Jael Ealey Richardson’s book about the beginnings of her father’s football life is one of the more frustrating works to come across our desk.
Quarterback Chuck Ealey went undefeated in his high school football career and again in post-secondary, where he played at the University of Toledo (on a scholarship). When he graduated (as the winningest quarterback in all of college football) in 1971 he should have been a shoe-in for the NFL –there was literally nobody better than him in the country– but he was black, and the prevailing “wisdom” of the times said that a black man couldn’t lead a football team. People of colour weren’t leaders, they were soldiers doing the grunt work. (This miraculously continued on for decades, and even today African American quarterbacks and coaches are few and far between.) He went undrafted in ’72, so he relocated to Canada where he played with the Hamilton Tiger Cats, winning the Grey Cup in his first year, earning the Most Valuable Player trophy in the process. His career ended prematurely six years later.
It’s a fascinating, angering and inspirational story that should be taught in schools.
Richardson tells it only up to Ealey’s very first game ever as a quarterback, which unfortunately excludes much of what makes the story engaging. We see some of what he had to overcome to get to where he ended up, but we never see where he ended up; this is covered only –and very briefly– in a short post-script. Not that what we do see isn’t worthwhile, it is: We see Ealey’s childhood in poverty, his single mother working long hours for little money, and we see the hunger they had to endure. These are welcome subjects for a children’s book, but the racism Ealey had to endure is strangely brushed over. There are a few fleeting references to race, but they’re quick and mostly general –”…some American didn’t believe that all people were equal, regardless of their skin color”– as opposed to personal.
Further adding to the frustration is that the prose feels somewhat patronizing. Groundwood lists the book as targeted up to kids aged nine, but our six year old felt the language was “babyish,” and I have to agree. In an age where children’s picture book biographies like Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova and Enormous Smallness: A Story of E.E. Cummings push language and play with methods of story-telling, and many a book faces the problem of racism directly and explicitly, The Stone Thrower feels a bit Dick and Jane.
Because of the brief period covered, it would be wonderful to see a second book telling more of Ealey’s story with Richardson’s gloves off. Previously she told her father’s story in an excellent adult book, also called The Stone Thrower, and it would be great to see a bit more of the passion from that translated for kids.
Multi award-winning illustrator Matt James, who took home the Governor General’s Award for Illustration (English) for his work on Northwest Passage (based on the Stan Rogers song) does great work here, evoking the work of such landmark African-American artists as William H. Johnson and Beauford Delaney while also staying true to himself.
It’s a bit of a missed opportunity, but The Stone Thrower is worthwhile and a great jumping off point for broaching the subject of racism with your kids.
Kinderlit.ca received a copy of The Stone Thrower in exchange for an honest review. Read about our Review Policy HERE.