by Judy Newman
I was born a Red Sox fan. Reggie Smith, Rico Petrocelli, Carl Yastrzemski, Tony Conigliaro, and Jim Lonborg were my Fenway Park heroes. I treasured my baseball cards of each of them. (I sure wish I could find those old baseball cards now! I keep looking for them in my parents’ house.)
While I loved watching baseball and rooting for the Red Sox, I don’t remember reading many books about baseball—other than The Chosen by Chaim Potok—in those years.
(Do you have any memories of baseball books you read in the ’60s and ’70s?)
When my son, John MacGregor (RHP), started playing baseball, I and everyone in our family became loyal fans of the teams he played for: the Montclair Bulldogs, the MKA Cougars, the Vassar Brewers, the Grasshoppers (Erbach, Germany), and now the Mudhens (NYC).
While he loved playing baseball, John needed to be convinced to read, so I was happy when he discovered—then devoured—Dan Gutman’s Baseball Card Adventure series. He started with Jackie & Me, kept going with Honus & Me, and then read his way voraciously through Dan’s entire series.
I know baseball isn’t for everyone. Good friends of mine, who I like otherwise, say it’s too technical and too slow for them.
(Once we were watching a Red Sox–Yankees game and the Boston Bruins and the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup play-offs at the same time—flipping back and forth between channels. When Alex Rodriguez was at bat, we cut to the Stanley Cup and watched a fight, a goal, and a few other plays. When we switched back to baseball five minutes later, A-Rod was still up. So I get that baseball isn’t the right spectator sport for everyone.)
But while baseball may not be exciting enough or fast enough for some people to watch, it generally makes for truly great kids’ books—fiction and nonfiction—and for many kids like John, it can turn them on to reading.
Here are some new favorites:
Sharon Robinson, daughter of the legendary Jackie Robinson and a true friend to many of us at Scholastic, has continued her father’s work with tremendous passion, respect, and dedication to preserving and extending Jackie’s legacy and message of tolerance and overcoming obstacles.
As an educational consultant for Major League Baseball, Sharon developed the Breaking Barriers program, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Breaking Barriers is founded on Jackie Robinson’s nine values to live by—to help kids overcome barriers they face in their own lives.
Sharon is the author of many books about Jackie Robinson, and her latest middle grade novel based on her dad is The Hero Two Doors Down.
I asked Sharon to tell us a little about her new book:
“My brothers and I were natural athletes. Baseball was a favorite summer evening activity. We played on the front lawn using boulders that dotted the lawn as home plate and first base. Instead of sliding into base we tapped the smooth rock. Occasionally, Dad joined us. Mostly, it was kids from the neighborhood.
“My childhood was special and normal for us. Our home and property was a haven from the public. We were free to play and explore the natural environments that surrounded us. When we ventured beyond, life was more complex as we shared our parents with the world. Dinner out meant strangers interrupting family conversation for autographs, but it also gave us a view of our father’s importance.
“Baseball is woven throughout my latest novel, The Hero Two Doors Down. It provides a bond between Steve and his father and Jackie Robinson. As Steve’s relationship with Jackie deepens, he learns new ways to channel his anger.”
Brad Meltzer’s I Am Jackie Robinson brings Sharon’s dad’s story to life for younger readers. It’s part of the New York Times bestselling series Ordinary People Change the World.
I asked Brad why he was inspired to write about Jackie Robinson:
“I was tired of my own children looking at today’s loud-mouthed athletes and thinking that that’s a hero. To me—and what I needed to show them—was that Jackie Robinson was a real hero—not because of the way he played but because he did so much for others.”
As a second grade teacher, Krystle Howard saw a need for high-interest, easy-to-read chapter books for her students. So she and her husband, Ryan Howard, first baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies (MVP in 2006, Rookie of the Year in 2005, three-time All-Star, and two-time home run leader), decided to take matters into their own hands and create the Little Rhino series.
Krystle and Ryan Howard describe the series as:
“Books first, baseball second.…Baseball is Rhino’s passion, but his schoolwork is just as important. Both sports and education can be priorities, but you have to learn how to balance the two. When Rhino completes his homework, he takes the rest of the afternoon or evening to play baseball.
“There are so many great books and stories that include our favorite sports. Reading about sports helps us enrich our passion and knowledge of the game. Many times we can take what we read and transfer it onto the field. In our Little Rhino series our readers can learn how to be good teammates, friends, and students. It’s fun to combine sports and reading by reading about sports.”
Even though I was never a Phillies fan, it was so much fun to meet with Ryan and Krystle in the Phillies’ stadium, Citizens Bank Park, to see their passion and commitment to getting young kids to read.
Squashed, by bestselling author Joan Bauer, is one of my favorite books, so I was happy to see Joan’s new middle grade novel, Soar, on my shelf.
Soar is the story of 12-year-old Jeremiah, a boy with a passionate love of baseball. After a heart operation, Jeremiah isn’t allowed to play the game, but he does the next best thing—he becomes a coach. When he and his father move, they find themselves in a town where the residents are caught up in a baseball scandal and ready to give up on the sport altogether.
We reached out to Joan, and she shared her thoughts on baseball and her inspiration for writing Soar:
“I love baseball, from spring training to the World Series; I love the teachable moments, but I’m angry at the winning-at-all-cost mentality of so many—the cheating, the unsportsmanlike conduct—and I knew it was time to write about Jeremiah. Here’s a boy who loves baseball with everything he’s got, except the one thing he hasn’t got is a strong heart. Jeremiah can’t play the game he loves, but he’s made of special stuff—he can coach. In Soar I want to show the power of resilience and what it means to be a real winner. I want to show kids that standing up for what they know is right can truly rock the world.”
Kirkus Reviews calls Soar “an outstanding, tender exploration of courage and the true nature of heroism, and for good measure, a fine homage to America’s game.”
Later in the day, I talked with David Vozar, my Scholastic Reading Club creative partner and baseball buddy about this post and baseball in books in general, and he said his favorite baseball author is Mike Lupica. David says when he reads Mike’s books, he is so transported he can practically “smell the grass.” David is currently reading Mike’s latest, The Only Game.
Like many baseball fans, Mike has special memories of baseball. He says:
“I love baseball because it was the first sport I loved as a child. I love it now because I think sitting in a ballpark on a summer day with my own children is the best place in sports. And I’ve always believed that a pitcher against a batter is still the best game of one-on-one ever invented, from Little League to the big leagues.”
It’s only the first week of May, and we have a long baseball season ahead of us. So please let me know if you have any favorite baseball books to suggest we read.
Batter (I mean, Reader) Up!
These Books Are Available from Scholastic Reading Club