Kadir Nelson’s WE ARE THE SHIP

Today, I finished up the main draft of the NF kids’ book I’ve been working on. Somewhere between 1600 and 1800 words; simple, clear text; and–I think–a nice balance of interest and entertainment. I did my happy dance and decided to celebrate with an evening and a day off work.

The evening off included curling up with Kadir Nelson’s We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball.

Wow.

This post is not going to be me eating a piece of humble pie. I’m really proud of my book, of the fact that I got it together to submit samples to the publisher, and that they were good enough to get me this opportunity. I’m happy with the writing I’ve done, and I think it will be a book that the kids for whom it’s meant will also like.

But…

Kadir Nelson. Again, wow.

We Are the Ship is a tribute, a work of art, an incredible story. When I first looked at the size and the format, I had that thought I sometimes to with rule-breaking books: who, exactly, is this book for? The gorgeous full-page illustrations are interspersed with long stretches of text (for a “picture book”), in a font-size small enough that I was reminded I really do need to get some new bifocals. The wondering absolutely disappeared as I started to read.

I am not an artist. I never will be. My son takes much longer to read picture books and comics than I do, because he really looks at the art. I pretty much check it out and move on to the words. I admire and am seriously impressed by Nelson’s paintings. I know, understatement. But it’s also, for me, an opinion of relativity, because this book with the incredible art in no way has to rely on that art. Nelson has taken a too-little-known piece of history and told it brilliantly. Is the story accessible to young readers? Yes. More than accessible. The players of Negro League baseball come alive on Nelson’s pages–the more famous players, but perhaps even more importantly so many players that most of us have never heard of. The drive they had to play; the persistence with which they met problems, obstacles, and sheer nastiness; the personalities they were either born with or created for their fans–it’s all here.

When I was readying my samples, I wrote a few chapters of a kids’ biography of Satchel Paige. I had recently read Larry Tye’s excellent biography of Paige, Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend. I loved Paige’s story and felt like it would be a great one to play with for kids, even if I and the editor I hoped would hire me would be the only two to read the sample. Tye’s book is several hundred pages and, while it naturally focuses on Paige, it does contain a lot of fascinating detail about the Negro Leagues.

Nelson still taught me plenty of new things about that world and the people in it. I picked up the book, opened it to the first page, and was caught. I caught myself reading the page of footnote references and realized that’s how much I wanted to keep reading.

Go pick up a copy of We Are the Ship–whether you want to read a truly lovely tribute to the Negro Leagues or you want to read a brilliant example of writing nonfiction. And, yes, stare at the art!

Many, MANY thanks to Jeannine Atkins for recalling my attention to this book. Yet another example of Jeannine’s excellent taste in books.

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