Lessons From Losers
Forget the Olympics and going for the gold. Books about baseball show kids why it’s OK—even good—not to win.
Babe & Me by Dan Gutman is a terrific choice for younger kids, particularly sports-crazed boys who aren’t big readers. It’s the third book in a series about a boy named Joe who has the magical power to hold a baseball card and be transported to the year the card was printed. In this installment, Joe travels to the 1932 World Series to find out whether Babe Ruth really pointed to the bleachers before slamming a homer there. Joe’s neglectful father comes along, hoping to make a bundle by bringing autographed baseballs back in time. He also hopes to alert FDR to the impending Holocaust so he can save his extended family. (This may sound flippant and insensitive, but it works in the context of the book.) Things don’t work out as either Joe or his dad had hoped, but they return to the present with a better understanding of each other and the hope of improving their relationship. The Babe’s a great, nuanced character, and there’s plenty of burp and fart humor to keep boys engaged. (Grades 3-7.)
I think we try to convince ourselves that non-book-loving boys will go for sports biographies, but such books usually come off as spinach: virtuous, nutritious, but not so tasty. Two picture books for older kids buck that tendency: Lipman Pike by Richard Michelson, illustrated by Zachary Pullen, and You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?! by Jonah Winter, illustrated by André Carillho. Both have trippy illustrations and tell delicious stories (Koufax had to learn to rein in his all-over-the-place arm; Pike outran a horse and became America’s first professional baseball player in the 1800s). Both these books are grand slams. (Grades K-3.)
For straightforward storytelling that will appeal to little kids with a strong sense of right and wrong (that is, most of ’em), try When Jackie and Hank Met by Cathy Goldberg Fishman, illustrated by Mark Elliott. Jackie Robinson and Hank Greenberg met in 1947 when they collided at first base; though the crowd urged them to fight, they opted not to. The book tells their parallel stories of overcoming prejudice. (Grades K-3.)
God, Gold, and Golems by James Sturm (author of Adventures in Cartooning, the best children’s book about the subject there is) offers three short graphic novels about the American Dream. One, the Golem’s Mighty Swing, is a strange, nuanced, and hypnotic story about capitalizing on other people’s anti-Semitism and racism. A down-on-their-luck Jewish baseball team called the Stars of David allows a creepy sports promoter to hire a player from the Negro Leagues to pretend to be a golem to attract audiences … and weirdness ensues. (Young Adult)
About the B’nai Bagels is the only book on this list besides The Chosen that was around when I was a kid. As an anxious, dithery, self-conscious Little Leaguer, I loved it. Yes, the language is dated, but the themes of coping with an overachieving sibling, a big-personality parent, the stress of an impending bar mitzvah, and the ethical dilemma about whether to keep a damaging secret are timeless.
If you want to go deep, librarian and former Sydney Taylor Awards chair Kathe Pinchuck has put together a terrific resource for both kids and adults: Baseball and Jews: A Bibliography. And why wouldn’t you want to go deep? Books that combine Jewish ethics, familial love, and baseball are a way better way to while away the dog days of summer than watching fakey-fake heart-tugging, overcoming-adversity narratives on NBC.
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