Mmf. Baseball. Symbolic sports of its ilk get all the good press when it comes to children's books. Tiki Barber books aside, if I were to place odds I'd have to say that a full 50% of kids books about sports concentrate on baseball. After all, its fans are inclined to view a regular game as nothing short of epic. Men in a field. Duking it out under a blazing sun. The intermingling of strength and smarts. Yeah. So basically baseball bores me to tears. I'll sit in on a game anytime you like, but that's just as something to pass the time doing. So when I pick up a book like "You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?!" I'm looking at it the same way any bored nine-year-old might. I place it on my lap and yell at it, "Okay, book! Impress me! Make me care!" It's a tall order. Lesser books have scuffled their feet and slunk away from the challenge. And for all that the cover of this book is a holographic wonder, I wasn't gonna let some pretty Johnny-come-lately charm me into thinking it was any good right off the bat. You want my love? Thrill me. And darned if Jonah Winter throws that request right back in my face. He's taken Sandy Koufax, a guy I've only vaguely heard mentioned before alongside the word "Dodgers", and has woven a tale of becoming the best through time, effort, and grotesquely swollen limbs. So I am telling you here and now that if you have a kid that loves baseball, or a kid that couldn't care less, whatever the case may be this is the book for them. You never heard of Sandy Koufax? Get ready to.
He was just a Jewish kid from Brooklyn, really. Growing up he seemed to be good at every sport he did, but when it came to pitching that Koufax kid was something else. Before long he was hired by the Dodgers and trying to earn his keep. The problem? He wasn't the world's greatest pitcher. "He could throw strikes, but mostly he was nowhere near the strike zone." Even after the Dodgers moved to L.A. he wasn't quite living up to his potential. After the 1960 season he left, even going so far as to throw away his outfit. Fortunately for everyone, when spring training rolled around he was back and in a preseason game against the twins he gave a powerhouse performance. Really let 'em fly. After that, no one could stop him and when he retired young he was a legend in his own right. As the book says, "Who was Sandy Koufax? Sandy Koufax was a guy who finally relaxed enough to let his body do the one thing it was put on this earth to do. And what a thing of beauty that was." A glossary of baseball terms and information on the statistics in this book appear at the end.
You might be wondering how it is that I feel I'm qualified to review this book since I have, right from the start, admitted that I'm a baseball naïf. Well, I'll tell ya. I know me some baseball fans. The kinds of people who will tell you breathlessly where they were when such n' such a game played at such n' such a time. The kinds who know the story of Sandy Koufax inside, outside, and upside down. And you know what? They like this book. Boy howdy yeah do they. One adamant fan told me that she was particularly interested in the mention of the time when Sandy sat out the first game of the 1965 World Series because it fell on a Jewish High Holy Day. Now as she pointed out to me, Sandy wasn't observant. So if Mr. Winter had gone about saying that Sandy did it because he wanted to observe the day just as he always had, that would have been a bit of a stretching of the old truth there. Instead, Winter tells it like it is. "Sandy sits out the game to show he's proud to be Jewish." There you go. Open and shut case.
Sandy Koufax may have been the strikeout king of baseball, but if you ask me Jonah Winter's the current strikeout king of the non-fiction picture book set. Examine this man's 2009 year alone. This guy's juggling a bio of Sandy Koufax alongside one of Gertrude Stein ("Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude") with enough time to spare to give a tip of the hat to, of all people, Gilbert and Sullivan ("The Fabulous Feud Of Gilbert And Sullivan"). No two books sound alike. No two books look alike. Really the only thing they have in common is that they're fabulous. The man's on fire and I'll level anybody that tries to put that fire out. Mind you, I would have liked to have seen a Bibliography at the back of the book in some way. Just something to tell me where Winter was getting his facts.
It important to me that the book doesn't show the entire life of Koufax from mewling babe to doddering old man. Instead you get the sense that you are seeing his whole life, when in fact Winter has cleverly limited himself to pretty much only identifying that moment in Koufax's life where everything changed. That single pinpoint in time when he went from mediocre to legendary. Not everyone has that moment, and when you find someone who does it's probably all a writer can do not to put pen to paper and talk about it nonstop. The book is also written in an easygoing, seemingly off-hand style. It reads like a conversation you might have with a friend at a party. It's not hokey, and it sure isn't folksy either. Just . . . comfortable. You are inclined to trust the narrator, even if you've never met him before. And kids reading this book will find in it an exceedingly accessible tale of a brand new (which is to say, quite old) hero.
