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The (Baseball) Books of Summer

Published July 5, 2013 9:44 am

In brief • A lineup for young readers and their parents.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Summer's relaxed vibe suits the leisurely pace of baseball, and the long hours of daylight are perfect for reading about the sport, too. Fortunately, there's a full lineup of picture books about baseball that can be enjoyed by young readers and their parents as well.

We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball by the award-winning illustrator Kadir Nelson recounts the history of African-American athletes who played baseball before Jackie Robinson crossed the sport's color barrier in 1947. The first-person voice lends an authentic feel to the anecdotes about riding buses or playing in front of white crowds. But what truly sets this book apart is the artwork. Nelson's luminous paintings speak volumes about the men who experienced happiness and hardship while playing the game they loved. Although a picture book, We Are the Ship is text-heavy and therefore more suitable for older readers, including adults.

Other picture books (primarily intended for younger children) also tackle the issue of race and baseball. One of my favorites is Just as Good: How Larry Doby Changed America's Game by local author Chris Crowe. Just as Good tells the story of Cleveland Indian Larry Doby, the second African American to play in the major leagues. Told from the perspective of a young boy who is listening to the 1948 World Series in which Doby played, this book captures the feel of a live game, as well as the flavor of the times.

I was also intrigued by a new book called Barbed Wire Baseball, written by Marissa Moss. It relates the true story of Kenichi "Zeni" Zenimura, who is regarded as the father of Japanese-American baseball. Zeni, a Japanese league player in California, and his family were deported to a relocation camp in Arizona at the outbreak of World War II. During his confinement, Zeni organized and oversaw the construction of an actual baseball diamond, complete with a turf field and bleachers. The diamond became a symbol of hope for inmates during a dark period in our country's history. Yuko Shimizu's attractive illustrations provide a contemporary take on traditional Japanese art forms.

Who can talk about baseball without mentioning the great Bambino? Matt Tavares has written and illustrated a new picture book called Becoming Babe Ruth. It follows the adventures of a troubled young boy named George whose life is changed when he's introduced to baseball by a Brother Matthias, a Catholic priest. Becoming Babe Ruth is a joyful, loving look at a bona-fide American legend.

There are a number of picture books about another American legend — Number 42 himself, Jackie Robinson. Robinson the man was as talented off the field as he was on it. His daughter, Sharon Robinson, has written several illustrated books, including Testing the Ice, a memory of the day when her father (who couldn't swim) bravely checked the ice on a lake to make sure it was safe for children to skate upon.

Jackie and Me, a memoir written by Tania Grossinger, tells the story of her unlikely friendship with Robinson, formed when she was a lonely child growing up in the Catskills Mountains and he was one of the most famous ballplayers in America. It's hard not to admire the deep kindness Robinson showed a little white girl who felt she was always on the outside, looking in.

Not every picture book involving the sport is biographical. The DK Eyewitness book called Baseball is predictably wonderful — full of first-rate photos and factoids about subjects ranging from gloves to umpires to ballparks. Like We Are the Ship, this is a book for fans of all ages. The same goes for Lynn Curlee's Ballpark, which looks at the history of America's most famous fields, including Wrigley and Fenway.

If you're just in the mood for some picture-book fun, it's hard to beat Brian Lies' Bats at the Ballgame. You know. Bats. As in the furry kind that fly around at night and bump into things if their radar isn't working. In addition, there are a number of Ernest Lawrence Thayer's "Casey at the Bat" iterations, including an homage to the original called Casey Back at the Bat by Dan Gutman.

Last but certainly not least, Abbott and Costello's famous "Who's on First" routine is given new life in a picture book called (wait for it!) Who's on First. John Martz's cartoon-style illustrations feel just right for this dizzy iconic exchange.

Any of these choices are sure to be a home run with fans. Happy reading!