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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Going Extra Innings with Baseball Picture Books

Baseball is America's great pastime. But baseball is also history, science, biography, statistics, and story. Here I discuss just a few of the dozens of titles available for exploring this beloved (and to many, sacred) sport. And no worries, ladies; you'll get your turn at bat in the next post. Those ladies with "dirt on their skirts" have equally amazing stories to tell.

Universal Themes:
Acceptance, Accomplishment, Change, Culture, Determination, Differences, Enthusiasm, Excellence, Generations, Heroism, Inspiration, Leadership, Loyalty, Memory, Origins, Perspectives, Prejudice, Pride, Respect, Social Change, Success, Teamwork, Tolerance, Tradition

Before Reading Questions
  • Who here has ever played baseball or softball?
  • How do you feel about baseball as a sport?
  • Who has ever been to a stadium to see a game? Do you prefer major leagues or minor leagues?
  • Who collects baseball cards? Why? Who has a favorite player, or who has a mom or dad that has a favorite player?
Home Run: The Story of Babe Ruth
written by Robert Burleigh
illustrated by Mike Wimmer

Through one at-bat, this story eloquently retells how Babe Ruth changed baseball forever. The illustrations are bold and immediate; each one puts us squarely in the action. Many, especially those that depict the crowd, are nostalgically reminiscent of Norman Rockwell paintings. The large text is almost poetry, and finer historical details are provided on the backs of baseball cards which adorn each page. For those of us who may have forgotten just how large a shadow the Babe cast (literally and figuratively), these facts remind us. For example, in 1921, with 59 home runs, Babe had more than most other entire American League teams.

written by Peter Golenbock
illustrated by Paul Bacon

While most Americans can identify Jackie Robinson and his achievement in becoming the first black player to play on a Major League baseball team, few know much about the players of the Negro Leagues and their contributions to the game. This simple picture book provides just enough background for students to understand the difficulties and sacrifice involved with Robinson's decision, and it beautifully illustrates how Pee Wee Reese stood by his friend when even his own teammates disparaged and ostracized Robinson openly.

I often use this book to introduce the concept of conflict. We discuss the conflict of character vs. society when Jackie chooses to leave the Negro Leagues for the Major Leagues at a time when American society was still widely and systematically segregated. Character vs. character conflicts are evident in both the fans' and teammates' rejections of Robinson. Finally, Jackie faced a conflict with himself as he struggled to find the courage to persevere through the most trying times. Players on opposing teams tried to spike him with their cleats or beam him in the head with high pitches. He received death threats from both individuals and organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. But Pee Wee Reese's single, bold show of solidarity and friendship proved to Jackie and the world that nothing could stand in the way of an idea whose time had come, ushered in by a man of good heart and great talent.

Across the Alley
written by Richard Michelson
illustrated by E.B.Lewis

Abe and Willie are next door neighbors but can't play together because Abe's grandfather feels that Jewish boys shouldn't waste their time with baseball. Little does Grandfather know that every night Abe pretends he's Sandy Koufax, and he and Willie toss a ball back and forth across the alley. But what happens when they're discovered by Grandfather?

There's obviously more to this story, but I want you to experience it for yourself. In addition to some beautiful imagery and language, the author introduces readers to Sandy Koufax, Satchel Paige, and Jascha Heifetz, but only by name. Who were these people? Why are they mentioned? We also hear references to the Negro Leagues and the Nazis, but again, we're not given full explanations. So this book offers many opportunities for students to create their own historical context for a better understanding of the story's core ideas.

Oliver's Game
by Matt Tavares

When Oliver discovers an old jersey in the back of his grandfather's shop, he's surprised to learn that it belongs to Grandfather. "But you never played for the Cubs," protests Oliver. And so Grandfather retells the tale of the jersey and how one fateful day (December 7, 1941) changed the life of every American.
This book recalls the heroism of those who chose to serve their country, and it also points out that baseball is for everyone, not just the lucky few who can play on the field.

We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball
written and illustrated by Kadir Nelson

You might argue that this isn't a picture book since it's divided into chapters. Well, I don't know what book you're talking about, because mine is divided into innings. It's also filled with some of the most outstanding artwork to grace the pages of any book in recent memory. Kadir Nelson's paintings are heroic, iconic, and simply mesmerizing. They dare the reader not to explore the lives of these great players of Negro baseball. Read in "installments" over a period of days, this book will prove a big hit with your students. Another thing I love about it: it's narrated in the first person, using "we." We are there to witness the tribulations and triumphs.

Post Reading Questions

Extension Ideas: Language Arts
  • Apart from baseball, what else was this book about?
  • Which parts of this book do we know are real? Which parts might be fiction? Does it matter which are which?
  • What were some difficulties the main character faced in this book?
  • What do you think happened next?
  • Many students will want to write about their own experiences playing baseball. Those who prefer another sport or activity or who have had little experience with playing or watching baseball can either write about their own sport, or create a fictional narrative about any sport they choose.
  • The Educator's Reference Desk features a Negro League Baseball lesson plan on writing which uses the picture book The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown. The plan includes printable activity sheets.
  • Have students brainstorm a list of baseball-inspired idioms (such as "batting a thousand"). Each students can then define and illustrate one of those expressions for a class book on Baseball Idioms. (This activity was adapted from a set of ideas which can be found at Education World).
Extension Ideas: Math
  • Imagine sports without numbers. What problems would that cause? Have students first brainstorm a list of ways in which numbers are used in baseball. Then, ask student teams to redesign the game so that numbers would need to be used in any way for player identification, field designations, scoring, seating, ticketing, concessions, etc.
  • Teach your students how to calculate a batting average. Students can then use this skill to calculate their own batting average after playing a virtual batting game online, such as the one found at the kids' section of the Major League Baseball site. Illuminations provides a more complete, structured lesson plan for middle and high school teachers wishing to do more with the math concepts behind batting averages.
  • Batter's Up gives kids a good math work-out while swing the bat at multiplication facts.
Extension Ideas: Science

  • The Science of Baseball at Exploratorium is a well-designed site with a retro feel. It features baseball history infused with the science behind the game. Lots to explore here, including a neat simulation that allows students to change variables of batting in order to try hitting one out of the park, and a simulation testing reaction time when swinging at a 90 mph major league pitch.
  • Science of Baseball from the Why Files isn't nearly as interactive or charming, but provides the rest of the science behind the game for any student interested.
Extension Ideas: Social Studies
  • Kaboose features a neat baseball timeline. Students can use this as a starting point for researching some of baseball's most important events. An exhaustive site such as the Baseball Almanac will help provide additional facts. Your kids may also enjoy the online companion to Ken Burns' phenomenal Baseball mini-series on PBS.
For Further Study:
At this same site I've also written about Women in Baseball, as well as a wonderful picture book that teaches kids how to keep a scorecard at a ball game

Teachers First has many more sites and ideas for teachers seeking to really extend the baseball topic in the classrooms.

Also, the folks over at TeqSmart (a company which develops some really awesome SMART applications) came up with one cool baseball link I hadn't seen before, the Kids' site from the West Michigan Whitecaps, featuring baseball content categorized by subject area. More math ideas, baseball terms, and fun historical facts, plus a cool glossary of baseball-related injuries.


Anonymous said...

Great post. I especially love "We are the Ship." I could stare at Kadir Nelson's illustrations (and Kadir Nelson himself) all day. Jean Davies Okimoto's "Dear Ichiro" is another good one - a little baseball, a little WWII history, and a lot about finding frienship in the midst of our differences.