March 01, 2018


The United States v. Jackie Robinson. By Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen. Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.

Lives of the Explorers: Discoveries, Disasters (and What the Neighbors Thought). By Kathleen Krull. Illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $8.99.

     At a time when intolerance and viciousness seem to be running rampant throughout the United States, and civility seems in distressingly short supply, it is helpful to take a few steps back and consider how far the nation has come over the last three-quarters of a century. This in no way implies that everything is ideal or that there are no remaining issues to be dealt with – some of them very serious. But it can be a salutary lesson in the possibility of progress, in the reality of progress on a social level paralleling the undoubted progress the nation has made in more directly measurable areas, such as industry and technology. And that is a fine context in which to consider Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen’s The United States v. Jackie Robinson, a book about a well-known athlete that looks at a significant element of his life dating to considerably earlier than the events that brought him fame. What is detailed here could not happen today and will never happen again in the United States – but Bardhan-Quallen’s straightforward telling of what did happen, with entirely appropriate illustrations by R. Gregory Christie, will show young readers what sorts of things occurred in an earlier time in the same country, and hopefully will make them proud that on this level, at least, progress has been real, substantial and noticeable. The story takes place mainly in 1944, during World War II, when Robinson was serving his country in the Army – at a time of institutional, legally enforceable racial separation. The key is that in May of that year, the Army formally forbade segregation on military posts and buses – but that was a long way from changing people’s minds about skin color. So on an Army bus one day, when Robinson took a seat in the middle of the vehicle and refused to move to the back despite the driver’s demand, the result was that Robinson was arrested and put on trial – that is, he was court-martialed. Yet Robinson, at a time when he had little enough reason to trust or believe in the nation’s system and its laws and rules, did trust that justice would be done – and it was, after he testified on his own behalf and others agreed that he was an exemplary soldier and had never committed any military infraction, such as refusing a direct order. The real story here is of someone who, like other civil rights icons such as Martin Luther King, Jr., changed the system after giving the system a chance to work properly. And it did work properly, despite the patent unfairness and prejudice that Robinson, King and so many others faced – they would have been justified in expecting everything to be stacked against them, but they were still willing to allow for the possibility that people would do the right thing. And the right thing was done – not always and certainly not always willingly or with enthusiasm, but it was done. And that is a major lesson that young readers, of any color, can take away from The United States v. Jackie Robinson. The riots, looting, shootings and murders, targeting of police officers, ugly and pervasive violence that are the norm in some segments of modern U.S. society – a society that has progressed far beyond the one in which Jackie Robinson was put on trial – are not only ineffective but also a genuine disservice to the memory of people who actually suffered legal, institutional racial discrimination, and who rose above it to help point the way to a better and fairer society, if scarcely a perfect one.

     The visit to past times in Kathleen Krull’s Lives of the Explorers is of a different type, but here too young readers will take away from the book a strong sense of how different things are now from the way they were when the explorers profiled here lived. Originally published in 2014 and now available in paperback, Lives of the Explorers follows the same format as the many previous books in the Lives of… series, with 17 brief chapters covering the peregrinations of 20 explorers from many times and many places. As usual, there are highly familiar names (Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan) mixed with ones that young readers are unlikely to know (Ibn Battuta, Zheng He, Auguste and Jacques Piccard). Also as usual, Krull is at pains to include members of both genders and multiple ethnicities; and her brisk and brief narratives are ably complemented by Kathryn Hewitt’s trademark illustrations, showing the explorers with disproportionately large heads and in scenes indicative of who they were and what they did. What is especially striking here for 21st-century readers is the often sordid realities of exploration, not the supposed glamor of discovering new places. For example, “only eighteen of the original [Marco Polo] crew of six hundred survived” to return to Venice, and “of the original crew [of Magellan’s ships], only about eighteen [of more than 250] survived.” And the big-name explorers were by no means respected in their own time or during their own voyages: Henry Hudson’s crew ambushed him and threw him off his ship – and Magellan’s crew also mutinied. In fact, people often presented as heroes in history books become far more ordinary here, as in the Indians’ reaction to the Lewis and Clark expedition: “The white men, who rarely bathed, struck them as smelly.” And then there are the everyday realities of seeking out the unknown in times before modern medicine, weaponry and guidance systems: Mary Kingsley beat back a crocodile with a paddle when it tried to get into her boat, and as for Daniel Boone, he “was short [and] hated coonskin caps (he always wore a hat made of beaver felt).” These tidbits and others can be fascinating as well as informative: Auguste Piccard inspired the character of Professor Cuthbert Calculus in the Tintin comics; his son, Jacques, was the first man to descend to the lowest known point on Earth; and his grandson, Bertrand, made the first round-the-world balloon flight. Lives of the Explorers offers multiple short journeys to many times and many lands, without hagiography or sugar-coating, and as a result makes important past events come alive in ways that they never do when authors focus on adventures that only seem grand and glorious from a much later and much more comfortable perspective.

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