February 02, 2017


Frederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History. By Walter Dean Myers. Illustrated by Floyd Cooper. Harper. $17.99.

Muhammad Ali: A Champion Is Born. By Gene Barretta. Illustrated by Frank Morrison. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $17.99.

     Creators of children’s books understand, intuitively or through studying the medium, just how different an impression they can make on impressionable young minds by the way they tell stories and illustrate them. Both Frederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History and Muhammad Ali: A Champion Is Born are hagiographic; both tell the stories of men who, if they were really as portrayed here, would be several cuts above the human race, never mind the mass of humanity; both assiduously avoid exploring any flaws of their subjects, or even mentioning anything negative in more than a passing way; both are aimed, officially, at ages 4-8; and both are intended for young black readers and their families – there is no reaching out to a wider audience here. But the two books’ different forms, both in narrative and in illustration, stand in stark contrast, and reflect in important ways the men about whom the works are written.

     The differences, abundantly clear from the books’ covers, persist throughout . Frederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History is all done in sepia tones. On the cover, Douglass, shown front and center, is looking past the reader, as if toward a far horizon where the world will be different and he will have had a major role in shaping it. The book has extensive narrative for a work aimed at a very young age group – in fact, it is probably more appropriate for ages 6-10 than for 4-8. The late Walter Dean Myers packs a lot of information into Douglass’ story, carefully avoiding any significant mention of positive actions by whites in Douglass’ life in order to keep the focus on slavery and Douglass’ escape from and transcendence of it. Thus, for example, Myers writes of the time Douglass’ owner, Hugh Auld, turned Douglass over to the cruel Edward Covey to be harshly disciplined; but only readers who go beyond the entire book’s narrative and past the timeline and bibliography will discover, at the work’s very end, the document with which Auld freed Douglass – in 1846, a year after Douglass wrote his autobiography but long before he had accomplished many of the things for which he is remembered, and even before Douglass was known exclusively by that name (he changed it to Douglass from Bailey; both names appear in Auld’s document). Nor does Auld’s wife, Sophia, get much credit for instilling in Douglass what became his lifelong preoccupation with reading and writing – although she is at least mentioned. In any case, the book proceeds with page after page about Douglass’ thoughts and deeds, with Floyd Cooper’s finely detailed illustrations resolutely keeping Douglass looking ahead to a better time, or askance at his own – there is not a single picture in which Douglass looks directly out at the reader. The hyper-seriousness of Douglass is communicated again and again, both through the text and through the illustrations, and he is repeatedly pictured as wise – the contrast between Cooper’s renderings of Douglass and abolitionist John Brown, who are shown on the same page, is particularly striking. Myers knows his history, and some elements of the book may even surprise adult readers, such as the comment that Southern states began to secede from the union in 1860 rather than 1861 (South Carolina issued its declaration on December 24, 1860). As a study in serious, even studious dedication to change, of a man who understood how to make common cause with others – Douglass was an early advocate of women’s suffrage – Frederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History is a book of considerable power that tells its story with strength and dedication.

     Muhammad Ali: A Champion Is Born is as different as can be imagined. This is the tale of someone who made his living through strength of a very different sort, with his fists, by beating people up physically (within an established set of rules, to be sure). It is a story with little nuance (at least as Gene Barretta tells it), and one whose bright red-and-yellow cover fits it perfectly. Right there on the cover, the only thing to see besides words is Muhammad Ali staring directly at the reader with intensity bordering on hostility, if not outright hatred, and getting ready to throw a punch (or just having thrown one). The whole book gets right to its topic with fight scenes and comic-book language: “POW!” in 1964; “POW! POW!” in 1965; the famous “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” comment in big, bold type in 1974; and “POW! POW! POW!” in 1978. And then Barretta and illustrator Frank Morrison flash back to 1954, when Ali (then using his birth name, Cassius Clay) was 12 years old and had his bike stolen. This is the linchpin of the story, the moment when, Barretta says, Cassius Clay started on the road that would eventually make him heavyweight champion of the world. The angle is an unusual one for an Ali biography, and is clearly intended to involve young readers in the story – and this book is written at a level that does fit the 4-8 age group quite well. Morrison’s art is interestingly exaggerated: on one page, people’s heads are too large for their bodies, so the reader is drawn to their faces; on another, facial features are barely suggested and the stance of a character is accentuated, so the eye goes to the whole body and its posture and the character becomes a type rather than an individual. Young Cassius Clay, however, is distinct and distinctive throughout, and his facial expressions are highlighted again and again – although at times his face is downplayed so readers focus on specific things he is doing, such as running alongside a school bus or dodging rocks thrown at him by his brother, Rudy. This is a book about Cassius Clay the boy, once it gets past its opening pages about Muhammad Ali the man; but it does contain two back-of-book pages with more information about Ali’s later life. There is very little about the major controversies surrounding him, although some are mentioned in passing; unfortunately, there is also very little about his later years, when he developed Parkinson’s disease and became a role model for others suffering from it – a more-valuable and likely more-lasting contribution to the world than winning boxing matches. Muhammad Ali: A Champion Is Born will be interesting for young readers who already look up to Ali and who may want to become fighters themselves, but it pays little attention to the fight of his life – against the disease that finally took it – in its determination to present a big, bold POW of a story.

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