Tuesday, September 3, 2013

2014 Contenders: Barbed Wire Baseball, by Marissa Moss

The mass internment of Japanese Americans (and others, including those of German, Italian, and Hungarian descent) during World War II is a low point in the history of the USA. One of the thousands sent to the internment camps was Kenichi Zenimura, a brilliant baseball player and manager whose career had included playing in and organizing barnstorming tours with the likes of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Biz Mackey.

Barbed Wire Baseball spends a few pages on Zenimura's early life, but most of the book takes place during his internment. In the harsh desert landscape of the Gila River (Arizona) camp, Zenimura decided to help the other prisoners (who included his wife and two sons) in the way he knew best -- by building a baseball field. It wasn't just any field either, as the book goes to great lengths to show the care and love that Zenimura showered on the facility, which included a carefully manicured infield, grass landscaping, and bleachers for the spectators.

It's an inspiring story, no doubt about it, especially when you take into account some of the information in the appendix, which indicates that Zenimura was able to create a 32-team league within the camp, and also notes that both of Zenimura's sons went on to play professionally in Japan. (In a poetic touch, both played their careers for the team based in Hiroshima.)

The book's text makes some choices I'm not sure I agree with, however. Throughout, it only refers to Zenimura as "Zeni," to the point that it's only by reading the appendix that the reader can even find out the full name of the story's main character. I'm also not sure the decision to include so few details about Zenimura's pre-internment career -- and to confine all information about his life after the first game played on the field at Gila River to a couple pages in the appendix -- serves the subject particularly well. The man meant so much to his sport that he earned the nickname "The Father of Japanese American Baseball," and even if the picture book treatment necessitates brevity, the focus of Barbed Wire Baseball is so narrow that I'm not sure readers will come away understanding Zenimura's importance.

Barbed Wire Baseball is a joy to look at. I love Yuko Shimizu's illustrations, which, astoundingly, are the first she's ever done for a picture book -- I hope we see more from her in the coming years. The book fills a valuable niche, and, quibbles aside, will at least merit consideration from the Notables committee. I think it's clearly a lesser work than the similarly-structured You Never Heard of Willie Mays?!, however, and since I didn't posit any Newbery love for that one, I highly doubt we'll see any for Barbed Wire Baseball.

Published in April by Abrams.

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