Pros: Personal voice, family insights, personal photos, good overview, unique perspective.
Cons: None--a great introduction for young readers.
I don't know much about baseball, but I know Jackie Robinson. Or at least, I thought I did before reading Sharon Robinson's remarkable book for young readers, "Promises to Keep: How Jackie Robinson Changed America." The 2005 picture book is not only a wonderful biography about Robinson, but is also a great look at the struggle for equal rights. It goes far beyond the baseball field to look at the world before and after Jackie Robinson, and how the world has changed.
Sharon Robinson is Jackie Robinson's daughter, and her voice permeates this book. Instead of the more academic, dusty tone many similar books use, it's about "my dad," or "our life"...and that's a very good thing, especially when trying to reach an elementary school or even middle school-aged audience.
Robinson starts the book with an overview of the world that Jackie Robinson was born into--going back to the 19th Century tradition of slavery and how that left a lasting scar on the United States. That quickly segues into Jack Roosevelt Robinson's childhood, looking up to an older brother who competed in the Berlin Olympics on the same team as Jesse Owens, earning a Silver Medal. Jackie excels in every sport he tries, interestingly enough favoring track and football over baseball in his early life. His daughter details his service in World War II, including an incident that I hadn't heard of before: boarding a bus from an army base into town, he was ordered to the back of the bus. He refused, was arrested, and had to defend himself in military court. Charges were dismissed.
Most of the book is understandably devoted to Jackie Robinson's baseball career. Sharon emphasizes the courage that he had in becoming the first African American Major League Baseball player, but also revels in his skills as an athlete. Winning the first Rookie of the Year award was important, but winning the hearts of the fans and the acceptance of his teammates seems to have been more important. Some of the early reactions of competing players and their fans are shocking--throwing objects on the field, name-calling, and death threats against Jackie and his family. How he managed to contain his anger and endure the hate, I'll never know. Doing all of this in the late 1940's, before the major battles of the Civil Rights Movement, is amazing.
The book is full of photos, most of them in black and white. They show both the public and private sides of Jackie Robinson, and manage to show his athletic talents in still frame. One of the most remarkable pages has a sequence of four photos in 1947, when he's deliberately hit by a pitcher. He falls and rolls, but comes up smiling...even though he probably wants to tear the guy apart. Others include publicity and newspaper photos, and letters from Jackie to his wife and children. Most disturbing, there are also copies of the death threats against him and his family.
Many of the pages have sidebars that provide more information about various topics. These include information on slavery, early black leaders, baseball, and the Civil Rights Movement. This information is more general, but enriches the Jackie Robinson story all the same.
The most poignant parts of "Promises to Keep" were the family stories...how Sharon's mother supported Jackie, how they reacted to the low points and high points of his career, and how the entire family became a symbol for the Civil Rights Movement.
Tragically, Jackie Robinson died from complications due to diabetes at a very young age. After his death in 1972, he was honored by national and international leaders, and the family established a foundation to ensure that his name and legacy would continue on.
Many years have passed since my father died. I still miss him terribly, but have found ways to continue to celebrate his life. Dad kept his promise to America. Yet the struggle for equality continues. It is my hope that future generations will embrace the challenges of a global society and find creative ways to challenge systems that are unjust
If you or your children are fans of Jackie Robinson, of baseball, or are looking for information on the Civil Rights Movement, this book is a remarkable find. It's a short, easy read, and would be appropriate for children as young as 3rd or 4th Grade. Sometimes history classes overlook sports as a part of history--Jackie Robinson is one athlete who deserves to be remembered, celebrated, and imitated.
For more information about the Jackie Robinson Foundation, visit http://www.jackierobinson.org
MORE BLACK HISTORY MONTH REVIEWS
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A Picture Book of Harriet Tubman
Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt
A Picture Book of Jesse Owens
When Marian Sang
The Voice that Challenged a Nation
A Picture Book of Rosa Parks
A&E Biography Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin's Big Words
A Picture Book of Martin Luther King Jr.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Promises to Keep: How Jackie Robinson Changed America
Come On People: On the Path from Victims to Victors