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A review of The Magical Imperfect and an Interview with Author Chris Baron

THE MAGICAL IMPERFECT

by Chris Baron

(Feiwel & Friends; $16.99, Ages 9-12)

 

A Book Review, and Interview with Author Chris Baron

by Karol Silverstein

 

 

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Starred Review – Booklist

 

REVIEW:

In The Magical Imperfect, Etan has had trouble speaking since his mother checked into a hospital to get well, and his friends at school don’t know what to make of his silence. Baseball is about the only thing he can share with his father, but luckily, 1989 is looking like a good year for their Giants. Spending time with his immigrant grandfather, a shopkeeper in the local village, is much easier for Etan. Though his family is Jewish, their small hometown north of San Francisco is home to many refugees from various countries, so he’s exposed to many different cultures.

On an errand to deliver items for one of his grandfather’s fellow shopkeepers, Etan meets Malia, a girl who has severe eczema and began being homeschooled when the bullying at the local school became too much. These two outcast kids have an instant connection and build a moving friendship. Etan’s grandfather has a small supply of clay from “the old country,” which is supposed to have curative properties. Could the clay possibly cure Malia’s eczema? Etan wonders. Malia has tried many medicines and “cures” and is more interested in connecting with and learning from the nature that surrounds her, particularly the trees. Malia also dreams of singing in the town’s talent contest—unthinkable before she met Etan. As the talent show—and the World Series—draw closer, Malia practices her performance with Etan’s encouragement and Etan secures some of his grandfather’s “magic clay,” hoping it will help a particularly bad eczema outbreak Malia is experiencing. If only the scary tremors would let up…

As was the case in author Chris Baron’s 2019 debut All Of Me, the gentle unfolding of character and emotion through evocative verse is again on full display in The Magical Imperfect. The juxtaposition of Etan and Malia’s small tremors of growth with San Francisco’s devastating 1989 earthquake provides a potent metaphor for how life can shake you up but not necessarily knock you down. I worried a little that this book might delve into “magical cure/disability that needs to be fixed” territory that hampers many books with disabled and/or chronically ill characters and can actually be harmful to that community. But I don’t think that’s the case here. Etan’s clay isn’t really the magic fix he’d hoped for, and I believe both kids come to realize that acceptance and small victories are, in the end, what matter most.

Ultimately, the intertwined themes of love, culture, baseball and just a touch of magic . . . or is it faith? . . . make this a wonderful and wonder-filled read.

 

INTERVIEW:

Karol Silverstein: The Magical Imperfect is set around the time of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake. How and at what point in the writing process did you decide on that time period? What led to this decision?

Chris Baron: This is a great question with a very twisty-turny answer. Let me see if I can straighten it out enough. Just like in All of Me, this book takes place in the Bay Area, where I went to middle school. This place is just a part of me. The setting lives in my heart—from the ocean to the redwoods and beyond.  I’d experienced earthquakes before, but somehow this one, in the middle of the World Series seemed to disrupt life in such an unpredictable and deep way. This story is all about the ways in which life is disrupted for the people in the story in unexpected ways by things that are beyond their control. Something as a big as an earthquake is terrifying, but it also has a chance to bring people together.

 

Karol: Baseball, music, food, and cultural traditions are wonderfully intertwined in your book. Can you talk about how you worked with these themes to tell Etan’s story?

Chris: Intertwined is actually a beautiful word for this. I think all of these things are intertwined in the story. When we hear a song, we feel the beat and hum the melody. We can remember the words no matter how long it’s been. Not only that, if the song has a special meaning to us, the music and the lyrics come together to fuel the memories that bind us together. I think it’s the same with cultural and sacred traditions, (which of course include food). The traditions, the tastes, the people—they become intertwined in who we are. They connect us. Even though Etan and Malia are from different cultures, and even though traditions might look different, they find that their values are actually intertwined.

As for baseball: Baseball is its own tradition—a symbol, an activity played at every level, and just a very fun game. For so many of us, baseball represents normal life, but it’s powerful enough to bring so many kinds of people together. For Etan, baseball is one of the only ways he can connect with his father. When things get tough, they at least can talk about baseball.

In 1989, when a unifying tradition like the world series was shaken by an earthquake, it caused many of us to feel scared and uneasy, but the quake also brought many people together. I tried to weave that into the backdrop of the story. There is so much news coverage from that day, and it’s fascinating to watch. I wanted to explore what it would be like for this close-knit town to experience this event together. I also have to confess that writing poetry about the earthquake was all-consuming. I think I wrote one hundred pages of “moments’ from the quake, but of course only a few made it into the book.

