Sunday, November 2, 2008

Review of We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson

Baseball leaves me lukewarm and I tend to view nonfiction as a means to a very definite end (finding the best way to cook turnips or the cheapest bed and breakfast in London - you get the picture) and not as something actually fun and engrossing. My loss, I know. Luckily, some nonfiction books do snag me and keep my attention until the end, and We Are the Ship is one such example.
That Kadir Nelson not only created the astonishing paintings but also wrote the words was intriguing. So too was the satisfying look and feel of the book - large and square, with a solid heft and a handsome design featuring a red border and chocolate brown endpapers. The numerous full-page paintings (and a few double-spreads) are so entrancing that it took me a while to settle down and actually read the book; I kept paging back and forth, looking at the pictures.
The text does not disappoint. In a welcome contrast to the grand splendor of the paintings, Nelson uses a first person plural narration throughout the book to create an intimate connection between the reader and the story, which feels as if it is being told to us by the very folks we are reading about - all the black baseball players who were a part of the Negro Leagues. Comfortable but not colloquial, the style worked well for me - it drew me in and welcomed me to a world with which I was barely familiar. Many, many players are mentioned, and most names I forgot only a few pages later, but their portraits linger in my mind.
Nelson makes it very clear that these ballplayers were truly giants - we look up at them from waist level, like awestruck kids, or even from almost ground level, so that the men loom over us, smiling benevolently or gazing solemnly. Nelson spent 7 years researching this book, and one suspects that much of this research was for his paintings. Every detail is impeccable, from the uniforms of the players to the colors of the stadiums to the ads decorating the walls. The paintings are so visceral that one can almost hear the roar of the crowd and the crack of the bat against a ball. They are powerful paintings and add a fascinating gravitas to the book, a counterbalance to the informal feel of the text.
A foreword written by Hank Aaron, an author's note, a list of Negro Leaguers who made it to the major leagues and to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, a bibliography, a filmography, and endnotes add to the wealth of information.
This is a compelling story in a handsome package - remember it for sports fans young and old this holiday season (and don't forget to display and book talk it at the library!).
Gr. 4 and up

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