Sharon Robinson's new biography about her father, the first African-American Major League Baseball player, hits shelves this March. Below, she spoke with Scholastic Parent & Child about applying her father’s values to kid’s lives today and teaching children to face and overcome challenges.
Parent & Child: What will kids learn from your new book, Jackie Robinson: American Hero?
Sharon Robinson: Even though I had written about my father before, I had never done a straight biography. It wasn’t until I went back and reread all about my father’s childhood and put the pieces together that I decided the theme would be his character growth, from sports champion to American hero. There are turning points in everyone’s lives, and I wanted to make sure I hit what I thought the key turning points in my father’s life were — from his teenage years through his years as a baseball player and then his post-baseball career. His growth fascinated me. I also had to think about how to bring my father’s values into kids’ lives today. I wanted to do it in a way that helps kids understand that breaking barriers and overcoming obstacles is a part of life.
P&C: Did you read a lot growing up?
Robinson: I did. I loved books and I loved writing, and they were important parts of my life. We had a room in our home that we called a library; today, it would be considered the family room. My mother loved to read to us.
P&C: Were there any authors that really spoke to you or influenced your life?
Robinson: As a family, we all loved Dr. Seuss. As I got older, the Nancy Drew series was really important to me because I, too, was an adventuresome girl.
P&C: What was your dad like at home?
Robinson: [My childhood] was different. It was different because I was the only black kid in my class. I was the only girl in the family and having a famous father was just a part of what made me different. I remember the night that the Little Rock Nine called my father. We were at the dinner table, and when he came back, he said, “I can’t believe those courageous kids called me for inspiration.”
My relationship with him was special and very close; I was his only daughter, and we both cherished our relationship. I think that the bigger transition came when he retired from professional baseball. He was home more. Starting when I was about 6, my father and I took trips to New York City together, kind of like Bring Your Daughter to Work Days. We dressed up, and I felt very protected and loved by him.
P&C: Did you have any other special family traditions?
Robinson: Our property spanned six acres, but we didn’t hire a gardener. My brother and my mother and I pulled the weeds, and my father had a tractor and cut the grass. It was part of a family ritual — we planted trees and watched them grow and ate dinners together. The dining table was a place where I learned about politics and the Civil Rights Movement. We were integrating in schools up north, but our experience was so different from the kids down south. [Our parents] helped us understand those differences.
P&C: How can parents approach social issues today with their kids?
Robinson: The dynamics change over the years, but families need to have something they’re passionate about. Having a family mission was really important in our home, and we try to pass that on to our children and our grandchildren — to have them understand that people are different from you.
P&C: What do you admire most about your father?
Robinson: That [my parents] dedicated their lives to serving others. My father could have just been a famous baseball player and not spent the last 15 years of his life fighting for justice and civil rights and spending time in Harlem [in New York City]. He started the first bank there. He used his celebrity to make a difference, and I think that’s admirable.
P&C: Do you pass along any family heirlooms?
Robinson: I just gave my granddaughter a tiny heart necklace that my parents got for me when I graduated from high school — she’s only 2 ½, so she can’t even wear it yet! My mother keeps everything, so we also have lots and lots of photographs in our family home in Connecticut that we share with our kids. And they’re not just the ones of my father being an athlete — they’re from the jazz concerts and marches we went on.
P&C: Who is your hero?
Robinson: My mother is absolutely my hero. I’m also so inspired by Michelle Obama. I admire parents who can help their kids understand where they’re from and the role that history plays in their lives. It’s important because history is so cyclic. We’re still facing some of the civil rights challenges from the 60s today. We have to teach our children and grandchildren to learn from the past.