Mmf. Baseball. Symbolic sports of its ilk get all the good press when it comes to children’s books. Tiki Barber books aside, if I were to place odds I’d have to say that a full 50% of kids books about sports concentrate on baseball. After all, its fans are inclined to view a regular game as nothing short of epic. Men in a field. Duking it out under a blazing sun. The intermingling of strength and smarts. Yeah. So basically baseball bores me to tears. I’ll sit in on a game anytime you like, but that’s just as something to pass the time doing. So when I pick up a book like You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?! I’m looking at it the same way any bored nine-year-old might. I place it on my lap and yell at it, "Okay, book! Impress me! Make me care!" It’s a tall order. Lesser books have scuffled their feet and slunk away from the challenge. And for all that the cover of this book is a holographic wonder, I wasn’t gonna let some pretty Johnny-come-lately charm me into thinking it was any good right off the bat. You want my love? Thrill me. And darned if Jonah Winter throws that request right back in my face. He’s taken Sandy Koufax, a guy I’ve only vaguely heard mentioned before alongside the word "Dodgers", and has woven a tale of becoming the best through time, effort, and grotesquely swollen limbs. So I am telling you here and now that if you have a kid that loves baseball, or a kid that couldn’t care less, whatever the case may be this is the book for them. You never heard of Sandy Koufax? Get ready to.
He was just a Jewish kid from Brooklyn, really. Growing up he seemed to be good at every sport he did, but when it came to pitching that Koufax kid was something else. Before long he was hired by the Dodgers and trying to earn his keep. The problem? He wasn’t the world’s greatest pitcher. "He could throw strikes, but mostly he was nowhere near the strike zone." Even after the Dodgers moved to L.A. he wasn’t quite living up to his potential. After the 1960 season he left, even going so far as to throw away his outfit. Fortunately for everyone, when spring training rolled around he was back and in a preseason game against the twins he gave a powerhouse performance. Really let ’em fly. After that, no one could stop him and when he retired young he was a legend in his own right. As the book says, "Who was Sandy Koufax? Sandy Koufax was a guy who finally relaxed enough to let his body do the one thing it was put on this earth to do. And what a thing of beauty that was." A glossary of baseball terms and information on the statistics in this book appear at the end.
You might be wondering how it is that I feel I’m qualified to review this book since I have, right from the start, admitted that I’m a baseball naïf. Well, I’ll tell ya. I know me some baseball fans. The kinds of people who will tell you breathlessly where they were when such n’ such a game played at such n’ such a time. The kinds who know the story of Sandy Koufax inside, outside, and upside down. And you know what? They like this book. Boy howdy yeah do they. One adamant fan told me that she was particularly interested in the mention of the time when Sandy sat out the first game of the 1965 World Series because it fell on a Jewish High Holy Day. Now as she pointed out to me, Sandy wasn’t observant. So if Mr. Winter had gone about saying that Sandy did it because he wanted to observe the day just as he always had, that would have been a bit of a stretching of the old truth there. Instead, Winter tells it like it is. "Sandy sits out the game to show he’s proud to be Jewish." There you go. Open and shut case.
Sandy Koufax may have been the strikeout king of baseball, but if you ask me Jonah Winter’s the current strikeout king of the non-fiction picture book set. Examine this man’s 2009 year alone. This guy’s juggling a bio of Sandy Koufax alongside one of Gertrude Stein (Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude) with enough time to spare to give a tip of the hat to, of all people, Gilbert and Sullivan (The Fabulous Feud Of Gilbert And Sullivan). No two books sound alike. No two books look alike. Really the only thing they have in common is that they’re fabulous. The man’s on fire and I’ll level anybody that tries to put that fire out. Mind you, I would have liked to have seen a Bibliography at the back of the book in some way. Just something to tell me where Winter was getting his facts.
It important to me that the book doesn’t show the entire life of Koufax from mewling babe to doddering old man. Instead you get the sense that you are seeing his whole life, when in fact Winter has cleverly limited himself to pretty much only identifying that moment in Koufax’s life where everything changed. That single pinpoint in time when he went from mediocre to legendary. Not everyone has that moment, and when you find someone who does it’s probably all a writer can do not to put pen to paper and talk about it nonstop. The book is also written in an easygoing, seemingly off-hand style. It reads like a conversation you might have with a friend at a party. It’s not hokey, and it sure isn’t folksy either. Just . . . comfortable. You are inclined to trust the narrator, even if you’ve never met him before. And kids reading this book will find in it an exceedingly accessible tale of a brand new (which is to say, quite old) hero.
As for illustrator Andre Carrilho, I’m sure I’ve seen his work in various magazines and newspapers around the country. But the first time he really caught my eye was when he illustrated Patricia McKissack’s Porch Lies: Tales of Slicksters Tricksters and other Wily Characters. In that book Carrilho’s style was stretched, pulled, and rounded out to accommodate the tallest of very tall tales. You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?! may prove to be a more natural fit for Carrilho though. After all, he’s made a name for himself doing caricature. How much more of a stretch is it really, then, when he portrays real historical figures in a child-friendly non-fiction manner? And while the characters in Porch Lies looked fine within their context, there’s an air of authenticity around these Sandy Koufax folks. Sandy himself is portrayed as a lithe fellow with permanently squinting eyes and thick luscious eyebrows. These eyebrows do much of the work, indicating with a tweak or a curl whether or not Koufax is feeling particularly downtrodden or focused at any given moment.
Random House also apparently wasn’t feeling the pinch of the economic downturn when they filled this book to brimming with gold and movement. The cover, as I may have mentioned before, moves. Turn it this way and Sandy’s throwing a pitch. Turn it another way and he’s straightening up again. The interior spreads are also laced with gold. It’s what would happen if Demi ever got obsessed with baseball, I guess. Actually the first time you notice it is when you first open the book to find a mock pair of baseball cards on the endpapers. It’s subtle, but Sandy’s glove is a golden hue, as is the "Los Angeles, Dodgers" part of the image. Turn another page and the gold hits you upside the head, highlighting a single baseball glove and a signed Sandy Koufax ball nesting inside. A look through the book reveals other colors as well, and they all fit the mood of a given page. The spread showing the major league scouts contains dark reds and a blue cloud-shot sky. Ebbets Field cranks up the blue, highlighting the red lines of Sandy’s new outfit. From there on it it’s all blues, reds, and golds. From the riot of red coming off of Sandy standing on the mound to the golden sand of a given ball field, Carrilho uses his colors judiciously and in keeping with the mood of each scene.
And I haven’t even mentioned the early 1960s authenticity of the furniture, clothing, and hair. Or the seemingly effortless design that constantly manages to integrate the words with the pictures in such a way that to remove one or the other would be to render the entire project moot. In form, in function, and in sheer fun You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?! is a class act from start to finish. It is everything a biography for a young reader should be. This is a book that declares loud and proud that the people working on it cared about what they were doing. We would consider ourselves lucky if other books do half so much. A must read.
On shelves now.
Notes on the Cover: It moves. I can’t think of any book to compare this too. The real question then for librarians is, “How well will it age?” Time will tell, but I have faith that it will stand up to scrutiny. But we’ll see.
Other Blog Reviews:
- Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast (a stellar encapsulation)
- Baseball Book Review
- January Magazine
- Pied Piper of Books,
- Note the three starred professional reviews.
- And this Teacher’s Guide ain’t half shabby.
- There is also a recent interview in SLJ with Mr. Winter talking about distilling people into 32 pages
- And as today is Non-Fiction Monday, be sure to scurry on down to Scrub-a-Dub-Tub for the round-up.