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Local Illustrator Captures Jackie Robinson’s Legacy

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Aired 10/26/09

Local illustrator Kadir Nelson captures legendary baseball great Jackie Robinson in the new children's book "Testing the Ice: A True Story of Jackie Robinson."

This new children's book tells a personal story about baseball legend Jackie Robinson. Featuring Robinson and his children venturing onto a frozen body of water, the book illustrates how the children learned about Robinson's role in civil rights history.
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Above: This new children's book tells a personal story about baseball legend Jackie Robinson. Featuring Robinson and his children venturing onto a frozen body of water, the book illustrates how the children learned about Robinson's role in civil rights history.

Sharon Robinson and Kadir Nelson will be at The Yellow Book Road today at 10:30 am.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Not many American kids today can envision a world where people are segregated by the color of their skin, and that is a very good thing. But it would be very bad if the history of segregation and the heroes of this nation's struggle for civil rights were also unknown to our younger generation. And kids often need more than lessons from a history class to engage their imaginations and touch their hearts. So, a new illustrated children's book called "Testing the Ice" has taken up the challenge. It tells a personal story from the life of baseball legend Jackie Robinson. Using engaging text and beautiful pictures, it shows how Robinson's children learned their gentle father was also one of the bravest men of his generation. I’d like to welcome my guests. Sharon Robinson is the daughter of Jackie Robinson, vice chairman of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, and she wrote the children’s book, “Testing the Ice: A True Story about Jackie Robinson.”

Sharon, welcome.

SHARON ROBINSON (Vice Chairman, Jackie Robinson Foundation): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And Kadir Nelson is the award-winning San Diego-based author and illustrator who created the pictures for “Testing the Ice.” Kadir, welcome to These Days.

KADIR NELSON (Author/Illustrator): Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: First of all, I’d like to congratulate you both on this truly beautiful book.

ROBINSON: Thank you, Maureen. We love it as well, so we’re – and the reaction has just been great.

CAVANAUGH: Now why did you decide to write this children’s book about your father?

ROBINSON: Well, Kadir and I agreed to do an illustrated book together. We – He had done covers of my novel series. And this is a favorite memory and a perfect way, I felt, to introduce younger children to Jackie Robinson the dad, as well as Jackie Robinson the baseball hero. And the consistency between the two, I felt, would stand out in this particular story.

CAVANAUGH: Now I can’t believe anybody doesn’t know who Jackie Robinson is but if there are a couple of perhaps very young people out there listening, can you tell us his – his claim to fame in baseball history?

ROBINSON: Yes, in 1947, my father broke the color barrier in major league baseball and became a Brooklyn Dodger. It actually – He played in the Negro Leagues and was with the Kansas City Monarchs and since the turn of the century, baseball was segregated. So if you were – And it was based on color of skin. So if you were brown-skinned, black, Hispanic, you played in the Negro Leagues if you wanted to play professional baseball. And only whites were allowed in the major leagues, and it wasn’t a written code, it was a – but it was a formal verbal code between owners.

CAVANAUGH: I think, Sharon, the way that you have related – You use this story to tell the entire story of who Jackie Robinson was, and the kind of man he was is really quite astounding. And I wonder – I want to ask you why you chose this incident on the frozen pond to convey who your father was.

ROBINSON: Because – Well, we moved into our house in 1955 and it – on the bottom – at the bottom of the hill, we had a lake that ran from our house all the way down the road. And we had great fun in that lake all the way through the seasons and my father always stayed on shore. So when it came time to – for winter and the lake freezing, we asked Dad, you know, can we go ice skating and he said yes, very reluctantly. And it dawned on me only as he was stepping way out there in – on his – by himself in the middle of that frozen lake that he couldn’t swim. So the amount of courage – it just made me think of him even more as a hero. I already did, I thought of him as a hero, and it make me think of him even more as a hero. And sort of the fun part about writing a picture book is you tell it in the moment. So for that period of time that I was writing, I got to be that five year old adoring daughter again and it was – So, you know, I – and the revelations sort of come to me over time.

CAVANAUGH: Kadir Nelson, you did the illustrations for this book and I wonder how this developed, doing the illustrations for Sharon’s book?

NELSON: Well, Sharon had asked me -- She told me she had a story that she wanted to write for a children's book and actually said before we had worked together in the past, and I'd also illustrated and written a book about the Negro League, so I was really familiar with Jackie Robinson as a player but I wasn't necessarily so familiar with him as a father. So Sharon really provided a wonderful insight into that. And, for me, it was a great opportunity to illustrate and share a wonderful story about, I think, as I consider them, one of America's royal families. So it was really a great – for me, it was a great honor to be able to work with Sharon.

CAVANAUGH: One of the things about this book is every time you turn the page, you never know what you’re going to see, and the illustrations just always hit you, they’re so surprising, they’re so different on each – in every part of the book. And I’m wondering, is there something about – that you take from the text that inspires you to create what you create? Is there – Do you look for a word? Do you look for an action? Where did the ideas for these illustrations come from?

NELSON: Well, I think it’s a matter of really understanding the overall story. I look at each book that I illustrate as if it were a silent movie. You want to be able to look at each painting or illustration, to leaf through the book without necessarily having to read the words first to understand the story. So that’s basically where I start.

CAVANAUGH: And I’m wondering, Sharon, if you had the same reaction when you first saw these illustrations. Did they surprise you? Were you like turning the pages, wanting to see the next one?

