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Friday, June 18, 2010

Black Jack, written by Charles R Smith Jr. and illustrated by Shane Evans. Roaring Brook Press, HB Fenn. 2010. $19.99 ages 12 and up

"Black Jack was born
Arthur John Johnson
in 1878, March thirty-one,
in the state of Texas,
in the city of Galveston.
Born to Henry and Tiny,
both former slaves,
Li'l Artha, as he was called,
wasn't always so brave."

We are always looking for picture book biographies that might spark an interest in one of our students and lead to further research into that person's life. After finding this exceptional biography for older readers, I did some follow-up searching of my own.

What a story it is! Jack Johnson was the son of slaves who had read about great men. He decided that he wanted to be one of have people read about him and his amazing feats. As a school child he was bullied by others and protected by his sisters. His mother was adamant that he learn to 'fight back!' It was his calling. Soon he was beating the bullies and building up confidence. Inspired by the men he read about, Jack dreamed of becoming one of them. Boxing became a passage to travel, money and a way of life. He was good at it...with fast hands and a bright mind. It didn't hurt that he had a great right uppercut either.

Boxing wasn't his only gig...he played bass, invented a wrench and was a man about town.

"Behind the wheel of his car
Jack was just Jack,
but everywhere else
Jack was just black."

His wont was to challenge and that he did...when faced with the color line. White boxers could not fight black boxers and Jim Jeffries was the heavyweight champ, who would not fight a black man. Jack followed him from fight to fight and challenged him at each venue. Jim Jeffries retired from boxing rather than fight Jack Johnson. Jack now had a chance but again he was refused a place in the ring. Two years it took; and finally, Tommy Burns agreed to a fight.

I'll let you discover the rest of the story and you, too, might find yourself wanting to know more. In an afterword, Charles Smith adds "And Then What Happened?" and a bibliography so that you can discover the rest of the story...and a very interesting one it is!

Charles R Smith Jr is a great writer and he proves it once more. Be sure to visit his website and check out his other books. (

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