Two intrepid librarians

Two intrepid librarians review the best nonfiction books for children

Saturday, June 24, 2023

Contenders: Two Native Baseball Players, One World Series

Contenders: Two Native Baseball Players, One World Series
by Traci Sorell
illustrated by Arigon Starr
Kokila, 2023
Grades 2 and up

This nonfiction picture book highlights two Native baseball players who competed on opposing teams in the 1911 World Series. The narrative begins with a play-by-play of the action with John Meyers (Cahuilla) at bat for the New York Giants and Charles Bender (Ojibwe) pitching for the Philadelphia Athletics in Game One. However, this is not just a sports story about two talented players. It's about the history being made when "the first two citizens of Native Nations" play against each other in a baseball championship. It's also a story about the racism and disrespect Meyers and Bender encountered from the press, other players, managers, and the public during their careers in the Major Leagues.

After the World Series action, the story then turns to the childhood of Charles, who grew up on the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota and John who lived on a Cahuilla reservation in Southern California. Both boys showed a talent for playing baseball and followed different paths before becoming professional baseball players. Through the story, readers will learn about how Native children were sent away to boarding schools and forced to assimilate to the culture of Christian white people. Charles met Pop Warner at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. Warner will be a familiar name to many readers.

Starr's realistic style illustrations are hand-drawn and digital based on archival photos. Frames and borders are effectively placed around illustrations to replicate photographs and baseball cards. Cahuilla and Ojibwe designs are beautifully incorporated into the illustrations throughout the book. Sorell brings the story to a close by pointing out that Native athletes today still face the same challenges with "derogatory chants" and "racist team mascots."

Contenders conveys the excitement of a sports story, the narrative style of a biography, and the difficult truths about the discrimination and mistreatment of Native people in the United States both past and present. It will capture the attention of sports enthusiasts, but it should be shared with a wider audience to educate children about the injustices Native athletes have faced in the past and still face in the U.S. today.

Listen to Traci Sorell and Arigon Starr discuss Contenders in this NPR interview.

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