As for illustrator Andre Carrilho, I'm sure I've seen his work in various magazines and newspapers around the country. But the first time he really caught my eye was when he illustrated Patricia McKissack's "Porch Lies: Tales of Slicksters, Tricksters, and other Wily Characters." In that book Carrilho's style was stretched, pulled, and rounded out to accommodate the tallest of very tall tales. "You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?!" may prove to be a more natural fit for Carrilho though. After all, he's made a name for himself doing caricature. How much more of a stretch is it really, then, when he portrays real historical figures in a child-friendly non-fiction manner? And while the characters in "Porch Lies" looked fine within their context, there's an air of authenticity around these "Sandy Koufax" folks. Sandy himself is portrayed as a lithe fellow with permanently squinting eyes and thick luscious eyebrows. These eyebrows do much of the work, indicating with a tweak or a curl whether or not Koufax is feeling particularly downtrodden or focused at any given moment.
Random House also apparently wasn't feeling the pinch of the economic downturn when they filled this book to brimming with gold and movement. The cover, as I may have mentioned before, moves. Turn it this way and Sandy's throwing a pitch. Turn it another way and he's straightening up again. The interior spreads are also laced with gold. It's what would happen if Demi ever got obsessed with baseball, I guess. Actually the first time you notice it is when you first open the book to find a mock pair of baseball cards on the endpapers. It's subtle, but Sandy's glove is a golden hue, as is the "Los Angeles, Dodgers" part of the image. Turn another page and the gold hits you upside the head, highlighting a single baseball glove and a signed Sandy Koufax ball nesting inside. A look through the book reveals other colors as well, and they all fit the mood of a given page. The spread showing the major league scouts contains dark reds and a blue cloud-shot sky. Ebbets Field cranks up the blue, highlighting the red lines of Sandy's new outfit. From there on it it's all blues, reds, and golds. From the riot of red coming off of Sandy standing on the mound to the golden sand of a given ball field, Carrilho uses his colors judiciously and in keeping with the mood of each scene.
And I haven't even mentioned the early 1960s authenticity of the furniture, clothing, and hair. Or the seemingly effortless design that constantly manages to integrate the words with the pictures in such a way that to remove one or the other would be to render the entire project moot. In form, in function, and in sheer fun "You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?!" is a class act from start to finish. It is everything a biography for a young reader should be. This is a book that declares loud and proud that the people working on it cared about what they were doing. We would consider ourselves lucky if other books do half so much. A must read.
on December 4, 2015
As a born and raised Brooklyn Dodger fan… whose family actually moved from New York to Los Angeles the same year as the Dodgers… and being Jewish… Sandy Koufax was one of my idols. He not only became the greatest pitcher in all of baseball during my lifetime… but he was an unmatched Jewish role model. When Sandy wouldn’t pitch in the biggest games of the year if they fell on the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah as well as Yom Kippur)… it was a lesson to all Jewish youth. As I was a pitcher myself with good success in Little League… Babe Ruth League… American Legion… as a young teenager… one of my big games fell on the High Holidays. Being young… and unworldly… I started to say I should be allowed to pitch… but my tough little 5’ 2” Brooklyn Mother… (I am 6’2”)… snarled at me… and said: “IF IT’S GOOD ENOUGH FOR KOUFAX… IT’S GOOD ENOUGH FOR YOU!!! YOU AIN’T PITCHING!” To this day… fifty years later… I’m glad my Mom said what she said. (Note: Full disclosure: There was one more word in my Mother’s declaration… that I’m leaving out to make sure that my review makes it past the censors!)
This elegantly designed short “children’s” book… presents Sandy’s story from start to finish… and in a very easy to read format… tells of Sandy’s rise from a young bonus-baby… whose fastball could beat an intercontinental ballistic missile in a race… but couldn’t hit the side of a barn from 60-feet-six-inches away… to his having the greatest consecutive five-year pitching string in the history of Major League Baseball. Being that my oldest Granddaughter is ten-years-old… my son and I have been discussing the best… most sensitive way… to discuss with her… and prepare her for… the anti-Semitism… that has existed… and continues to exist in the world today. When I came across this book… and saw that it handles it in such a gentle way… I immediately saw that combining our families love for the Dodgers…and my Granddaughter’s love of baseball and the Dodgers… that this book would be a perfect starting point to ease it into her growing life-view.
