On July 4, 1910, Texas-born Jack “Black Jack” Johnson became the first black heavyweight champion of the world when he easily defeated James J. Jeffries in a match in Reno. One hundred years later, the story of this dedicated, charismatic, and complex boxer unfolds in Black Jack: The Ballad of Jack Johnson by Charles R. Smith, Jr., who won a Coretta Scott King Award for illustration for My People and Coretta Scott King Honors for Twelve Rounds to Glory: The Story of Muhammad Ali. Illustrated with collage art by Shane W. Evans, Black Jack was recently released by Roaring Brook Press’s Neal Porter Books and received three starred pre-publication reviews, including one from PW.
The seed of Black Jack was planted while Smith was researching Twelve Rounds to Glory. “Comparisons between Muhammad Ali and Jack Johnson kept popping up, and he intrigued me,” the author explains. “And then in a bit of serendipity, I discovered that Ken Burns had done a documentary on Johnson, entitled Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, which I found very inspiring. So I decided to do this book and used Burns’s film as a primary reference.”
A man who wore expensive clothes and drove sporty cars, Johnson had no use for anyone who treated him poorly because of the color of his skin, and he served time in prison after being arrested for dating a woman outside of his race. Asked about the challenges of writing about an individual who may not be a typical role model for children, Smith recalls the advice of Candlewick’s Karen Lotz, the editor of Twelve Rounds to Glory.
“Karen told me that in biographies we have to show the flaws to appreciate the beauty, which was one of the best pieces of advice I ever received from an editor,” he says. “I kept that in mind with Black Jack. Writing a biography for children, I knew it was important to focus on things that Johnson had in common with the readers, to focus on him having a dream as a young person and going on to achieve that dream.”
Smith knew immediately that he would write Black Jack in verse. “This was a poem from the start, since I wanted to make it the opposite of Twelve Rounds to Glory, which was thorough and in-depth,” he says. “I loved writing that book, but I didn’t want to repeat myself, so I went in the opposite direction and told Black Jack’s story as simply as possible, taking advantage of newspaper quotes to allow the story to progress without going into too much detail.”
The book benefited from a second instance of serendipity. When Smith, who lives in Poughkeepsie, was visiting Kansas City to speak at schools, he got together with Evans, a resident of that city. “He’s been a buddy of mine for a long time,” Smith says. “We started talking about different projects, and I mentioned the book I was working on. He told me that he’d also been wanting to do something about Johnson. I said that I’d been working on the book for years and had just got the manuscript where I wanted it to be, and he said he’d take a look-see. And he loved it.”
“The world of children’s book authors and illustrators is small if you make it so, and we’ve been in touch for years, bouncing ideas off one another,” says Evans of his relationship with Smith. “We’d been looking for a space to work together, and found it when we discovered that we’d both been thinking of doing a book about Jack.”
In visual terms, Smith had originally envisioned Black Jack as a black-and-white silent movie, given the story’s era. “That was my original concept, and that’s how the story was written,” he says. “I saw black backgrounds, with white lettering, and line drawings with very little color.”
Evans tweaked that concept somewhat. “I gravitated to the silent movie idea immediately, since I appreciate the design of those films, which have a great simplicity to them,” he says.” “But I also knew that in these modern days, kids need more visual stimuli. I used a quill pen dipped in ink and used swatches of oil colors as well, which made the book feel more like a colorized film in a way. I was conscious of the palette I gave it.” Evans also integrated period maps, photos, and newspaper clippings into his collages.
Neal Porter, who is editorial director of his eponymous imprint, was immediately drawn to the book because he was familiar with Johnson’s story. “The subject intrigued me personally, since when I was about 12 years old I saw The Great White Hope on Broadway,” he explains. That play, which won playwright Howard Sackler a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award and effectively launched James Earl Jones’s career, was a fictionalized version of Johnson’s life. “The image of Johnson stayed very much with me, but all I knew about him was from the play,” Porter says. “And when the manuscript arrived, I found it riveting. I love to tackle stories not conventionally thought of as children’s book stories, and this is certainly one of those.”
Porter was impressed by what he calls “the rhythm and cadence” of Smith’s text. “This is a great way to tell Johnson’s tale,” he notes. And he also praises Evans’s “amazing images, which give the book a vivid, poster-like look. I thought that was exactly the right way to convey the story.”
Smith, who has recently completed Song for Jimi, a biography of Jimi Hendrix, which Porter will also publish, is gratified by the early acclaim Black Jack has received. “I love the initial response, but what I want to see more than anything is for this book to have longevity, for it to become a staple of kids’ reading,” he says. “I’d like to think that this is a book that kids, especially boys, will use to write school reports—for many years.”
Black Jack: The Ballad of Jack Johnson by Charles R. Smith, Jr., illus. by Shane W. Evans. Roaring Brook /Porter, $16.99 June ISBN 978-1-59643-473-8