Reviews: These books take readers on trips into history
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"Muhammad Ali: Champion of the World" By Jonah Winter. Illustrated by Francois Roca (Swartz & Wade Books, $16.9, 32 pages). Recommended for ages 4 to 8.
Befitting the man portrayed therein, this new children's book about retired boxing champion Muhammad Ali is audacious. Like Ali, it shouts triumph, personality and ego.
After circling back to the turn of the 20th century and "the first black king in the Kingdom of Boxing," Jack Johnson, Pittsburgh resident Jonah Winter lays a foundation to tell the story of the three-time heavyweight champ.
Using bits about two more African-American boxing greats, Joe "the Brown Bomber" Louis and Sonny Liston, Mr. Winter one-two punches his way through a brief look at the early and mid-career of the man who first appeared on the scene as Cassius Clay but became even more famous under his black Muslim name, Muhammad Ali.
The story includes the world's askance look at Ali, when he came across as a braggart and clown before the Clay-Liston bout in 1964.
"And Cassius Clay said,
'FLOAT LIKE A BUTTERFLY, STING LIKE A BEE,
YOU CAN'T HIT WHAT YOU CAN'T SEE.' "
Ali's boisterous confidence is proved when he puts Liston out of the fight in six rounds. His words explode from the page:
"And Cassius Clay said,
'I AM KING
OF THE WORLD!
I AM THE GREATEST!!!' "
At one point, Ali's star seemed to take a nosedive. Winter includes that, too. Even so, the Champ's willingness to endure a jail term for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War is presented as a mark of character and grit.
Francois Roca's photograph-like illustrations bring an essential realism to the true tale. Especially interesting is a picture of Ali sitting in the gym locker room pondering his next move after receiving his draft notice from the United States Army. The loneliness that comes as one faces a seemingly insurmountable problem fills the shadowy room where Ali sits slumped on a wooden bench.
Mr. Roca also captures the newly found pride of American blacks in another scene. It is 1974. Ali has deplaned at the Kinshasa Airport, the capital of what is now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for the "Rumble in the Jungle" against George Foreman. As admirers crowd him, Ali's eyes are uplifted; his slightly smiling face appears open to the wonder of being in "the homeland of his ancestors." His expression could reflect that of many African Americans who, by the 1970s, felt they could embrace their African heritage after having weathered the civil rights movement.
The book commands attention. It does more, though. Pugilism notwithstanding, this is a book that begs to help steady the shaky self-esteem of a youngster, especially a young boy, struggling to fit in. The message is: It's OK to believe in yourself. It's OK to push to be the best. It's OK to get knocked down. Just get back up and stand for what you believe in.
"Night Running: How James Escaped with the Help of His Faithful Dog" by Elisa Carbone, illustrated by E.B. Lewis (Alfred A. Knopf, $16.99, 32 pages). Ages 8 to 10.
Here's a question. Can your dog think?
How many stories have you heard about dogs rousing their sleeping masters just in time to flee a burning house? Or what about the dog who punched out 9-1-1 on the phone as his mistress lay unconscious on the floor?
So why couldn't a 19th-century slave boy have a faithful beagle help him escape to freedom? "Night Running" is, in fact, based on former slave James Smith's story. Smith, a farmer and minister who lived in Huron County, Ohio, in the mid-1800s, fled slavery with the help of Quaker abolitionists and that of his dog Zeus. Ms. Carbone said she stumbled upon the story as she sifted through research for a book on the Underground Railroad.
Told through the eyes of Zeus, the story unfolds as James good-naturedly berates the floppy-eared dog for being "noisy." He says he wants to leave the dog behind because of that. But Zeus won't be left. He follows James into the woods, and it's a good thing, too. More than once, old Zeus saves the day.
Ms. Carbone spins a good yarn with some scary twists and turns weaved in. One moment, when James is snagged by a couple of farmhands, the story becomes rather intense. But Ms. Carbone resolves the incident and attempts to smooth over an aspect of American slavery that could spawn a nightmare or two for very young readers: the inevitable beating when an escapee is caught.
All in all, the tale ends satisfyingly, with a lovely moral to boot: A friend in need is a friend indeed, even if it's a dog.
As to Mr. Lewis' lush, impressionistic paintings, "Night Running" is a treat to behold. The deep forest is deliciously dark and ominous, with deep blue-green brush and an opalescent moon hanging above. The silence of the black night is almost palpable.
Another intense moment -- a fight to the death against a pack of dogs sent to hunt the slave down -- also is portrayed well by Mr. Lewis. Again, although Zeus is an endearing and courageous pet and the lessons to be learned from him and James are quite compelling, this book does not shy away from the violent side of slavery.
"Riding to Washington" by Gwenyth Swain. illustrated by David Geister (Sleeping Bear Press, $17.95, 36 pages). Ages 7 to 10.
I remember August 1963.
I was rapidly approaching 10, but I didn't understand that others were sacrificing themselves to shape my future. Neither my father nor my mother discussed race relations, riots, sit-ins, etc.
Although both knew the humiliation of discrimination against blacks in America, no mention of the strife and stridency arose in front of the children.
So, strangely, although she is white, I can relate to Janie, the child in Gwenyth Swain's book. Like Janie, I watched most of the movement unfold on our black and white television.
Unlike her, however, I didn't get to travel to Washington, D.C., the day Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his most celebrated speech.
"Riding to Washington" captures the confusion and curiosity playing in the mind of a 10-year-old who has seen, via news reports, water-cannon blasting and attack dogs gnashing at African-American demonstrators.
The story is based on Ms. Swain's recollections of her father and grandfather making the pilgrimage to Washington to hear Martin Luther King speak.
As for Janie, she earns the privilege because her mother wants the girl out of her hair. Mommy says she's to ride the bus with Daddy because she is a "spitfire" at home.
Janie doesn't want to go. After all, no "coloreds" live in her Indianapolis neighborhood. But Daddy knows "black folks" at work and he promises: "We'll see history, Janie. History."
Janie is unimpressed until she gets on the bus and soon encounters race discrimination firsthand.
At first, David Geister's richly crafted illustrations seem dark. Certainly, the buses pass through the night, but perhaps the artist used them to speak of the darkness leading up to Dr. King's hope. For, as the dawn breaks and the riders near Washington, Mr. Geister's drawings seem to exude more life and brilliance, as if to underscore Dr. King's yet-to-be-realized dream of a brighter, prejudice-free America.
Additionally, the art easily takes one to life in that time.
Back then, no one except a 10-year-old like Janie could get away with "grunge" overalls. The male travelers dress in white shirts and narrow ties, the women in pillbox hats and going-Downtown suits.
Squat, bulky redbrick architecture, which dominated Midwest city centers in the 1950s and 1960s, hulk in the background as the riders board round-roofed buses.
Mr. Geister also renders the pre-super highway field-hemmed, single-lane roads barely lighted at night.
"Riding to Washington" is part of Sleeping Bear Press' Tales of Young Americans Series. It's a book that may help grandparents bring a taste of growing up in that turbulent but fruitful time to the minds of their grandchildren.
First Published February 4, 2008 6:50 pm