 

Karol: Both Etan and Malia have health conditions. What drew you to create characters with selective mutism and eczema, respectively? If you don’t have personal experience with these conditions, what type of research did you do?

Chris: Great question. I have the deepest respect and empathy for those of us who live with these health conditions. Both selective mutism and eczema are extremely complex.

I wrote about the life of an artist’s family quite a bit in All of Me. But there was one behavior that Ari didn’t express that Etan does in The Magical Imperfect. In the book, Etan stops speaking when his mother has to leave because of her severe depression. He didn’t choose it. His anxiety came on suddenly, and like most kids his age (and especially in 1989), he doesn’t know how to recognize it. In Etan, I am writing a character I know well—someone who suffers from anxiety. Because my mom is an artist, we moved all the time. Whenever I moved to a new town, a new state, a new school, I may have seemed calm on the outside, but inside of me was a storm of emotions: There was always joy and excitement of moving to a new place, new friends, new adventures, but of course it was all mixed together with the brutal pain of being taken out of one life (routine, friendships, and environment), and then suddenly dropped into another. I suffered from anxiety. I didn’t know how I would fit. For a kid, it can be a complete loss of control. Often, the way I reacted to this loss of control was to find something I could control. It was sometimes eating, but it was also something quieter. I found myself often unable to speak, so I embraced that. I stopped talking at school. I was quiet. I kept all my words to myself. Eventually, I found friends and teachers I could trust who helped me through it, and slowly the words came out.

Eczema is very complicated. Most people have rashes that itch, but as my wife Ella deCastro Baron explains it, she has itches that rash. Ella has had extreme eczema off and on her whole life. Her memoir, Itchy Brown Girl Seeks Employment (2012) is all about a life lived with eczema. When we first got married, she had eczema that ravaged her body from head to toe. The triggering effects of the condition caused so many secondary problems: depression, insomnia, isolation, and hopelessness. If you know Ella, then you know that she is a luminous, hilarious person full of life. Watching her deal with chronic bouts of eczema has been some of the hardest parts of our life together (and still are at times). In The Magical Imperfect, Malia experiences a similar bout of eczema. It’s so bad that she is isolated from school because of the way other kids treat her and because of her own discomfort.

The healing process for both of these conditions is not simple magic. In each case, it’s a complex journey, but the hope itself leads to moments of magic that provide joy and healing from the most unexpected places.  That’s a big part of what I explored in the book.

I also want to note. Even though these conditions are integrated into my own life, I did more research than I expected. I know that these conditions vary from person to person, so I talked to many. I interviewed doctor friends about both subjects, and a few others who have firsthand experiences with these conditions. I also read Christina Collins’s stunning book, After Zero which I highly recommend.

 

Karol: The “magic” in your book is very much left up to your readers’ interpretation. Can you discuss what role you feel magic plays in helping Etan and Malia get to a better place emotionally by story’s end?

Chris: I know one thing I hope readers don’t take away—the idea that magic is some sort of cure for everything. Without too many spoilers, I would say that the magic in the story connects the many worlds of the characters. There is ancient magic from the worlds more connected to Etan’s grandfather and the other immigrants in town, but also hidden everywhere. This is the part I had the most fun writing. I think the magic is crucial for Etan and Malia—not because it cures things—but because it provides hope and makes it tangible in their everyday lives. The story is rooted in the idea that magic is all around us—that if we might only stop and listen—pay attention—we will see and hear the trees, or discover the ancient things living right beside us.

But also—I love trees—and I know that they are made of magic.

 

AUTHOR BIO:

Chris Baron is the author of the middle-grade novels in verse, ALL OF ME and THE MAGICAL IMPERFECT (2021) from Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan, a Junior Library Guild Selection. He is a Professor of English at San Diego City College and the director of the Writing Center. Learn more about him on Twitter: @baronchrisbaron, Instagram: @christhebearbaron, Facebook:  Chris Baron – Author, Poet, Educator, and on www.chris-baron.com.
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WHERE TO BUY THE BOOK:

Click here to purchase from Run For Cover Bookstore
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Click here to purchase from Mysterious Galaxy

 

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Middle Grade Nonfiction – Who Got Game?

