strides We Are the Ship, and the result is a story that is just as strong visually as it is verbally.
Turns out, there’s plenty I didn’t know about the Negro Leagues. You could fill a book with what I didn’t know (ha ha). Sometimes the facts Mr. Nelson found struck me as particularly interesting, though. Here then is an encapsulation of a couple that I found out of the ordinary and fascinating. In brief:
* Owners of Negro League teams, at the beginning, "couldn’t afford to pay a man to just sit in the dugout," so team managers almost always played in games.
* Baseball players in the majors had more expensive balls than those in the Negro Leagues. Take into account the handmade bats the Major Leaguers got and you can see how many records these Negro League players could have beaten if only they’d had the right equipment.
* This should have occurred to me before, but when lights were made to provide for night baseball, suddenly "All those folks who had to work during the day were now able to see a baseball game in the evening." Hence, more money for everyone.
* When barnstorming in California and Cuba, the Negro League players would often play against "everybody from Ty Cobb to Babe Ruth." And they won about sixty percent of the time too.
* Those players who were drafted into the army could play baseball for the military in the Special Services rather than fighting.
* The East-West Game was, in a sense, the outdoor equivalent of Harlem’s fancy nightclubs. "People who didn’t know anything about baseball came to the ballpark in their Sunday best just to be seen at the East-West Game, you hear?"
There’s something about writing about the players of the Negro Leagues that inspires an author to be creative. When Rich Tommaso wrote, Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow, it was a graphic novel written from the point of view of a sharecropper who was briefly a ball player. Nelson also avoids writing from the point of view of any one real-life person, preferring to use the single voice of the players in total. The title of this book is We Are the Ship, the "we" in this case being the men on the field. This "collective voice", as Mr. Nelson calls it, gives us an omnipresent guide through a difficult time. It also serves to be much more engaging than a straight set of rote facts could ever be. There’s something personable about the voice. It draws the reader in, particularly the child reader.
And as an author, Mr. Nelson could have easily have fallen into the trap of writing about the big familiar names like "Satchel" Paige and skipped the guys who didn’t make it into the news quite as often. Chapter 5 (or "5th Inning") gives credence to men like Oscar Charleston, Dick Seay, Judy Johnson, Ted Page, and more. It can’t talk about everyone and Nelson acknowledges this at the end. "But you know something? We had many Josh Gibsons in the Negro Leagues. We had many Satchel Paiges. But you never heard about them . . . Unfortunately, most of them will never receive the recognition they deserve. We can only hope the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown will someday open the doors to more of these fellows."
This being his first full-length written work, you might think that Mr. Nelson would be uncomfortable with text. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Chapters follow the history of the leagues in a chronological fashion, with breaks for facts about playing in Cuba or dealing with the Second World War. It’s clear that the author also knows how uptight people can be when it comes to illustrations of real people. In his Author’s Note, Mr. Nelson mentions that he employed some artistic license in this novel. This line in particular cracked me up. "I am fully aware that Cool Papa played center field, but the right-field wall is so visually interesting that I used a bit of license and placed him in front of it. Perhaps he was playing right field that day or he just chased a fly ball to right and stopped for a photo." In other words, quit your jabber jawing, people! The man knows his facts, and if he wants to move someone around the field, let him!
Credit the publisher with not skimping on the presentation of this book one jot. There are multiple two-page full color spreads throughout this story. There are pullout sections that reveal every player on the K.C. Monarchs and the Hilldale Club, as seen during the First Colored World Series on October 11, 1924. Remove the cover of this book and you’ll see a beautiful imprint of the image on the bookflap. As for the back matter, there is plenty of it and Mr. Nelson puts it to good use. At the end you will find a list of "Negro Leaguers who made it to the Major Leagues", "Negro Leaguers in the National Baseball Hall of Fame", an Author’s Note, Bibliography, Filmography Endnotes, and an Index that denotes references to illustrations with italics.
I can’t believe I’ve gotten this far into the review without really talking about the illustrations. If I were to compare Kadir Nelson’s work here to Norman Rockwell, a lot of people might get mad. To them, Rockwell represents a kind of twee Americana, heavy on the saccharine, light on the artistic merit. But Rockwell had an ability to capture a person or moment in time. Nelson’s work is very different from Rockwell’s, but he also knows how to capture a person’s soul in a portrait. The men you see in this book are both weighed down by the events in their lives, and yet are buoyed by the very job they do. These are portraits of soldiers preparing for battle. Wilber "Bullet" Rogan sits heavy on a bench, his eyes almost entirely hidden under the shadow from his cap. "Satchel" Paige stands loose and lanky and long, mere seconds before throwing a trademark pitch. I cannot even begin to imagine how to draw portraits these intense without having the subjects there before you. Photographs, particularly those of the old and grainy variety, can only tell you so much. And then there are the moments of relaxation. Rube Foster and his Chicago American Giants disembark from a train as three boys look on in wonder. Newark Eagles owners Abe and Effa Manley sit in front of a group of men singing as their bus hurtles them to their next game. Nelson shakes things up, showing the men staring directly at the viewer or in the midst of the game one minute and then riding high on the shoulders of fans another, you never know what to expect.
I seriously doubt that Hank Aaron writes a Foreword for every book proposal he receives. Seems to me that he’d do relatively few. Yet with this book Aaron writes at the beginning, "When I read these stories and look at the artwork, I am flooded by memories of years past and grateful for Kadir’s fresh approach to the subject." Children now have a chance to pay homage to heroes with cool names like Cumberland Posey and "Cool Papa" Bell. It’s a one-of-a-kind book, the like of which you have not seen, nor ever will see again. A triumph.
Other Blog Reviews: Ron Kaplan’s Baseball Bookshelf
Look inside the book at Mr. Nelson’s website.
You can view the original art for this book on display at the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, beginning on January 26th and ending on April 13, 2008. Thanks to Ron Kaplan’s Baseball Bookshelf for the link.
A Q&A with the author on Publishers Weekly.
See a San Diego Insider video about the book.
Hear Kadir Nelson talk about the book himself here: