cover image Black Jack: The Ballad of Jack Johnson

Black Jack: The Ballad of Jack Johnson

Charles R. Smith, Jr., illus. by Shane. W. Evans, Roaring Brook/Porter, $16.99 (40p) ISBN 978-1-59643-473-8

Jack Johnson was the first black fighter to win a heavyweight championship. The prospect of losing to a black man so worried reigning champion Jim Jeffries that, rather than fight Johnson, he retired; after Jeffries's successor lost to Johnson, public goading forced Jeffries out of retirement, whereupon Johnson defeated him, too. Smith (Twelve Rounds to Glory: The Story of Muhammad Ali) tells Johnson's story in loose-limbed verse, establishing Jack as a complex, driven man before laying the fact of his race and its consequences before readers. The word is like a slap: "Behind the wheel of his car/ Jack was just Jack,/ but everywhere else,/ Jack was just black." Evans (Olu's Dreams) draws forms that press forward out of the pages, big masses of muscle and glove barely held in by skinny inked lines. The scenes are static, tense; more action is in the typography. As the story gathers speed like a freight train, the letters shout in uppercase, marching across the page. A rousing story, one that celebrates Johnson's dignity, pride, and determination. Ages 5–8. (July)