I Am Jackie Robinson, by Brad Meltzer, illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos
In looking at this book I had one obvious question. Where was Jackie Robinson’s father? A good deal of this book (like the entire series I have read thus far) focuses on the childhood of the various people portrayed as heroes within, and in this particular case the most obvious thing was the absence of a father. Jackie Robinson had five siblings. How many of them were full siblings, how many half siblings? How much of his youthful struggles with the wrong company and the family’s grim struggle against poverty was due to the absence of the father in the home? These are questions the author does not explore and does not even hint at. The author wants to portray Robinson’s mother as nearly a saint, his educational process as being serious, and it points at a succession of substitute father figures who give him opportunities to prove his worth and also good moral advice about how it is necessary to behave. It is as if the author is intuitively aware that fatherlessness is a problem but does not want to address it outright, as that might counteract the political perspective he tends to show in his works.
This particular work is a straightforward and chronological account of the subject’s life that takes him to the moment of his greatest glory and ends when his baseball career does. We see Jackie Robinson as a young kid growing up in a single-parent household with four older siblings. We see him growing up rather timid and afraid, dealing with the reality of racial discrimination when it came to using the swimming facilities in his neighborhood, and falling into the wrong crowd and engaging in petty vandalism. We see his immense talent at sports, the fact that he lettered in four sports in the same year, a hugely impressive matter. When not focused on his childhood or on his education, which includes one of the few positive portrayals of a person of faith in this series, the author focuses on Robinson’s career in the Negro leagues and the role of Branch Rickey in giving him a chance at the big leagues, and the need on his part to restrain his anger about the mistreatment he would suffer at the hands of other players and the fans, something that the author discusses rather forthrightly as a way of reminding the reader about the seriousness and pervasiveness of racism at the time.
To be sure, Jackie Robinson is one of the more obvious iconic heroes of the integration of American sports. Yet this book suffers from many of the same problems that afflict the series as a whole. Throughout the book the young Jackie Robinson wears a Brooklyn Dodgers hat whose meaning is only apparent towards the end when he joins that team, a gimmick similar to the Lincoln penny that afflicts that volume of this series. The obvious missteps about the absence of the father, though, is at least partially counterbalanced by its positive portrayal of his pastor and his manager as surrogate father figures, and the portrayal of his own concern about the well-being of his wife and daughter, although there is no discussion of his courtship or family life as an adult besides this. Above all, though, this book suffers like most of the books of this series from mainly being concerned with celebrity. It is not so much Jackie Robinson as a man, but him as a celebrity athlete that the author cares about, because there is no discussion of anything after his baseball career, a curious gap in this as in many other books where one has to wonder about how a life was lived after the fame faded and the celebrity status ended.