Sharon Robinson has written about her father, baseball icon and civil rights pioneer Jackie Robinson, in two books for adults: Promises to Keep: How Jackie Robinson Changed America and Jackie’s Nine: Jackie Robinson’s Values to Live By. In her debut picture book, Testing the Ice: A True Story About Jackie Robinson (Scholastic Press), the author introduces young readers to her beloved father by sharing a memory from her childhood. The book was illustrated by two-time Caldecott Honor artist and Coretta Scott King Award winner Kadir Nelson.
What was the actual event that inspired this book?
In 1955, my parents moved our family from New York City to Stamford, Connecticut, and on our property was a lake that was a source of all kinds of pleasure for us throughout the seasons. The first winter we lived there, my siblings and I wanted to go ice-skating and my mother said we could—as long as my father tested the ice first to make sure it was safe. He agreed to do that—with reluctance. As Kadir’s illustrations show, he was not smiling and was not happy. He was concerned but determined. You see, he couldn’t swim. But he tested the ice for us while we waited on the shoreline, ready to pass sleds along to him should he fall in.
Which luckily wasn’t necessary. You have said that Testing the Ice presents both a true story and a metaphor. How is it a metaphor?
I use this story about my father testing the ice as a metaphor for him breaking the color barrier in baseball. Both instances showed that he was a man of courage and a hero. In the case of testing the ice, he stepped out there even though he couldn’t swim. In the case of signing on to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers, he took a huge risk. In both cases, he showed his intrepid spirit.
Did you realize the significance of the testing-the-ice incident at the time?
No, as a child growing up I just remembered the anxiety of the moment—and of course the joy of actually being able to go ice-skating! Only over time did I make the connection between his actions that day and breaking the color barrier in baseball. This was a favorite childhood memory and a story I always told whenever someone asked me what my father was really like.
And how did you decide to write a picture book about this family memory?
Well, I knew I wanted to tell this story, and I also knew I wanted Kadir to help me tell it. I knew his bold art would do the story justice and help tell it in the best way. I had seen his art over the years and really admired it. I had asked him to illustrate the covers of my two children’s novels, Safe at Home and Slam Dunk!, and got to know him through that process. Then we met up at the National Book Festival dinner in Washington in 2007 and I said, “Can we do a picture book together?” and he agreed.
Was the story easier to write, knowing that Kadir Nelson would be creating the art?
Yes. I felt secure knowing the art would well match—maybe even exceed—the story and it was a joy to write it knowing what was coming next, in terms of his exceptional art. I was lucky, since I realize that many authors don’t have that same close connection to the illustrator.
So it’s safe to assume that you were pleased with his graphic interpretation of your father’s accomplishments, on and off the baseball diamond?
Oh, yes. He absolutely got it right. I appreciate that more and more as I present the book to children and I see their faces as they look at the art. Before Kadir started the illustrations, I sent him quite a few family photos and he said, “Send me more!” Then he asked me for the street address of our house in Stamford so he could find it on Google Earth, to see exactly what the lake looks like. And he was really able to capture my father’s personality. His spirit definitely comes through.
Was writing a picture book a different challenge than writing a middle-grade novel, or writing for adults?
Definitely. I had to convert a fabulous memory into an event that is happening at the moment. There I was again as a five-year-old experiencing the incident for the first time. It took me a while to transfer to that way of thinking, but once I did, I loved being in the moment with the story.
Do you have any more picture books in the works, and if so are they autobiographical?
Oh, yes—I’ve already written two more! Jackie’s Gift is the story of my parents’ move to a Jewish neighborhood in New York City in 1948, told through the eyes of a Jewish boy who views my father as his hero. This will be published next year by Viking, with art by E.B. Lewis. And I’ve also written a story about celebrating my mother’s 85th birthday in Tanzania, where my brother and his wife live with their seven children. It’s a lovely story about how families manage to maintain close contact over great distances. It will be published by Scholastic, but the illustrator is still under discussion.
I’m also working on my third novel in the series about Jumper, the character from Safe at Home and Slam Dunk!
Does that story also have a sports theme?
Yes, but as in the earlier novels, sports are secondary to the personal relationships and to what the kids are dealing with. In the first novel, Jumper dealt with huge changes in his life, in the second he soared and brought himself to new levels of confidence, and in the new book he deals with failure. I would say that my most poignant letters from readers come from children who say, “I am Jumper.” That is very gratifying.
And what message do you hope Testing the Ice will drive home to young readers?
Be brave, step beyond your comfort zone, and take risks—though measured risks. Whether it is tackling math problems or writing an essay, don’t run from your fears. Deal with them. And I’d also like to make kids realize that Jackie Robinson was not just a great baseball player, but a very loving father. He was a hero, not just in public, but at home too.
Testing the Ice: A True Story About Jackie Robinson by Sharon Robinson, illus. by Kadir Nelson. Scholastic Press, $16.99 Oct. ISBN 978-0-545-05251-1