Being that I was born in Brooklyn… and my Grandkids have made comments about my “accent” (hey… whatcha tawking about… accent?) … and the fact that the book is narrated with a Brooklyn accent makes it near perfect for my son and I’s goals. Also… since I’m an old-time-old-school-stat-freak… there are also just enough statistics lightly sprinkled throughout… to be able to make verifiable points… that my Granddaughter will be able to use down the road… when the inevitable… unavoidable… baseball arguments … with the “enemy”… come up.
There are no actual pictures in the book… just… what I would describe as… large “pop” art drawings… that help to give a unique… feel… to a very unique overall package. I am very grateful that I came across this distinctive book. As I finish writing this review… I’m trying to think of something special to write to my Granddaughter on the inside cover… as I can only hope that this book will one day be shared with her children.
on February 25, 2009
Children's book are always fun for me to read - partially because they give my brain a needed rest, but more importantly because we need to keep the younger generations connected to the game to make sure they're made aware of what a great game baseball is and will be fans for life.
Hitting stores this past Tuesday is You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?! by Jonah Winter and illustrated by Andre Carrilho, a book that I'm told is geared towards children ages 4-9.
One of the ways I try and judge children's books is by how good they sound out loud, and that's where I started to sense that I might not like this one.
First, the text of the book seems a bit advanced for 4-9 year olds. Now I know that kids are getting smarter and smarter all the time - I know 5 year olds that can text message for crying out loud - but this seems like it would be lost on a lot of kids.
To get a different opinion on the matter, I asked my girlfriend to read the book - she works with kids of all ages at a local tutoring center, and she concurred that the book would be geared to a bit older of an audience, maybe 9-11 year olds.
If anything, I consider that a credit to Jonah Winter, who has authored several other children's books, including three other baseball-related titles. The book doesn't read particularly well in my opinion, which isn't a bad thing - it just means it's not necessarily geared to the younger set.
Told from the position of someone within the Dodger organization, although that person is never named, the story is a basic look at Koufax's early life and his yearswith the Dodgers, including his wild period before he became dominant, eventually moving onto his peak years and early retirement. Something that got a significant amount of attention in the book, to the point I think its worth mentioning is that Koufax was Jewish. Koufax was certainly known for being Jewish, even missing a start in the World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur, a Jewish high holy day on which work was prohibited. While I certainly welcome religion into the discussion, I do wonder if it's something that most children would appreciate.
The book also brings in a good amount of statistics, which makes me think the target demo should be a bit older. When a children's book credits Baseball-Reference.com, as well as providing a glossary of baseball terms, I'm inclined to think that its readers should be a smidge older than 4-9.
The illustrations by Andre Carrilho are absolutely stunning - it made me think immediately of Kadir Nelson's We Are The Ship, which I reviewed a while back and found to be absolutely amazing, and one of my favorite books of 2008.
You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?! would make a good book for most adolescent baseball fans, probably in the 9-12 age range, and could be a great tool to foster discussion about some of baseball's greatest players. It's not quite as strong as I thought it might be, but it does have some good things going for it, including gorgeous illustrations and the ability to help transition younger fans into more knowledgable students of the game.
I have to be honest and say that I REALLY had never heard of Sandy Koufax before reading this book. I'm not a person that normally follows sports, but this book made me want to go and find out more about the man that made such a mark on American sports.
Jonah Winter was able to take this man and make him personal and also fascinating for sports lovers and those who just loved a great story of success. Everything from the illustrations to the way the story was written was just perfect, not just for young people but for adults as well.
Entertaining, engaging and very educational, this is one book that I must ensure more hear about.
on January 17, 2010
Sandy Koufax will always be known as the left-handed Jewish pitcher that did not play in the first game of the 1965 World Series because it was Yom Kippur. But his career entailed hard work and dedication, facing anti-Semitism, and knowing when to retire. Koufax's rise from a Jewish boy in Brooklyn to one of the all-time greats of baseball as a Los Angeles Dodger is told through a narrator associated with the team.