 

WHO GOT GAME?:
Baseball – Amazing But True Stories

Written by Derrick Barnes

Illustrated by John John Bajet

(Workman Publishing; $12.95, Ages 8 and up)

 

 

 

Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus, School Library Journal

 

Of all the sports games I’ve ever attended, baseball ranks number one. In fact, before the pandemic, my family had plans to see the Quakes, our favorite minor league team, this summer. A few years ago we even visited the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown which I loved. Despite MLB’s shortened season, baseball remains America’s pastime and I’ve got the ideal book to read as a companion to catching the sport on TV: Who Got Game?: Baseball – Amazing But True Stories! written by Newbery Honor Winner Derrick Barnes and illustrated by John John Bajet.

Dig into a box of Cracker Jack or open a bag of peanuts to munch on as you read the book in either one sitting, or slowly (with many seventh inning stretches) to savor all the “unrecognized and unheralded figures and the untold stories that hold important spaces in baseball history.” If you’re a die-hard fan, you will easily devour every page. If you’re simply looking for some inspirational stories to feed your soul, you too will get your fill.

Who Got Game? is divided into four chapters with headings that immediately clue you in to the subject matter: “Pivotal Players,” “Sensational Stories,” “Radical Records,” and “Colossal Comebacks.” Read them in order or jump around depending on what strikes your fancy. After that, Barnes recommends you take note of what you learn, remember the people who stood out and their stories, “then tell everyone you meet!”

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Interior art from Who Got Game? written by Derrick Barnes and illustrated by John John Bajet, Workman Publishing ©2020.

Find out about Andrew “Rube” Foster, the father of the Negro Leagues in Chapter #1. All-Black baseball teams emerged in the 1860s, but they were unofficial and remained that for several decades. Foster noted that when the White players came to Texas and he would practice with them, they were organized and professional. He wanted the same thing for the Negro Leagues and so, in 1920, Foster, along with “seven owners of other all-Black teams, created the Negro National League (NNL).” In fact, in 1947 Jackie Robinson was playing for the Kansas City Monarchs, first part of the NNL, and then the NAL (Negro American League) before leaving to join the Major Leagues as the first Black player.

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Interior art from Who Got Game? written by Derrick Barnes and illustrated by John John Bajet, Workman Publishing ©2020.

In Chapter #2 (all the chapter numbers are cleverly located in a baseball graphic), you’ll be blown away by the story of 17-year-old Jackie Mitchell. Mitchell began learning baseball from the moment she could walk. Her dad taught her and then her neighbor, Charles “Dazzy” Vance, (an eventual Hall of Fame pitcher), took over. Not bad for a local coach! Her talent earned her a place on an all-girl team in Tennessee where she was spotted by a “big-time publicity guy” named Joe Engel. Engel “invited her to join his all-male team in a game that was the stuff of legend.” Imagine sitting in the stadium and seeing Babe Ruth come up to bat and, opposite him, at the pitcher’s mound, stands a teen-aged girl. Four pitches later he was out! She followed that by striking out another pro, Lou Gehrig, in just three pitches! No small feat when you’re up against two of baseball’s greats. Was this arranged? All three of the players involved never admitted to it, so we’ll never know. Regardless, it had to be a sight to see.

Bajet’s cartoon-style art has a nostalgic feel about it and helps ground every story shared. I especially liked the illustration of “Royals Legend George Brett and The Pine Tar Incident” and as a former New Yorker and Mets fan, I also loved the pictures of Roberto Clemente. Seven pages of useful back matter such as additional tips and resources, websites to explore and a glossary, complete the book.

There are lots more stories of unsung heroes, winners, losers, and all kinds of records broken and career comebacks to read about in this fabulous compendium that will make you appreciate the beloved game of baseball. Pick up a copy of Who Got Game? today while the season’s still on to enjoy each game, even more, knowing about all the amazing but true stories. “Holy cow!”

Click here for an Educator’s Guide.

  •  Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

Read a review of another book by Derrick Barnes here.

 

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Knuckleball Ned by R.A. Dickey with Michael Karounos & illustrated by Tim Bowers

Knuckleball Ned is reviewed by MaryAnne Locher.

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Knuckleball Ned by R.A. Dickey with Michael Karounos and illustrated by Tim Bowers, Dial Books for Young Readers, 2014.