ROBINSON: Oh, absolutely. It actually occurred in the editor’s – our editor’s office and my mother, I invited my mother down as well. Diane called and said, oh, the art is in and it’s amazing. And we rushed down in a taxi. So it was really cool because Diane was reading the text and my mother and I were seeing the art for the first time and flipping over the pages, and it was just astonishing. And what I loved was – And I was actually very confident because I know Kadir’s art and have always admired it long before I had a chance to work with him. I know the power of his art, so I wasn’t surprised at how powerful it was but to – you still don’t know what he’s going to – how – what he’ll choose to depict that particular scene, so it was quite wonderful.

CAVANAUGH: I said in my opening that it was so important for younger generations to know about the civil rights struggle, to know about the history of America and what needed to be overcome. And I want to ask you both, is that why you have done this book, Sharon, and is it different for kids to be able to see a book like this than just learn something in history class?

ROBINSON: Very different. I’m a prime example of that. I didn’t learn to love history until I left school. I’m not one to memorize dates and times and so I like things in context and, certainly, when you put a family in with American history it makes it much more real. But it’s also really important because history is cyclical. So the things that happened back in the sixties, forties, fifties, twenties, you know, we start to see some of that again. Schools are resegregated. And so, you know, you have to remember what we went through and how we handled it, and it hopefully will stimulate some activism and sort of refresh the memory of the past but also help us figure out how to deal with the future.

CAVANAUGH: And, Kadir, since this was a personal story from Sharon’s childhood, did you approach it in a different way than you did when you did the book about the Negro Leagues?

NELSON: Well, for this one, it’s told from the perspective of a child, so you have to keep that in mind. I often keep the horizons low because children are closer to the horizon. You’re looking up at your parents. And I tend to do that often with my work but particularly in this book because I want to – I mean, Jackie Robinson is such a – an iconic American figure I really want to – I want to humanize him but also want to keep him in – on that – sort of on that pedestal that we put him on.

CAVANAUGH: So you’d sort of look up. I didn’t notice that. I’ll have to look at the book again.

NELSON: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: So that’s the perspective you used, you sort of look up. The horizon is very low.

NELSON: Umm-hmm. It’s really kind of putting yourself in the shoes of a child.

CAVANAUGH: That’s interesting. Now, Sharon, you founded Major League Baseball’s Breaking Barriers program.

ROBINSON: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: And you said that history is cyclical.

ROBINSON: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder, do you think that major sports leagues like baseball, football, do a good job of representing diversity in America today?

ROBINSON: Well, I’ll speak on the sport that I’m involved most dearly with and that’s Major League Baseball. We’ve done a very good job of globalizing the – you know, having the game go worldwide. We’re working – We’ve put a lot of energy into that. And as a result of us putting so much energy into going worldwide, we now had to go back and reinforce our American efforts because baseball fields are not as accessible as basketball courts in this country. So we did find that – and there’s so many more entertainment options for children nowadays, so we really have to put effort into getting kids to play the game of baseball. And so there’s many programs that Major League Baseball sponsors and there’s many other ones that they support that other people are doing, and all of that is to sort of revive baseball in the inner cities. That’s what we call one of our major youth baseball programs. And it is a challenge because you have to fight for kids’ attention and also we sometimes get kids started in the game of baseball but they sort of lose – move off to other things when they get to be around the age of twelve.

CAVANAUGH: What other programs does the Breaking Barriers program, what other efforts are you involved in?

ROBINSON: At baseball? At Major League Baseball?

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

ROBINSON: Well, the Breaking Barriers program is actually a school-based program…

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

ROBINSON: …and it’s a very different way to introduce – to bring baseball into focus for a child and really – but this particular program focuses on overcoming obstacles and the – it helps children understand that whether you’re a child or a major league baseball player, you still have to face obstacles in life. And we do use my dad’s story as the barrier breaker in Major League Baseball but we use kids and major league baseball players to help them understand that it’s a universal message. And then the kids ultimately write an essay about a barrier or obstacle they’ve had to overcome in their lives. So I do that in – that is school-based and we have reached millions of kids in schools, and teachers, and it’s a very wonderful program. Then I go out and visit them in their schools and we bring them to ballparks and bring them to the All Star Game so it’s got a lot of cross-relationship then there.

CAVANAUGH: You know, lots of stories about heroes have them riding horses and they have shields and they have the wizards and so forth, but this story about a hero is very gentle. And I’m wondering what you’re hoping kids take away from it.

ROBINSON: That he did have a gentle side and he was a loving parent, and that he was – but he was still very courageous at home. And that we saw him both as a – And it was more important to us what he was like at home. And, luckily, for me, who writes these books, there is a consistency between the man, that he had real character at home and commitment to family and was present in our lives, so I want the kids to understand that.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you both so much for speaking with us about this today. Sharon Robinson and Kadir Nelson will be at The Yellow Book Road at 10:30 today with their book. And the book is “Testing the Ice: A True Story about Jackie Robinson.” And also, there are signed copies of it at Warwick’s bookstore in La Jolla. Thank you both for being here.

ROBINSON: Thank you for having us, Maureen.

NELSON: Thanks, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: You’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS. Stay with us for hour two coming up in just a few minutes.

(audio of song, “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?” by Buddy Johnson & Count Basie)

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