Meet the Biographer: Matt Tavares

In 2010, author-illustrator Matt Tavares published Henry Aaron’s Dream, a picture-book biography of baseball legend Hank Aaron. The book concentrates on Aaron’s childhood and early career and highlights the obstacles – including racism – he overcame to achieve his goals.

This week, Kidsbiographer chatted with Matt Tavares about biography from the author- illustrator’s perspective – and the difficulties of talking to kids about racism.

Kidsbiographer: Telling Hank Aaron’s story necessitates tackling difficult subjects, including segregation and bigotry. In Henry Aaron’s Dream, you confront these realities honestly, including the epithets hurled Aaron’s way and showing the face of a hateful fan in the stadium crowd. How did you decide to approach these painful topics for young readers?

MT: In writing this book about a young man who grew up in the deep south in the 1930’s and 40’s and faced unspeakable racism and hatred as he pursued his childhood dream of becoming a big-league baseball player, I wanted to tell his story in the most honest, straightforward way I could. As you know, the n-word appears twice in Henry Aaron’s Dream. That word, I felt, was a terrible part of the story.  I considered replacing the word with “bad names” or “terrible names”, but any other way I tried to write those two sentences sounded softer and gentler than what really happened. And in trying to describe what Jackie Robinson endured in 1947 in just a few lines of text, and what Henry Aaron endured when he broke the color barrier in the South Atlantic League in 1953, I didn’t want to minimize it or sugar-coat it by making it sound not quite as bad.

The fact is, when Henry Aaron was a 19-year-old kid trying to pursue his dream of being a baseball player, he was subjected to hearing that word, that most vile word in the English language, shouted at him on a daily basis. They didn’t just call him “bad names”, or “terrible names.” They called him the worst name of all. And I believe that fact helps illustrate the incredible courage that this young man showed just by taking the field each day and following his dream.

I might have handled this differently if this were a book for preschoolers, but I thought of Henry Aaron’s Dream as a book for middle elementary students. I think that if kids are ready to learn about some of the darker aspects of our nation’s history, they can handle reading that word and putting it in historical context. I know some people will avoid the book because of the word, but I also know that there are kids who appreciate the fact that I’m telling them the real story, and not the baby version.

Kidsbiographer: What sort of research did you, as an illustrator, do to bring Aaron’s early life and career to life?

MT: I read every book I could find about Henry Aaron, including his excellent autobiography, I Had A Hammer. Much of Henry Aaron’s Dream takes place before he is a professional baseball player, so there weren’t a lot of photographs or newspaper articles to rely on (his family was poor and certainly didn’t have a camera), so I based much of the early illustrations on descriptions from his book and others, as well as historical photographs of different places from his youth, like Jim’s Billiards where he used to listen to Dodger games on the radio when Jackie Robinson was playing. Once he started playing in the Negro Leagues, he made it into the papers and had his picture taken more frequently, so that helped me know what he looked like at different ages. I also found pictures of the different ballparks where he played, his uniforms, etc.

Kidsbiographer: My favorite illustration in Henry Aaron’s Dream shows Aaron and two African-American minor league teammates eating dinner in a restaurant kitchen. They are not allowed to join their white teammates in the main dining room, and yet the picture’s atmosphere is warm and convivial. They joke with the kitchen staff, who are also black, and generally make the best of an unfair situation. Does this picture reflect how Aaron coped with segregation and prejudice during his early career?

MT: Thank you.  I originally drew that illustration as a more somber scene, but found that the image is actually much more powerful with them just playing cards, laughing and joking with the kitchen staff. I think it captures the absurdity and the unthinkable injustice of that era. The fact that they’re just playing cards shows that this is nothing out of the ordinary for them. This sort of treatment was part of young Henry Aaron’s daily life, and while it certainly bothered him, he tried to focus on playing baseball and tried to ignore as much as he could. This does reflect how he handled the prejudice at this point in his life. Later in his career he started speaking out about racism in baseball. But in 1953, he was a quiet, shy 19-year-old kid. There were times when the racism he faced every day made him want to quit, but at that point he didn’t speak out

Kidsbiographer: What’s the most gratifying feedback you’ve received from young readers about the biography?

MT: I think my favorite feedback from kids regarding this book is when they just can’t believe how stupid and crazy it is that Henry wasn’t allowed to play on any of the fields in his hometown, or that he had to sleep on the bus when he played in the Negro leagues, or he wasn’t allowed at his own team’s victory party because he was black. Most kids who read Henry Aaron’s Dream have already been introduced to these topics on some level, but I think that by telling the story from the point of view of someone they can relate to – a kid who wants to be a baseball player – the ridiculous injustice of it really seems to sink in. I’ve also heard from kids who connect with the story in terms of obstacles they face in their own lives, and that is incredibly gratifying. Henry Aaron’s story is truly inspiring, so I’m honored to be able to share it with young readers.

Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or future projects?

MT: One I’m really excited about is called There Goes Ted Williams: The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived, which I wrote and illustrated. It will be published by Candlewick in February, 2012. Ted Williams was my father’s childhood idol and I’ve always been fascinated by him. Of all the books I’ve made so far, I think this one might be my favorite. I’ve also got a Babe Ruth book in the works.

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