What do you get when a Cy Young award-winning pitcher, best-selling author, father of four, and children’s literacy advocate teams up with a seasoned illustrator? A home run!

Knuckleball Ned by R.A. Dickey with Michael Karounos and illustrated by Tim Bowers (Dial Books for Young Readers, $17.99, Ages 3-5), tackles the always timely, tough subjects of bullying and self-acceptance in a way that preschoolers will relate to and understand. Bower’s colorful illustrations done in acrylic paint, opaque washes, and finished off with airbrushing achieve the rounded heads of the characters and lend humor to a serious subject.

The first day of school is about to start and Ned is nervous about making friends. You see, Ned has wobbled “for as long as he could remember.” He’s off to a bumpy start as he jiggle-joggles down the aisle of the bus, knocking into all the other balls. Sammy the Softball, by far the largest ball, offers Ned a seat and the two become fast friends.

When The Foul Ball Gang, a trio of rough and tumble bullies, cause nothing but trouble for Ned and his friends, Mrs. Pitch, their teacher, has her hands full juggling all the different types of balls in her classroom. Everyone seems to know what kind of ball they are, except for Ned. Besides Sammy, there are Fletcher and Fiona Fastball, Connie Curveball, and Ned, who has been cruelly dubbed a knucklehead by The Foul Ball Gang. When The Foul Ball Gang steals Connie’s shoes and tosses them high into a tree, all her friends attempt to help get the shoes down – unsuccessfully. All but Ned, that is. Sammy launches Ned off a seesaw and he sails seamlessly through the branches where he retrieves Connie’s shoes.

“Ned! I know about balls like you,” cried Connie. “You’re a knuckleball!”

Ned decides he loves being a knuckleball, especially when it allows him to save the day and be a hero.

This Tee Ball and Baseball season, why not pick up a copy of Knuckleball Ned? You’ll certainly score points with your little ones who perhaps will be entering school for the first time in the fall, discovering who they are and where they’ll fit in.

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Batter Up!

Take me out to the ball game, please!!

9781623700003Say hello to Good Night Baseball ($14.95, Capstone Young Readers, ages 4-7), a new Sports Illustrated Kids picture book from prolific children’s book author Michael Dahl with illustrations by Christina Forshay.

As spring training kicks off, Good Night Baseball provides the perfect play by play to introduce young fans and potential fans to this beloved American sport.  I got excited reading the rhyming text in anticipation of my family’s annual outing to see our favorite minor league team, the Quakes, based in Rancho Cucamonga, CA. Their home opener’s on April 4th. Be prepared for your kids to get in the mood for some serious snacking, too, when they see the tempting artwork. “We eat popcorn and hot dogs and hold drinks in our laps … with the names of our favorite teams bright on our caps.” Don’t forget the pretzels, peanuts and fries!

While the whole book is a lot of fun, my favorite part was when the little boy who is attending a ball game gets to go down on the field along with his dad and say, “Goodnight, diamond. Goodnight, grass. Goodnight, home plate where each runner ran past.”  Towards the end, in this quasi homage to Goodnight, Moon, Dahl’s book really shines as he describes the boy getting tired and ready to call it a night. We all know how exhausting watching a nine inning baseball game can be for youngsters and Forshay’s illustrations capture that mood with both the color changes on the last few pages and the look of pure contentment on the baseball fan’s sleepy face. Goodnight, baseball. Goodnight, baseball fan!

– Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

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Celebrate Black History Month with Baseball Great, Larry Doby

There was a time when even baseball was segregated. African Americans were not welcome on major league baseball teams; they played in the Negro League. That was until the late 1940s when baseball changed for good . . .

Jackie Robinson was the first black player in the major leagues, and Larry Doby was the first black man to play in the American League. His athletic accomplishments earned him spots in seven All-Star games, and in 1998 he was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Just as Good: How Larry Doby Changed America’s Game, ($16.99, Candlewick Press, ages 6 and up) written by Chris Crowe, is a great picture book about an African American boy and his dad, who really love baseball. When they hear the news that Larry Doby is going to play his very first game for the Cleveland Indians, they can’t concentrate on anything else. At home, they listen to the game on their brand new radio and celebrate every run. Throughout the story readers feel as though they are experiencing the anticipation of the game firsthand. At the back of the book are two pages of factual history and a one-page bibliography.

