Posted in picture books

Black History, Baseball, and Boston: Waiting for Pumpsie

Waiting for Pumpsie, by Barry Wittenstein/Illustrated by London Ladd, (Feb. 2017, Charlesbridge), $16.99, ISBN: 9781580895453

Ages 5-9

It’s 1959, and Bernard is a kid living in Boston who is crazy for the Red Sox. As much as he loves the Sox, though, he doesn’t understand why the Giants have Willie Mays, and the Dodgers had Jackie Robinson, but the Sox don’t have a black player. His dad agrees that it’s an excellent question, but seemingly one with no answer. Bernard and his baseball-loving family head to to Fenway Park for a Red Sox vs. New York Yankees game, but when the family cheers for Yankee Elston Howard – Mama encourages Bernard and his family to cheer for every African-American player, regardless of their team – they’re shouted down by a white fan, who tosses in a slur or two; a police officer tells Bernard and his family that “you people need to learn how to behave”, without a word to the instigator. Mama says change is coming soon, but Bernard has a hard time believing it when things like this happen, and when the Sox won’t even sign a black player. That changes when Pumpsie Green, a black player in the minor leagues, starts making the news. The Red Sox management seem to be dragging their feet on Pumpsie, and the fans – black AND white alike – start putting public pressure on the team to give Pumpsie a chance. It works, and Bernard and his family gather around the radio to listen to Pumpsie’s first game, an away game in Chicago. The Red Sox lose, but Pumpsie’s arrival is selling tickets and making news. Bernard and his family make sure to be at the next home game, to cheer on Pumpsie, and Bernard gets to see him play and see the Sox win! As Bernard heads home, he sees fans waving Pumpsie flags and holding up a picture of Ted Williams and Pumpsie, together in the dugout. Bernard has hope for the future. Looks like Mama was right after all.

Based on the story of baseball player Pumpsie Green’s 1959 arrival in Major League Baseball, Waiting for Pumpsie is powerful because it’s shown through a child’s eyes. Told in the first person by Bernard, we see how important representation is. Bernard says, after seeing Pumpsie play, that “one day, I’ll tell my kids how long we waited for Pumpsie Green. I’ll tell them how he dug his heels into the batter’s box. I’ll tell them how I pretended it was me, Bernard, sliding into third”. He and his family cheer for every African-American player, regardless of team affiliation, because they support civil rights and integration. It was time. It was long past time. An author’s note offers a little background on Pumpsie Green and the Red Sox’s long refusal to sign players of color, and the role of civil rights and fan pressure in their decision. There are some good sources for further reading. There’s a free, downloadable curriculum guide available.

The acrylic paint artwork uses warm colors and gives a vintage feel to the book, with baseball cards and tickets lending a scrapbook feel within the larger story.  If you don’t already have this in your collection, get it in there. Waiting for Pumpsie has a starred review from Kirkus.

Barry Wittenstein has tended bar, driven a taxi, worked at CBS Records and CBS News back in the day, spent a decade writing music and lyrics, toiled six years as a web editor and writer for Major League Baseball, and three years as a substitute elementary school teacher.  He could be Walter Mitty’s brother.
Barry loves to write narrative nonfiction picture books. He is the author of Waiting for Pumpsie and The Boo-Boos That Changed the World. In 2019, he will publish two more nonfiction picture books—Sonny’s Bridge, about the legendary jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins; and A Place to Land (with illustrations by Caldecott Medalist Jerry Pinkney) about how Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his “I Have a Dream” speech. He is currently working on a YA novel. He lives in New York City with his wife. To learn more, and to download free curriculum guides, visit his website: https://onedogwoof.com/ or follow him on Twitter: @bwittbooks
Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction, Middle Grade, Realistic Fiction, Tween Reads

My Year in the Middle: Relevant then, relevant now

My Year in the Middle, by Lila Quintero Weaver, (July 2018, Candlewick), $15.99, ISBN: 9780763692315

