Baseball, Bats and Bigotry

I just looked over my post from last time. It was snowing.  Guess what?  Snow was in the forecast again this week! So far, we’ve been lucky—if you consider it lucky to be in the midst of a cold snap just when the flowers are peering up above the ground.  Just a few days ago I watched the Brewers play at Wrigley Field.  Most players had knitted masks over their faces.  Long sleeves.  The fans were bundled up in parkas.  Time for more baseball book reviews.

Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki, illustrated by Dom Lee.  Lee & Low Books, New York, 1993. Baseball Saved Us

It was 1942 and the United States had just declared war on Japan.  The Army rounded up people of Japanese descent, removed them to the middle of the desert and put them into internment camps until 1945.  Our government justified this action by saying that they couldn’t know who among them would be loyal to Japan. None of these people were ever proven to be a danger.  This theme, fear of “the other,”is the theme of my own middle grade novel, Jingo Fever. In my novel the target of intolerance is German-Americans. Although they were not interred, many of them suffered from prejudice and abuse during the First World War and to a lesser extent during the second.

As the young narrator of Baseball Saved Us explains: “We weren’t in a camp that was fun, like summer camp…Soldiers with guns made sure we stayed there, and the man in the tower saw everything we did, no matter where we were.” Mochizuki’s parents were interred in such a camp. The first person voice conveys empathy and understanding that undoubtedly arises from stories his parents told.  The young boy explains how he was bullied in school before he came to camp.  He didn’t understand why all of a sudden people were so mean to him. One day his parents show up at school, rush home and explain how they have to give away many of their possessions.  At first they are kept in horse stalls until they relocate to the desert. Sitting idle all day and putting up with crying babies at night causes tempers to flare.   When his older brother shows disrespect toward their father, “That’s when Dad knew we needed baseball.”

The ingenuity of the adults is nothing short of amazing. They funnel water from an irrigation ditch to make the baseball field. “The water packed down the dust and made it hard.” Somehow, even though there were no trees, they find enough wood to make bleachers.  Bats, balls and gloves arrive in the mail from friends back home. The women make uniforms from mattress covers.

Dom Lee’s illustrations, some of which were inspired by Ansel Adams photos of the Manzanar camps, bring the grittiness of camp to life. Reading about the dust storms that blow through camp, readers will taste the sand in their throats. “We sometimes got caught outside, standing in line to eat or go to the bathroom.”

Although this is a story about a shameful time in American history, it’s also a familiar story of a young child, shorter and less athletic than the other kids, just trying to fit in.  Long before camp and Pearl Harbor, the boy’s classmates made fun of him for his lack of athleticism.  He’s shorter than the other kids.  Less skilled so no one picks him for their teams.  But the internment camp changes all that. He plays every day and develops real baseball skills.  He grows.  And when the war is over and he gets back to school, although he sometimes hears that word “Jap” thrown at him, he also proves he can play the game. Baseball Saved Us is, in that way, a timeless story with the universal theme of a child trying to fit in among his peers. But the history of that time should be a cautionary tale to us all. It is all too easy in a time of war to revert back to that “fear of the other.”

Bats at the Ballgame written and illustrated by Brian Lies. Houghton Mifflin, New York, 2010. Bats at the Ballgame

“Written and illustrated by…”  Every time I see those words on a picture book I am amazed and not a little bit envious of writers who can illustrate their own work. Someone like me, who can barely draw stick figures, fantasizes about painting evocative watercolors to accompany my picture book manuscripts. It’ll never happen.

Brian Lies’ fanciful bats are at it again.  This time the author of Bats at the Beach and Bats at the Library takes on baseball.  The bats hang out, literally, in the rafters of some old building waiting anxiously for the sun to go down.  “Restless wings begin to itch—excitements at a fever pitch. At last it’s time, and with a sigh, we hustle out to diamond sky.” Once the sun is down this group of bats fly off to the baseball park to face a team that “has beaten us in every fight.” When they reach the ball park, they are not unlike humans entering for the first game of the season. They are awestruck by the “brown so brown, green so green.”  Vendors call out, “Mothdogs, Get your mothdogs here!” or “Perhaps you’d like a Cricket Jack?”   Surely this is the time of year when many of us baseball fans, after hearing the National Anthem sung, feel that “Something changes with those words. We feel a magic shift, and ride the currents of the game as time is set adrift.”

This picture book is nothing short of an ode to the beginning of the baseball season.  But of course, that first game of the year may go horribly wrong.  When the other team gets the first run and our batters just can’t get it going, it’s time for stories.  “Grandbats” tell the youngsters about their heroes from the past.  This double page spread features famous ball players – in the form of bats of course – playing out their most celebrated moments in baseball.  See if you can guess who each of them represents.

And, like Casey at the Bat, when the umpire makes a call the home team disagrees with the crowd rains down vitriol upon the umpire. In this epic poem, however, the fans yell  “Fire the ump” rather than “kill.”

This book is just plain fun.  Children will enjoy the vibrant paintings of these lovable bats.  Adults will appreciate the rhyming style that makes this book an easy favorite to re-read over and over. A portion of the profits of the book is donated to Bat Conservation International.

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