Article, Authors and Illustrators, Book Resources

Promises to Keep: Sharon Robinson's Loving Biography of Her Father, Jackie Robinson

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

Scholastic Editor Sheila Keenan worked with Sharon Robinson on the challenge of sharing a personal family story. In this case, that family story includes an American icon, Jackie Robinson, and how his accomplishments impacted American life.

The irony of a great author-editor relationship is that you can't really describe it in words. There's understanding that deepens as you get to truly know an author. There's trust that builds when she sees how thoughtfully and carefully you weigh her words. There's camaraderie that develops as you work closely together for months.

And then there's that special, indefinable "something" that just clicks.

I was lucky enough to click with author Sharon Robinson.

Sharon and I first worked together on Jackie's Nine: Jackie Robinsons Values to Live By. This anthology is a diverse collection of writings that illustrate the values that helped Sharon's father, baseball great Jackie Robinson, achieve his goals. But one of the books strongest voices is Sharon's. Her personal memoirs within Jackie's Nine provide the structure and links for the rest of the selections. I often edit nonfiction, but this was different. When you're editing someone's autobiographical work, you have to read with an editorial eye, but listen with your heart. Your writer is offering her readers something personal, maybe even painful: the story of her life and loved ones'. When you edit a book like this, you have to help shape the tale, but be ever mindful of the teller. You have to remember the "characters" in this book are real!

In her book, Promises To Keep: How Jackie Robinson Changed America, Sharon has created a loving biography of her father that raises and answers important questions about why and how Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in sports.

Interestingly enough, one of the first things Sharon and I talked about when we were looking at her outline for Promises was that the book should open with some historical background on segregation in the United States. For today's young fans, the idea of Major League baseball teams with all white rosters would unimaginable. Promises had to provide an historical context for kids, so they could fully realize the sacrifices and impact of the Jackie Robinson story that his daughter was about to unfold.

Sharon had set herself some tough goals with this book. She planned to tell her dad's story from her point of view, which would give Promises an intimacy not possible in other Jackie Robinson biographies. But she also wanted to show how her father's life and accomplishments reflected and impacted American life.

We both read, re-read, and talked about the manuscript for several weeks: Was Sharon's warm voice sounding strongly enough in a given chapter? Was there enough historical background or detail to help kids understand a given event? We decided on things that would keep Promises personal, like including lots of family photos and having Sharon write the captions in the first person, just as the text was.

Sometimes we met to discuss the book in person; sometimes we played geographical phone tag. As Major League Baseball's educational consultant, Sharon is often on the road with the Breaking Barriers in-school program. She'd call me from one city or airport and leave me a phone number in another city at which to call her back later that day.

When Sharon was back in town, we met to pick out photos for Promises. It was an amazing experience to hold scrapbook pages of Robinson family photos, or yearbook pictures, or personal letters written on Brooklyn Dodgers letterhead, or a full-color Jackie Robinson comic book from 1949, signed by other Dodgers.

Once Sharon and I met in her apartment, where she had a huge stack of photos from her family and the Robinson Foundation. At one point, she had to take a call. I looked up from where I was sitting and saw a bunch of framed, informal family photos on some shelves — only the dad in these photos was Jackie Robinson! It really hit home: this man who was an icon to me, an American legend, was also a father, a son, a husband, a brother.

And thats what makes Promises to Keep so powerful. Sharon wrote a book that really makes you think about Jackie Robinson as a hero and a man. Because of her clear, heartfelt writing, you feel like you get to know Sharon and her family, too. And you realize how right Jackie Robinson was when he said, "A life is not important except for the impact it has on other lives." I think Sharon's book is going to have a big impact.

 

top