Jul 13, 2013

Finding Inspiration in Biographies- Again!

Sincere apologies for the consistent misspelling of Gandhi's name in the initial posting. 

You might assume that Kenichi Zenimura (Zeni) (1900-1968) and Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) have a few things in common with no other information than this sentence. You might note that:
  • They both have names that are non-Anglo-Saxon (at least not names most of us encounter on a daily basis).
  • They both lived in the first half of the twentieth century, meaning...
  • They both experienced very significant and historic times.
 Gandhi, of course, is an iconic and world-reknowned figure but Zenimura is less well known, if known at all. 
So here are a few more similarities to think about:
  • Both men weighed about one hundred pounds, much less than average adult women, let alone adult males.
  • Both were also shorter than most women. (Gandhi was five feet, three inches, and Zeni was only five feet tall.)
  • Both confronted powerful government forces imposing unjust restrictions on their freedoms. 
  • Both had prestigious careers before finding themselves living in meager circumstances.
  • Both inspired others through the force of their personalities and deeply held values.
  • Both provided a path of dignity and self-respect to people who were being treated unjustly.
Amazon Children's Publishing, 2013

Whether you're an expert on Gandhi's life or only vaguely aware of his accomplishments, you'll appreciate GANDHI: A March to the Sea, by Alice B. McGinty and illustrated by Thomas Gonzalez. The wide format double-page spreads capture the emotional depth and intensity of the times, the luminous settings, and the vastness of the 24 day march he led along the coast of "British India" to accomplish something as simple yet politically transformative  as drawing salt from the sea. 
 I rank Gandhi among my personal heroes, as the father of  non-violent protest and civil disobedience in the quest for freedom and equality. This book frames these days in his long life with a gentle lyricism, rhythmic repetition, and enough context to draw the reader into the deliberate step-by-step process that made his protests so effective.
The values he displayed in accomplishing his goals throughout his life served as inspiration to many, not the least among them Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela.

Henry N. Abrams, 2013
It would be hard to find any figure in history who would not be lost in the giant shadow cast by Gandhi, despite his diminutive size. The life of Kenichi Zenimuru, though, shines through.  Read BARBED WIRE BASEBALL, written by Marissa Moss and illustrated by Yuko Shimizu, to see if you agree that Kenichi Zenimura displayed Gandhi's values in his own time and space.
The first time Zeni saw a baseball game he was eight years old. His family had moved from Japan to Hawaii and he was instantly determined to play. His parents called him a mouse and said he was too small. Discouraging messages followed him as he remained so small, but he achieved impressive success and even fame in professional baseball.  Through practice, determination, talent, and commitment he built a life as a player, coach, and manager in the decades that followed
After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor the United States government chose to imprison Japanese Americans in "internment camps", barren desert settlements surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. Rather than wallow in despair or bitterness with his wife and two sons, Zeni set about recreating normalcy for his boys and the rest of his community. 
He did that with what he knew best- baseball. He organized and led by example,  clearing, irrigating, planting, measuring and marking a baseball diamond. He scrounged and improvised, finagled and filched whatever was needed, at times even risking lives. Eventually he organized and outfitted thirty-two teams in three divisions with games scheduled every day. 
Regular readers know that I'm a die-hard baseball fan, and an even bigger fan of picture books. When these loves overlap I'm there prepared to cheer. (Type "baseball" in the blog search box to the right and find even more posts related to baseball.)
When picture books hit that remarkable sweet spot of image, text, subject matter and design, my cheers bring me to my feet. Gandhi and Zeni shared their passion and vision with others to inspire and restore dignity, earning the respect of their oppressors while achieving their goals. Books like these inspire us to learn more about history and its leaders, whether familiar or relatively unknown. 
Can you hear me cheering in the stands?

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