27 January 2009

You Are the What?

Here's something I have to get off my chest about one of the most honored books of last year.

Yesterday Kadir Nelson's We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball won multiple honors from the American Library Association: the Coretta Scott King Book Award for an author, a King Honor for the illustrations, and the Robert F. Sibert Medal for most distinguished informational book. Good for Nelson.

But that title? The L.A. Times Book Review tried to explain:

The title comes from a quote by Negro Leagues founder Rube Foster: "We are the ship; all else the sea." As it suggests, the Negro Leagues were a self-sufficient, independent enterprise where only the ball was white.
No, "We are the ship" doesn't suggest that at all. It evokes an environment completely removed from the baseball field (even the Davenport, Iowa, minor-league stadium that gets flooded every few years). It brings up historical images of, well, ships, at odds with Nelson's exquisite paintings.

Believe me, that title prompted a lot of discussion with the Marketing and Sales Departments. Yes, it's rooted in the history of the Negro Leagues, but you wouldn't know it until you've read the book. Until then, who would think to ask for a book about baseball with that title?

Obviously, We Are the Ship overcame any objections people raised. And now I look forward to Nelson's upcoming picture book on African-American whalers, Turning the Double Play.


Anonymous said...

And did you think that Rabbit, Run was going to be about bunny rabbits?

J. L. Bell said...


Fiction titles work differently from nonfiction titles.

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree. People can handle a metaphor. And with this book they obviously have.

J. L. Bell said...

“We are the ship” is already a metaphor (unless the words are spoken by planks of wood). The tenor of that metaphor is “We,” which offers no specifics. It’s an evocative phrase, but the images evoked by the metaphor’s burden are far removed from the book’s topic.

As I wrote, We Are the Ship overcame that challenge. But I’m sure that title was cause for lots of discussion at the publisher and between the publisher and the representatives of many fine retailers.

Are there other nonfiction books for children with titles that evoke one topic while being about something entirely different?