Book Talk: Testing the Ice by Sharon Robinson and We Troubled the Water by Ntozake Shange

I have been thinking a lot about Colleen Mondor’s January post about Demanding Diversity in Publishing.  The article isn’t as much about ng more books as it is about crafting broader stories. Colleen is always dead-on, and she links to Susan’s eloquent post at Black-eyed Susan, as well as Miss Attitude’s post at Reading in Color.

Susan expanded on the topic with an early February 2010 post, reader’s response about Black History Month.  Her message is that that “Black History should encompass more than slavery.” At 5 Minutes for Books, Jennifer thinks the Civil Rights Movement belongs there, too. I agree that we need to move beyond reverence of some well-known figures, but I don’t want to to lose/overlook personal stories. That’s what I loved about Testing the Ice by Sharon Robinson and We Troubled the Waters by Ntozake Shange.
A Story about Jackie Robinson Ntozake Shange

Sharon Robinson’s childhood story and Ntozake Shange’s poems offer insights that we can connect to as “people like us.” No, I don’t pretend to understand what racism feels like, and I have never experienced that kind of hate. But, I can relate to the fear of losing my job, not having enough to eat,  having my intelligence questioned, the power of faith, and the thrill of spending time playing with my friends.

Jackie RobinsonSharon is the daughter of Jackie Robinson, the man who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1946. The book opens with Jackie Robinson sliding into home during the 1955 World Series, but the heart of the story is Jackie the Dad, raising his family on a 6-acre spread in Stamford, Connecticut. It is a snapshot of Sharon’s life growing up, centered around a lake that bordered their property. In the summer Sharon, her brothers, and their friends, who were white, would swim in the lake; in the winter, the lake froze. Before they could go skating on the lake, the kids needed someone to test the ice to make sure it was safe. That job fell to Jackie Robinson, a man who could not swim and was afraid of the water. (image credit: Kadir Nelson website)

Kadir Nelson’s images keep the emphasis at a personal level, even when Jackie told his baseball story. “[My friends] asked questions in ways we never thought to ask.” I wish there were more images of the kids’ expressions available on the web … their expressions when listening to Jackie or pleading for his help so they can go ice skating are captured wonderfully. Although the kids had not personally experienced racism, they recognized courage, reminding us that it transcends color and comes in many forms.

Ntozake Shange also captures bravery in We Troubled the Waters, her collection of 16 poems that blends personal stories with poetic tributes to key people and events from the Civil Rights Movement.  The juxtaposition of poems “Cleaning Gal,” about a mother who can’t afford to quit her job scrubbing floors, with “Where I Live,” a child’s description of living in an overcrowded house, is effective. The stories are made even more poignant by the poems about segregation and fighting for equal rights.

Rod Brown’s illustrations are vivid and give you a sense of humanity – the woman on her hands and knees scrubbing, two black boys standing between two water fountains, with the taller boy pointing to the one marked “colored” – not just the heroes (portraits of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.).

Both of these picture books “take place” during the time collectively described as the Civil Rights Movement. They offer us perspectives into “how things were” and include vignettes about famous people of the time.  But they are built around personal stories of the not-so-famous. People we recognize in ourselves and in our communities even today. These books remind  us that courage, perseverance, and family transcend color, time, and age, and defy a single, simple definition.

Of the two, Testing the Ice is the more accessible story. It gives you a sense of the time, but it’s a family story. We Troubled the Waters doesn’t stray from the people and events of the Civil Rights Movement. The poems give voice to the feelings and describe the events and people beautifully. Brown’s images illustrate the violence – the opening spread on the credits page is a man lying face down in the mud; later, there is an illustration of black men hanging from trees. While relevant and tastefully done, they may be too much for young children.

Ntozake ShangeWe Troubled the Waters
written by Ntozake Shange
illustrated by Rod Brown
published by Amistad and Collins, Imprints of HarperCollins Publishing, 2009

Testing the Ice: A True Story About Jackie Robinson
written by Sharon Robinson
illustrated by Kadir Nelson
Scholastic Press, 2009

8 responses to “Book Talk: Testing the Ice by Sharon Robinson and We Troubled the Water by Ntozake Shange

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  1. I thought "Testing the Ice" was a sweetheart of a book as well – and showed how someone so famous for being brave still had his own (much smaller) demons to conquer. It made me love Jackie Robinson even more (something I didn't think was possible) and I just thought the whole book was so well done. My son really enjoyed it as well. It's a great personal story that transcends racism, baseball, and superstardom.

    I'm so glad to see you giving it some love here!

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