STEVE INSKEEP, host:
In October 1955, an October much like this one, baseball player Jackie Robinson stood on third base. His Brooklyn Dodgers were in the World Series. Robinson edged down the baseline and stole home.
ANNOUNCER: Robinson dashes for the plate. It's close and Umpire Summers calls him safe on the daring maneuver.
INSKEEP: That was the athlete America knew, the man who integrated baseball. That winter after the 1955 season, his family saw a different Jackie Robinson. His daughter Sharon Robinson has written a children's book. It centers on a family memory from her childhood in Connecticut. Sharon Robinson and illustrator Kadir Nelson came by to talk about the picture book "Testing the Ice."
Ms. SHARON ROBINSON (Author, "Testing the Ice"): This is an illustration of the children who are listening to Jackie Robinson tell about his years in baseball. You see the back of Jackie Robinson's head, and facing him are five children, and you see their eyes and their expressions of amazement and awe as he's describing his early years in Major League Baseball.
INSKEEP: Eyes are wide open?
Ms. ROBINSON: Eyes are wide open.
INSKEEP: One kid's mouth is falling open there a little bit.
Ms. ROBINSON: Right. And that was sort of the way it was because after a game of Monopoly, or during a game of Monopoly, which we did on Saturday mornings generally when it rained and we couldn't go outside - and Dad would play with us. He was as competitive with Monopoly as he was on a baseball diamond, you know, with adults. So it was the perfect time for him to tell the story of him breaking the color barrier.
INSKEEP: And we should mention Kadir Nelson has painted both black and white children coming over to the house.
Ms. ROBINSON: Well, the interesting thing, we moved into a neighborhood where we were the only black family. So we did integrate our neighborhood and also our schools. So it was - we're a pioneering family.
INSKEEP: 'Cause just Major League Baseball, that wasn't enough?
Ms. ROBINSON: That was not enough, not for my father and mother. They like challenges.
INSKEEP: Well, let's go through the basics for those who haven't seen this book or heard this family memory. What happened?
Ms. ROBINSON: The house sat on a hill and at the bottom of the hill was this pond, was turned into sort of a lake that went down a quarter of the mile down the road. And we went through the seasons where we did everything in this lake, and Dad sort of stood on the shoreline while we did everything in the lake -from swimming to boating to fishing.
But then winter came and we waited for days of freezing temperatures before we popped the big question, can we go ice skating? And Dad says, well what did you mother say, which was what Dad always said in those days. And she said as long as he tests the ice before you go out. And so we - we meaning my brothers and I and our friends were all there pleading with Dad to let us go ice skating. And then he goes out and he tests - steps - gets out to the deepest part.
INSKEEP: Did he seem reluctant to go out there?
Ms. ROBINSON: He was very reluctant. He had to do something that was frightening even to him.
INSKEEP: He needed to out before you went out because you're kids, it's a bunch of kids.
Ms. ROBINSON: Exactly.
INSKEEP: You don't want kids out on ice that you don't know is safe.
Ms. ROBINSON: You must - an adult must get out there and their weight and make sure that it is safe.
INSKEEP: And I wonder if I can get you to read a passage from this book?
Ms. ROBINSON: I'd love to.
INSKEEP: And it's the passage in which your father, Jackie Robinson, has agreed to go out on the ice. Fire away.
Ms. ROBINSON: Dad, be careful, I shouted. Don't fall in, David screamed. I grabbed Christy's mitted hand and squeezed. What's wrong, she whispered. I'm scared, I replied as the reality suddenly dawned on me. My dad can't swim. Before he placed one big foot in front of the other, he tapped the ice with his broomstick testing it for weaknesses or cracks.
Tap, tap, tap, then he took a few more steps. But just as he was about to pronounce the ice safe, boom, a terrible noise roared from beneath the ice. Dad, I shrieked. I was sure the ice was going to open up and swallow him. Jackie Junior stood ready to shove his sled to dad. David, Candy, and Willy inched closer to my brother. We waited for what seemed like forever.
INSKEEP: Hum. Sharon Robinson, that must have been quite a feeling as a kid.
Ms. ROBINSON: Yes, you know, because we love the water so much and we always try to get Dad to go in this water. And he's just an athlete. He was good at everything. So the fact that he couldn't swim was just like - we just didn't understand that or even believe it.
INSKEEP: How could this guy, who can steal home, not swim?
Ms. ROBINSON: Exactly.
INSKEEP: And Kadir Nelson, it fell to you then to try and illustrate this moment as well as key events in Jackie Robinson's life leading up to this. These paintings, they're paintings, correct?
Mr. KADIR NELSON (Illustrator, "Testing the Ice"): Um-hum.
INSKEEP: Almost luminous in places, I mean you're really get a sense, when you have Jackie Robinson scooting out ever so slowly on the winter ice, to have that sense of the light of a winter day and the empty sky of a cold winter day.
Mr. NELSON: Well, you know, I approach each book that I illustrate as if it were a silent film. So I'm thinking of wide shots, I'm thinking of close-ups, I'm thinking of changing perspectives. And particularly, the scene where he's tapping the ice, I want the reader to have a sense of the weight of Jackie Robinson on this ice. So you're looking down on him to help build a bit of the suspense.
INSKEEP: Can I ask Sharon Robinson what made you, though, decide to focus on this moment of slipping out on the ice - of all the moments in Jackie Robinson's life you might have written a children's book about?
Ms. ROBINSON: Because it' so perfectly defined Jackie Robinson, the athlete Jackie Robinson, the father, the husband, the loving, the courageous, the caring. And I wanted children to understand sort of if the totally of this man and how consistent he was, both his public persona and his personal one.
INSKEEP: Did you feel, as time went on that your father, just to help you guys get out on the ice, play on the ice, had risked his life. Was it that kind of pond he could have died?
Ms. ROBINSON: It was that kind of pond. He could have died, yes.
INSKEEP: Did your father ever talk about this incident himself?
Ms. ROBINSON: No. And, you know, he was a really humble man and he would never have - it was just part of our life.
INSKEEP: Even if he would not have admitted to that, did you say to him, how courageous you thought he was?
Ms. ROBINSON: I never - you know, I said it so many different ways. You know, I was in total admiration and love for my - and adored my dad - and he gave that same kind of feeling back to me. So we constantly had that kind of - I have one thing my dad said. He was diabetic and couldn't have sugar and he would take his ice tea and pass it over to me and he said, just put your finger in it and that will be enough sweetness for me. So we had that kind of adoring relationship. You know, and so this was just another way that he was being our dad.
INSKEEP: Sharon Robinson is the author of "Testing the Ice," illustrated by Kadira Nelson. Thanks to you both.
Mr. NELSON: Thanks man.
Ms. ROBINSON: Thank you for having us.
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INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
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