I love this book for several reasons. 1) It commemorates a monumental moment in black history. 2) The story is told with such a great deal of enthusiasm that the reader feels like he is actually living in the story. 3) The illustrations by Mike Benny are wonderful. 4) It’s about baseball, and that’s about as American as you can get.

Any child, or adult for that matter, who loves baseball will love this book and will learn something important about American history.

– Reviewed by Debbie Glade

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This baseball book is a hit

img_1766Here’s first time guest reviewer Nathan and his mom, JoAnn writing about something they both love, baseball. Nathan and my son have been on the same baseball team for the past three years. When I saw this book, it shouted Nathan’s name.

Wow! What a good read about a young man and his Grandpa. Oliver’s Game by Matt Tavares takes place in Chicago where the Chicago Cubs baseball team plays in season at the famous Wrigley Field. It is also the story about a boy who really likes the game of baseball much like our son Nathan feels about the game.

0763618527medIt was fun to read the book together, seeing Nathan get excited about the book and the story of a young boy liking the same sport he likes. The boy’s Grandpa, in the story, was such a huge baseball fan that he actually got to try out with the Cubs in 1945. However, the war broke out and he went to fight for his country, was wounded and then told he could never play baseball again. So, he went on with his life, had a family and opened this really neat store, “Hall’s Nostalgia” where he collected and kept memorabilia from over the years. His grandson found an old Cubs uniform (the uniform he got to keep from his tryout) that had the Cubs official logo and his Grandpa then told him the story of his big ‘tryout’ with the team just before wore broke out. Grandpa gave the uniform to his grandson because he could see this meant just as much to his grandson as it did to him when he tried out with the team back in 1945, the same year the Cubs made it to The World Series. Grandpa was proud to share and give this precious gift to his grandson. Even though Grandpa did not ever get to play for the Cubs, he knew then “the game of baseball was more than just the players on the field.” Everyone is a part of baseball, from the fans to the guys selling the hot dogs in the stands!

While reading this book with Nathan, I got tears in my eyes knowing some of the facts to be true. You see, my Dad was a massive Cubs fan and also fought in the war from 1942 through 1945 when it ended. I remember the stories my dad told me as a child about how he and his friends used to climb the back wall of Wrigley Field to sneak a peek at the game on the day when the Cubs (cubbies) were in town.

This special book was definitely a most enjoyable read for Nathan and me. The look on Nathan’s face was priceless as he read the book. The excitement created while reading about Oliver and his Grandpa is one not often found in books about baseball. It brought heartwaming smiles to my face as I recalled the stories told to me by my father.

Reading takes one into a whole other world, often emotional and educational and Nathan and I were overjoyed to have been on this journey together. We would certainly read more books by this author Matt Tavares.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Click here to see what the next exciting project Matt Tavares is working on.

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Henry’s Pitch for Sandy Koufax

Today’s guest reviewer is my brother-in-law, Henry Grossman. Henry is a retired science teacher from New York who has been a lifelong Dodger fan from the early 50s. He remembers with great fondness the great L.A. championship teams of the 60s led by the immortal #32, Sandy Koufax. He writes enthusiastically about a book introducing a new generation of ballplayers to “the man with the golden arm.”

1You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax by Jonah Winter is a beautifully written and illustrated biography of a great Dodger hero of mine. Narrated in a folksy “Brooklynese” vernacular, the young reader is given a thoroughly entertaining account of how a struggling hard-throwing southpaw matured into a great superstar and role model. The book also captures the character of a man who had to make difficult choices in his life such as refusing to play in the first game of the 1965 World Series because it was the Jewish High Holy Day.

He was a Brooklyn kid, a rookie when the Brooklyn Dodgers won its only World Series in 1955. Throughout the book, there are many interesting and revealing stats that underscore how remarkable and dominant a pitcher he was with the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 60s. The exhilaration and anticipation of a new strikeout record or a no-hitter each time the great lefty took the mound was to baseball fans what Tiger Woods winning championships is to golf.

During World Series time, many games were broadcast from L.A. to New York audiences in the early afternoon on a school day. Practically everyone brought transistor radios and teachers had a TV in the faculty lounge. When Koufax pitched, we were all rivoted to the broadcast. If you were late to class, everyone understood. Yeah, Koufax was that big a deal!

The story concludes when Sandy Koufax, the youngest inductee into the Baseball Hall of Fame, retires from the game when he was in his prime with records yet to break and championships to win. This book will spark interest to learn more about this legendary athlete and about Major League Baseball of that era.

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