Ages 8-11

Sixth-grader Lu Olivera and her Latin American family find themselves in the middle of a civil rights struggle in their Red Grove, Alabama neighborhood one hot summer in 1970. The tensions run high in her integrated school: black kids sit on one side of the room, white kids on the other; she sits in the middle row. She’s in the the middle child, smack dab between her older, activist sister and younger twin siblings; she’s in the middle when it comes to local politics: many of the white families want to re-elect segregationist governor George Wallace, while Lu and her family support incumbent Albert Brewer. Many of her classmates are leaving their school to go to a private, white school. When Lu befriends fellow track runner Belinda Gresham, an African-American girl, and her classmates turn on her, she decides it’s time to take a stand.

Inspired by the author’s Alabama childhood, My Year in the Middle is a story of civil rights and finding one’s voice. Lu puts up with the passive racism in her community, with remarks like, “she’s from South America, she doesn’t mind going to school with Negroes”. But seeing how her African-American friends are treated by her fellow classmates, and by the general public in her town, pushes her buttons. Lu is a character who stands out: she’s a character of color stuck in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, but because she’s not African-American, she’s tolerated: until she digs in her heels and says, “No more”. She gives and receives support from her black classmates and from Sam, her classmate and crush, a white preacher’s son who is bullied for his civil rights stance.

Lu is at once relatable and a mirror for our society today. We’re still divided, and more and more people are forced from the middle to take a stand. Readers may recognize recent political speeches and attitudes in George Wallace’s condescending stumping and the racial tension that permeates Lu’s classroom. My Year in the Middle is a solid work of historical fiction that provides excellent discussion topics for readers on civil rights, social justice, and where we’ve gone versus where we are.

Posted in Fiction, Intermediate, picture books, Realistic Fiction

Black History Month: As Fast as Words Could Fly

As Fast As Words Could Fly, by Pamela M. Tuck/Illustrated by Eric Velasquez, (Apr. 2013, Lee and Low), $18.95, ISBN: 9781600603488

Recommended for readers 6-10

I had to start my Black History Month reviews off with this gorgeous book by Pamela M. Tuck. As Fast As Words Could Fly is inspired by Ms. Tuck’s father, who – along with his brothers – integrated a North Carolina school, and by her grandfather, who was active in the Civil Rights movement. Mason Steele is a 14 year-old who helps his father’s civil rights group by writing letters for them, shining light on injustices. Mason’s father brings home a manual typewriter, transforming Mason’s life and letting his words fly across the pages. At the same time as Mason receives his typewriter, his father tells him and his brothers that they will integrate the local high school rather than continue busing to one twelve miles away. Integration is tough on Mason and his brothers: buses drive right by them and teachers and students alike make it known that the boys aren’t welcome there, but Mason endures and uses his typewriter to increase his skill and earn some money. He also uses his typewriter to make a change: he defies racism to keep his job at the local library and to represent his school in a typing contest. For Mason, the words on the paper speak loud and clear.

This was Pam Tuck’s first published story, which won the Lee & Low New Voices Winner. I was lucky enough to see her speak about her experience, and her family’s experience, at KidLitCon back in November, and I got my own copy of As Fast As Words Could Fly signed for my kiddo. Pam’s voice comes through so clearly in her story; I can hear her, even now, telling me about her grandfather and father’s story. I mentioned that I was a fan of her illustrator, Eric Velasquez, and she sat with me; as we went through the book together, she pointed out her favorite pieces of artwork. I mentioned that I loved Mr. Velasquez’s books, Grandma’s Records and Grandma’s Gift, and his talent for creating warm, loving family artwork, and she told me that the spread where Mason’s father tells his boys that they are going to a new school was perfectly recreated: she pointed out areas of her grandparents’ kitchen that she remembered, and said that Pa’s posture and hands were spot-on; the artist had given life to her grandfather.

