Barbed Wire Baseball by Marissa Moss
Posted by: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan
Cindy: Determination is up at bat in Barbed Wire Baseball (Abrams 2013) an inspiring nonfiction picture book that could be used in many units and at any grade level. Kenichi Zenimura, “Zeni,” is credited as being the father of Japanese American baseball and this book mostly focuses on his years at the Gila River War Relocation Center, a Japanese internment camp during WWII. Zeni’s baseball game had developed to the point where he was playing exhibition games with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig when the bombing of Pearl Harbor changed everything. Executive order 9066, signed by FDR, meant that Zeni would be sent with other Japanese Americans to live behind barbed wire in internment camps in the west and southwest. Zeni might have been forced to live in barren barracks and to be treated as a threat to his country, but it would not keep him from playing the sport he loved. He started digging up the dry earth to prepare an infield, removing rocks and sagebrush. Others pitched in and were soon ready to play. But, no, Zeni had higher aspirations. He wanted a real ballpark. Page by page the improvements come to pass through hard work and ingenuity, and a few favors from the camp commander who must have been intrigued by Zeni’s plan. An infield was graded, grass was sown, bases were made from rice sacks and uniforms from potato sacks. Even bleachers materialized from scavenged wood. Zeni collected donations to buy equipment and finally it was time to PLAY BALL! Readers might be impatient at Zuni’s drawn out timetable, but the patient, methodical building of the field surely helped pass the time in the camp with a common purpose. Marissa Moss’s account personalizes the loss of morale that comes at the hand of degrading situations like the WWII internment camps and provides a model for endurance, perseverance, and achieving a dream despite the odds.
Lynn: There is much I admire in this unusual book. I am happy to see more of the internment history brought forward to our children and this book introduces it in a very accessible and interesting way. Zeni’s love of baseball is something so many kids share, giving them a solid connection to this story. The illustrations were so effective for me too. Yuko Shimizu uses dark and dusty colors that wonderfully convey the dry desolated country of the camps that give way to the energetic colorful scenes of the completed field and the games being played there. I love the backmatter that provides more biographical information on Zenimura, history of the internments and some wonderful photographs. My favorite shows Zeni standing between Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig at an exhibition game.
What shines through most strongly for me though is the fierce and determined spirit of Kenichi Zenimura, who overcame every obstacle in his path. He never gave in to factors that would seem insurmountable to most of us from being too small to play baseball to the demeaning and humiliating treatment of Japanese-Americans to being imprisoned in the camps. It is definitely a story of baseball but it is the triumphant story of Zeni’s spirit that readers will remember.
Common Core Connection
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.3.3 Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, descriptive details, and clear event sequences.
Zeni was told he was too small for baseball and he played anyway. He and other Japanese-Americans were unfairly imprisoned during WWII in internment camps and he found a way to bring baseball and a feeling of power and happiness to the camp. Have you ever been told you couldn’t do something because you were too small? Write a short paragraph about that, how you felt and what you did to overcome it.
More nonfiction blog posts can be found at Nonfiction Monday each week.