* Now hear this: Kadir Nelson

February 19, 2009

It’s been quite a year for Kadir Nelson. The author of We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball (Jump at the Sun/Hyperion) has been racking up awards right and left. In recent weeks he has received the Robert F. Sibert Medal for most distinguished informational book for children and the Coretta Scott King Book Award recognizing an African American author and illustrator of outstanding books for children and young adults, both presented by the American Library Association. He is also the winner of Spitball Magazine‘s 2008 Casey Award for best baseball book. That’s best baseball book, which includes a number of worthy titles for adults.

Readers of the Bookshelf know I practically never discuss children’s books; it’s not even one of my “categories.” But We Are the Ship is more than juvenile literature. Nelson’s evocative paintings and gentle, homespun narrative (this is the first time he has done both pictures and words) also appeal to an older crowd. The title comes from a quote by Rube Foster, who created the Negro National League. “We are the ship; all else the sea,” he said.

One can almost hear the voice of an elderly Chicago American Giant or Kansas City Monarch player reminiscing about his days in flannel. Hard times and fun times, constantly on the road and often in precarious situations when taking on opponents in the Deep South. Dealing with segregation but putting up with it for the joy of the game.

Nelson‘s paintings have been exhibited in galleries and museums around the world, including the Simon Wisenthal Center, the Museum of Tolerance, and the Smithsonian Anacostia Museum. His illustrations in such children’s books as Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led her People to Freedom, and Ellington Was Not a Street, among others, have similarly received numerous honors.

I talked with Nelson about the process of producing the book — more than seven years in the making — as well as the important message he wanted to impart to all his readers.

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You can read an excerpt from We Are the Ship here.

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