As Fast As Words Could Fly is a strong story about a family during the Civil Rights movement, and it’s the story of a young man who was determined to make a change on his own terms. I love this story, and would love to see it on more bookshelves. Find a teacher’s guide and interviews on the Lee & Low website, and learn more about Pamela Tuck here. See more of award-winning illustrator Eric Velasquez’s artwork at his website.

Posted in Preschool Reads, Realistic Fiction

No Water No Bread delivers a powerful message

No Water No Bread, by Luis Amavisca/Illustrated by Guridi, (Oct. 2017, nubeOCHO), $15.95, ISBN: 978-84-945971-3-8

Recommended for readers 4+

Two groups of people live on either side of a barbed wire fence. One side has water. One side has bread. Neither will share their resources, flatly stating: “This is our water.” “This is our bread.” The children gather at the fence and trade bread and water, wondering, “Why are our parents like this?” They play ball over the fence, knowing that life would be much better “without the fence”. When a new group shows up, the barbed wire fence is sectioned off into yet a third area. Again, the adults hoard their resources while the children all approach the fence, ready to share, and wonder why their parents are like this.

In a day and age where some talk about building walls, No Water No Bread asks a simple, powerful question: Why are we like this? Seen through the eyes of a child, we live in a ridiculous society. We tell our children to share, yet decide that others don’t deserve basic needs if we find them lacking: if they’re from the wrong area of the world, if they’re the wrong faith, if they’re the wrong color.

Simple art and simple words deliver a powerful message that children will understand. Let’s hope that the adults do, too.

This book is a project created in Europe by NubeOcho with the support of Amnesty International Spain and Amnesty International Italy. It is also available in Spanish (ISBN: 978-84-946333-7-9).

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction, Middle Grade, Realistic Fiction, Tween Reads

Ruby Lee and Me looks at friendship and social change

ruby leeRuby Lee and Me, by Shannon Hitchcock (Jan. 2016, Scholastic), $16.99, ISBN: 9780545782302

Recommended for ages 8-12

In 1969, a segregated North Carolina town is facing integration, and not everyone is happy about it. Set against this backdrop is the story of 12 year-old Sarah Beth, who is plagued with guilt when her younger sister is hit by a car while under her watch. Sarah’s family moves to a house on her grandparents’ property to save money, which means a new school – one that’s about to undergo integration. On the plus side, that means that Sarah will be able to go to school with her friend, Ruby Lee, an African-American who will be a student at the integrated school. Enthusiastically, the girls decide that they will be best friends in public – something not very common in the area – just like the Freedom Riders; but the girls have a falling out, leaving Sarah feeling more alone than ever. She’s lost her best friend, she’s facing a new school alone, and she’s certain her sister’s accident is her fault.

A work of both historical and realistic fiction, Ruby Lee & Me is a good coming-of-age story set against a time of huge social change.While this is Sarah’s story, first and foremost, friendship and integration amidst the upheaval of segregation and prejudice is a strong subplot. An upsetting incident involving the school’s first African-American teacher is a powerful moment in the story.

The history of race relations speaks volumes in the relationship between Sarah’s and Ruby’s grandmothers: they “gossip like best friends” when they’re together on the farm, but merely nod politely to one another in town; Sarah’s grandmother says, “The creek don’t care what color feet wade in it, but the town pool surely does. It’s easier to be friends away from wagging tongues”. Sarah’s ambitious daydream of she and Ruby being public friends sends both grandmothers into a tizzy; they discourage the girls from inviting trouble into their lives. Ruby Lee is annoyed when she sees her grandmother “trying too hard” around whites; Sarah sees Ruby as trying to be “the boss of her” in their interactions, yet always seeks her out when she needs someone to talk through a problem with.

A note from the author on historical accuracy briefly explains her connection to events in the story and points out little bits of tweaking made for creative license.

Ruby Lee and Me received a starred review from Booklist. The author’s website offers discussion questions for educators.