Meet the Biographer: Rich Michelson

As well as a poet and art gallery owner, Rich Michelson is also an award-winning children’s book author. In 2011, he published Lipman Pike, a picture-book biography of one of baseball’s first professionals. This week, Kidsbiographer caught up with Michelson about baseball history, dialogue in nonfiction, and the value of picture books for readers of all ages.

Kidsbiographer: How did you learn about Lipman Pike, and what made you decide to write about him for young readers?

Rich Michelson: A few years ago, I was asked to write a children’s book called  A is for Abraham: A Jewish Family Alphabet. My task was to narrow down all of Jewish knowledge into 26 letters. Takes a bit of chutzpah, but I agreed to try. For instance D is for King David, and under this letter I was able to write about the Biblical King, but also the Jewish traditions of poetry – since David is traditionally considered to have authored the Psalms. At one point K was for Koufax, and I intended to discuss sports heroes. In the research process I came across the name Lipman Pike.   I asked many of my sports-crazy friends, and no one had heard of him. How could this be?

Lipman Pike was the first “professional” ball player—the first player, that is, accused by the League, when it was still supposedly all amateur—of illegally accepting payment. Of course, many players were taking money “under the table,” but Lip, as the only Jew on the team, was the one charged, so he became known as the first player “paid to play. Partly because of this incident, the next year, in 1871, the league changed the rules and formed the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. Lip went on to be baseball’s first home run king and first superstar, yet he remained proud of his Jewish roots. He was a man who followed his dreams and yet remembered where he came from. How could I not want to share his story with young (and older) readers?

Kidsbiographer: What sort of research did you do to write Pike’s story? What were some of the most surprising discoveries about baseball’s beginnings?

Rich Michelson: There isn’t much published information, so I read the old Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper (Walt Whitman was for a time, a reporter on their Base Ball beat) for any mention of Lip, as well as to give myself a feeling for the times. I also read a number of books about the early days of baseball, and consulted with experts in the world of 19th century baseball, as well as Jewish life at the time.

In many ways, the early game resembled today’s competitive softball. Since catcher’s mitts didn’t exist (and fielders who wore handball-like fingerless gloves were looked down upon as not tough enough) the pitchers pitched underhand. Other rules were also evolving. At one time most games were timed, so whoever was ahead after an hour or two was declared the winner—similar to basketball rules today. Innings sometimes consisted of one rotation through the batting order.

Kidsbiographer: With a few lines of a dialogue, Lipman Pike brings 19th century Brooklyn to life. The scenes at the Pikes’ haberdashery in particular establish both the warm relationships between members of the family and their customers. How did you create voices for the book’s characters and establish that sense of place?

Rich Michelson: Many of my books use “invented” dialogue to create a sense of time and place. This is, of course, a controversial technique for those of us writing non-fiction. But I took the risk, to make the story more immediate. If we are going to communicate history in a picture book, you need a poet’s wordplay and a fiction writer’s tools: narrative, description, plot, tension.

Kidsbiographer: Although Lipman Pike is a picture-book biography, its vivid characters, realistic dialogue and illustrations, and treatment of difficult topics make it equally appropriate and enjoyable for middle-grade readers. While you wrote the book, how did your awareness of your audience shape the way you handled your subject and his world?

Rich Michelson: I do not generally write with my audience in mind. Of course, I am aware that picture books have certain conventions, but I rue today’s tendency toward shorter and shorter word counts. I do not believe picture books are only for very young children, and I wish, as a society, we didn’t have the attitude that kids will “grow out of picture books.” In fact, I wish more middle grade and adult books included pictures.    

Kidsbiographer: What’s the most gratifying response you’ve received from young readers about Lipman Pike?

Rich Michelson: Although I have spoken about my book at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, Lipman Pike has not been inducted, and a number of young readers have written letters to the HOF asking that he be considered next year when “old timers” are up for a vote. I find that enthusiasm very gratifying.

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

Rich Michelson: My next book will be out in February 2012. It is titled Twice as Good: The story of William Powell and Clearview Golf Course, the only golf course designed, built and owned by an African American. When Bill Powell was not allowed to play on the “whites only” private courses, he began building his own public course, literally by hand, where everyone was welcome to play. This was in 1946, a year before the great Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers. And while I have even less golfing than baseball experience in my past, I think William Powell belongs in our pantheon of civil rights heroes.

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