The conversational style is accessible to young readers, and the excitement and respect builds through the narration. Koufax's story will hold the attention of non-baseball fans and non-Jews. The illustrations are magnificent--the contrast of colors and the motion of the players bring the story to life without overwhelming the text. Thank you for a glossary with baseball terms explained clearly enough for a non-fan to appreciate Koufax's statistics. - KATHE PINCHUCK - CLIFTON, NJ
Sandy was a Jewish kid that grew up in Brooklyn. He was one of those kids who was fabulous at any sport he tried, including baseball, and rumor had it that he could "throw as hard as a pro." It wasn't long before scouts came down to see what this whippersnapper was all about. When Al Campanis invited him to join the Brooklyn Dodgers his answer was faster than his pitch.
His pitching was wild and crazy, but his personality wasn't. Now Sandy Koufax was a guy that could make a church mouse sound loud. Even though Don Drysdale and Don Newcombe tried to get him to relax, he still couldn't manage it. At the end of the season he got so disgusted he took his uniform and chucked it right in the trash and "says nothin' to nobody, just leaves. Quitsville." He eventually became the "greatest lefty who ever pitched in the game of baseball," but how did he make a comeback from being a guy who couldn't even control his pitches?
This book has a lot of panache and the first person point of view, spoken with a Brooklyn accent, makes this brief baseball biography much more interesting. The full color lenticular cover has a moving illusion of Koufax throwing a strike when you move the book. Sidebars with baseball information and stats are scattered through the book and a concise glossary of baseball terms is in the back.
on October 28, 2010
I am a huge Koufax fan and was looking forward to this book because of the positive amazon reviews. But it is odd, and not in such a good way. The drawings are unusual, and not in such a good way. Abstract, but not successfully so. And the text is just so-so. I wish it were otherwise. There is a feel for Koufax's gentleness in some of the text, but the artwork makes him appear to be a brute.
on June 26, 2009
This picture book for older readers tells the story of famed Jewish baseball pitcher Sandy Koufax. Narrated by a fictional, unseen, "old-timer" who played alongside Koufax on the Dodgers, the book mentions few details of his life either before or after his major league career. The narrator tells his tale in an exaggerated Brooklyn accent, full of slang, grammar mistakes, and mispronunciations. (Examples: "Back when Koufax was a kid, growin' up Jewish in Brooklyn, no one woulda guessed what he was about to become." And, "He don't look worried.") The striking illustrations are caricature like cartoon drawings mainly in shades of gray and metallic gold, with some red and blue highlights that will surely appeal to children. The eye-catching cover was designed by a special process with three different images imprinted on plastic so that it appears to be moving. The book mentions that Koufax was sometimes the target of anti-Semitic comments, and retells the well-known incident when he refused to pitch the first game in the 1965 World Series on Yom Kippur because, "if you're Jewish, you ain't supposed to work on a High Holy Day." Details of Koufax's career will be of interest to baseball fans, and the book's message of persevering in spite of failure is an inspiring one. But, it's hard to imagine this book appealing to a child who doesn't already have a fascination for sports history or baseball statistics. Recommended for ages 7-11. Hillary Zana
"You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?!"
Written by Jonah Winter
Illustrated by Andre Carrilho
(Swartz & Wade Books, 2009)
This is a great book for sports-minded kids, especially baseball fanatics... Personally, I'm not much of a sports fan, but I found this biographical picturebook about pitcher Sandy Koufax to be pretty engrossing... Koufax, one of the first Jewish players to crack into major league baseball, was a flop in his first few years playing for the Dodgers... Then suddenly he caught fire, and was one of the hottest players of the 1960s. Just as suddenly, he decided to quit professional baseball, and abruptly retired, leaving behind one of the best pitching records in the game. This book tells his story, told in the working-class voice of one of his teammates, accompanied by wildly stylish, almost avant-garde artwork from Portugal's Andre Carrilho, whose rubbery lines snap with kinetic motion. The book is also laced with statistics-laden sidebars, the kind of thing that true sports buffs love. This first edition also features gold gilt ink throughout an a dazzling holographic-motion cover (which I doubt will be included in future editions... ) All in all, a classy package -- a perfect present for a budding baseball fan. (Joe Sixpack, ReadThatAgain children's book reviews)
on December 26, 2012
There aren't that many baseball books in print for kids. I got this for my 9 year old grandson, who is a pitcher. Im sure he'll like it. I'm just grateful there is anything out there.