I thrill to books about triumphal firsts in human rights–stories about the Emancipation Proclamation, stories about universal suffrage, stories about breaking the color barrier in sports, stories about making inter-racial marriages legal. Those are important stories that need to be told. But as recent events remind us, it takes time for society to change. Sometimes a very long change. Children could assume that racism no longer exists if the only kinds of nonfiction picture books that got published were about triumphal firsts. But luckily there are other books that try to depict the struggle (like this one and this one and this one). The book I’m looking at today, Waiting for Pumpsie, is one of those books.
Waiting for Pumpsie isn’t about the first black man to play Major League Baseball. In fact, it happens twelve years later, long after almost every Major League baseball team had blacks on their rosters. It’s the story of how the hold-out team, the Boston Red Sox, finally hired Pumpsie Green.
The story is historical fiction. The author says in the Author’s Note, “Bernard is a fictional character, but the events leading up to Pumpsie Green’s 1959 arrival in the major leagues with the Boston Red Sox are true.” Using fiction to tell a factual story works really well here since the author is able to cobble together scenes where Bernard and his family face all kinds of different types of ugly daily discrimination. They’re the kinds of daily humiliations that definitely happened, and you could find an example of each in the historical record, but it would probably be impossible to find a single historical account that included all of them. So a fictional place-holder allows the story to more fully depict what the world was like in 1959.
The acrylic paintings are vivid and depict actual ephemera from the time–baseball cards, TV schedules, game tickets, a souvenir pennant.
Waiting for Pumpsie by Barry Wittenstein, illustrated by London Ladd. Charlesbridge: 2017.
(I’m posting this week at Page Through the Parks–so far, Junior Ranger eclipse pamphlet, a great podcast, and kids of color and the national parks–come visit!)