We Are The Ship by Kadir Nelson
Ever since I read Moses and Henry's Freedom Box, I've been excited about Kadir Nelson's artwork. And ever since I attended the SCBWI conference in LA, I've been looking forward to getting my hands on Kadir Nelson's first solo book project, We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball, ("words and paintings by Kadir Nelson"). The book takes its title from the motto of the Negro National League, taken from a quote from Rube Foster, the League's founder: "We are the ship; all else the sea."
From the cover art to the rich brown endpapers to the forward by Hall of Famer Hank Aaron to Nelson's folksy narration of the text to the glorious paintings inside the book (including one amazing double fold-out spread showing the complete lineup for the first Colored World Series), to the author's note to the bibliography to the index, this book is a gem. Nelson organized the book into nine innings. The only thing this book is lacking is (and I hate to be picky, but here it is): a Table of Contents.
Just so you get an idea how the book is organized and what the scope is, here's what the Table of Contents would look like:
Foreword by Hank Aaron
p. 1 1st inning: Beginnings
p. 17 2nd inning: A Different Brand of Baseball: Negro League Game Play
p. 23 3rd inning: Life in the Negro Leagues
p. 31 4th inning: Racket Ball: Negro League Owners
p. 41 5th inning: The Greatest Baseball Players in the World: Negro League All-Stars
p. 53 6th inning: Latin America: Baseball in Paradise
p. 57 7th inning: Good Exhibition: The Negro Leagues vs. the White Leagues
p. 63 8th inning: Wartime Heroes: World War II and the Negro League All-Star Game
p. 69 9th inning: Then Came Jackie Robinson
p. 77 Extra innings: The End of the Negro Leagues
p. 79 Negro Leaguers Who Made it to the Major Leagues
p. 79 Negro Leaguers in the National Baseball Hall of Fame
p. 80 Author's Note
p. 81 Acknowledgements
p. 82 Bibliography & Filmography
p. 83 Endnotes
p. 86 Index
This book is a must-have for (1) all libraries, (2) all baseball fans, (3) folks interested in the development of the Civil Rights movement and (4) all Kadir Nelson fans. That's a lot of categories, but it's true.
We Are The Ship explains what the Negro Leagues were, and what it felt like to be a part of them, including being the brunt of name-calling and being subjected to the thousand cuts of segregation (not all of them being small cuts, by the way). The narrator's matter-of-fact tone and folksy stories is a pleasant companion throughout the text. He tells how the business of the leagues was conducted is examined. He talks about the heroes of the league (many of them in the 5th inning, which features breathtaking pictures). Throughout, the narrator's voice sounds very much like an old Negro League player talking about people he actually knew, good points, bad points, and all.
As I alluded to earlier, Nelson really payed attention to the details, and a reader of this book will not only learn facts, but will, to an extent, "feel" what it was like to be a player in the Negro Leagues (both the good and bad aspects), in the same way that Russell Freedman's marvelous "The Voice that Challenged a Nation" brought home what segregation and racism felt like for Marian Anderson (at least in part).
If you'd like a look inside the book, Kadir Nelson offers one on his site (it's where I took these images from). But if you're a librarian or a baseball fan or someone who, like me, has a bit of a crush on Kadir Nelson, then you need to BUY THIS BOOK. Now. Before it wins awards next year. Because it's going to win them.