Monday, January 31, 2011

A Nation's Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis


Peña, Matt de la. 2011. A Nation's Hope: The story of boxing legend Joe Louis. Ill. by Kadir Nelson. New York: Dial.

A Nation's Hope begins at the end -  at the historic rematch between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, the German boxer, the only man ever to have put Joe Louis on his back.

Matt de la Peña's words have a poetic quality,
The world waits for Joe Louis to take the ring,
take center stage
White men wait standing beside black men,
but standing apart
Jim Crow America.
Kadir Nelson's artwork is a stunning complement. In realistic style, the story begins with a two-page spread of Yankee Stadium in 1938.  The text is in simple black font, mixing in with the darkening sky. The crowd awaits entrance to the stadium in the gathering dusk, a sliver of daylight low on the horizon.  One side of Yankee Stadium is bathed in a the last bright light of day, the other in shadow. Jim Crow America.

As the fighters climb into the ring, Peña flashes back to a young Joe Louis, a powerful boy with large hands and persistent stammer. The reader learns of Louis' determination to box, his rise to the top, his graceful behavior as a competitor, and his stunning defeat at the hands of one Max Schmeling, a favorite of Hitler.  Realistic paintings of period photos and newspaper headlines, dark gyms,  and sinewy arms with poised gloves take center stage.  The text lives within the illustrations, never detracting from them.  The faces of Black America wait and hope and pray for their hero.  And in the end, when all of America dances for Joe Louis' victory over Schmeling, the page is no longer split between light and dark.  The country dances together, in the dark.

This is Matt de la Peña's first picture book.  The pairing of de la Peña and Nelson results in pure emotion.  I wouldn't be surprised to see this book on many short lists at the end of the year.  Highly recommended.

Larry Schwartz, of ESPN, wrote an interesting article, "Brown Bomber was a Hero to All," as part of ESPN's Sports Century Athletes list - good reading.

It's Nonfiction Monday again. Today's roundup is at The Miss Rumphius Effect.

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