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The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Lorbiecki, Marybeth Jackie's Bat; illus. by Brian Pinkney.Simon, 2006 40p
ISBN 0-689-84102-7 $15.95 R*7-10 yrs

When you think that everything that can be said has been said about Jackie Robinson’s landmark career, and that every angle has been exhausted, along comes Lorbiecki with a fresh focus. Just as her picture book Sister Anne’s Hands (BCCB 11/98) looked with unflinching honesty at a little white girl’s knee-jerk aversion to her African-American teacher, Jackie’s Bat replays Robinson’s 1947 rookie season from the point of view of a fictional Dodgers batboy, Joey, who initially regards the new player with scorn.

Joey is sharp, articulate, hardworking, and loyal to team and family—qualities that in most picture books would inarguably signal “the good guy.” But the audience knows that Robinson already has that role snagged and that Joey is going to be a problematic character from the moment he observes, “Pops says it ain’t right, a white boy serving a black man.” Joey keeps his distance from Robinson whenever possible, conscientiously attending to other players’ needs but leaving Robinson’s shoes unshined and requests unanswered. Even when Robinson gently but earnestly confronts him and suggests that people who don’t treat him like a man because of his black skin “don’t know what a man is,” Joey can’t take the words to heart: “If he tells the clubhouse manager I haven’t been doing my job, I’ll get canned. So I clean those shoes a little better, but they still don’t shine.” Only when Joey sees Robinson’s success on the field, his fortitude in the face of abuse by fans and opposing players, and the camaraderie that’s slowly blossoming between Robinson and his fellow Dodgers does he begin to soften his opinion. By now, though, there’s a rift between the two that Joey realizes is of his own making, but one he cannot find a way to bridge. An opportunity arises when some young African-American fans ask him to deliver an engraved Louisville Slugger to Robinson and Joey is tempted to take credit for the gift himself. However, he wisely opts for the truth and a mumbled admission, “I got what you mean about what a man is.” Robinson isn’t quite ready to melt yet and counters with a steely challenge, “I look good today because I’ve held my cool and we’ve won the pennant. But someday I am going to start speaking up and talking back. And maybe I’ll go back into another slump. What’ll you think of me then?” Joey simply remarks that “slumps and Dodgers go together—they don’t mean nothing,” and a laugh and handshake settle the matter for good.

Pinkney underscores Joey’s reticence to accept Robinson as a fully fledged player, positioning Robinson as the object of sidelong glances when he meets Joey and signs autographs, or reducing him to a diminutive figure in the distance as he fields a fly to first. But as Joey’s eyes are opened, so are our own, and only after Robinson faces Joey down over the unshined shoes do we see him in full view. Pinkney’s emphasis is consistently on the figures—particularly the body language that reveals their interrelationships—with the merest hints of backgrounds rendered in a few loose lines that suggest rather than articulate the setting. Fluid, broken outlines and sweeps of watercolor that spill casually out of bounds are vigorous enough to handle action on the diamond and restrained enough to capture quieter moments in the clubhouse. Most striking is the choice of color—gold and green and blue backdrops in the just-short-of-garish hues that recall cheap drugstore calendars and grocery-aisle Golden Books, a reminder perhaps that, like the color reproductions of a half century past, not everything about the good old days was all that good.

Lorbiecki’s choice of a skeptical white narrator is a shrewd one, sharper-edged and less sentimentalized than the third-person perspective in Golenbock’s venerable Teammates (BCCB 4/90). Here listeners encounter not only the malicious hostility that took the form of racial slurs, hate mail, and death threats, but also the chilly, unreflective bigotry handed down from parent to child that could cause a boy like Joey to demean an adult. While other titles credit the Dodgers for their open-mindedness and laud Robinson for passing the character test on and off the field, Jackie’s Bat steers children toward the grimmer, more important issue: why should he, alone among his fellow ball players, have been required to prove himself at all?

Elizabeth Bush, Reviewer

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Cover image by Brian Pinkney from Jackie's Bat © 2006. Used by permission of Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers.

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This page was last updated on February 1, 2006.