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Book Review: A Nation’s Hope by Matt de la Peña, Illustrated by Kadir Nelson

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Popular young adult author Matt de la Peña enters a different literary ring with his powerful children’s picture book A Nation’s Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis.

Hope centers on the 1938 boxing rematch between America’s Joe Louis and Germany’s Max Schmeling, which symbolized a battle between good and evil for many. It became known as the “fight of the century.”

The dramatic retelling of the fight and Louis’s early life by de la Peña and illustrator Kadir Nelson likely will leave readers wanting more picture books from this talented team.

Children will enjoy the directness and simplicity of de la Peña’s free verse and the rich earth tones and urgency of Kadir’s paintings. In this digital age, they may be fascinated by the picture of an African-American family huddled together “ears glued to radio,” listening attentively to a play-by-play of the fight.

Both Louis and Schmeling came from humble beginnings, as do so many boxers. Louis was the child of Alabama sharecroppers; Schmeling was born in a peasant’s cottage, the son of a German ship’s navigator.

A Nation’s Hope is partly the story of an impoverished, stammering child with powerful hands. Louis’s mother scraped together change for violin lessons hoping that he would become a musician, but he chose boxing. It led him into legend.

In all his books, de la Peña gives voice to young people of poverty surmounting difficult circumstances. The author tells us that Louis didn’t speak until he was 6 years old

“and was ridiculed
Words spinning just beyond
Joe’s grasp, and with black skin
he passed through childhood in shadows.”

By 1936, Louis was known as one of the best boxers worldwide. That year he lost his first fight with Schmeling, who had been the World Heavyweight Champion from 1930 to 1932.

This devastated Louis and America. Germany’s Nazi dictator Adolph Hitler hailed Schmeling’s success as proof of Aryan superiority. Although racism and anti-Semitism were also problems in the U.S., concern was growing among Americans about reports of abuse of Jews in Europe.

As de la Peña writes, the “boyhood dream” of Louis’s hands became “a people’s hope,” and Louis’s win left “all of America dancing” despite the ongoing white/black division of Jim Crow America.

America viewed Schmeling as “Hitler’s German,” and de la Peña refers to him as such. Limited in A Nation’s Hope by the story’s focus and by picture book length and style, de la Peña couldn’t say much about Schmeling, who was forced to be a propagandist for Nazi Germany.

As one Holocaust remembrance site notes, Schmeling eventually reported being happy that he lost to Louis, because it saved him from being lauded by the Nazis and being labeled a war criminal.

Hitler was so angered by Schmeling’s refusal to join the Nazi party that he drafted the boxer as a paratrooper. During this dangerous service, Schmeling risked helping two Jewish teenagers escape to America. The Raoul Wallenberg Foundation says Schmeling never told anyone about it.

Similar to Schmeling, Louis was a modest man. As de la Peña writes:

“in victory Joe didn’t raise his gloves and gloat,
he helped opponents to their feet
and shook their hands.”

When the war was over, Louis and Schmeling became good friends. In time, Schmeling helped pay for his friend’s funeral. Theirs is a story of commonalities as well as differences.

A Nation’s Hope is the kind of book that leaves children, parents and teachers wanting more information about historical events and figures. That’s good, because the Louis-Schmeling story is deep and representative of many aspects of twentieth century history. It can lead to discussions about persistence, tolerance, racism, right versus wrong, good sportsmanship and looking beyond surface appearances.

Here are some resources for further reading:

Encyclopedia of World Biography: Joe Louis Biography?
Black History Heroes: Joe Louis — The “Brown Bomber” World Heavyweight Boxing Champion
PBS: American Experience: The Fight – Max Schmeling (1905-2005)
Auschwitz.DK: The Holocaust: Max Schmeling, the Story of a Hero
The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation: Max Schmeling; Aryan Champ, Savior of Jews

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About Alicia Rudnicki