May 27, 2016

The Stone Thrower

by Jael Ealey Richardson
Illustrated by Matt James
Groundwood Books
32 pp.
Ages 5-9
For release May 2016

Though The Stone Thrower only came out this month, this picture book that honours Jael Ealey Richardson's father, Chuck Ealey, a famous African American football player who was undefeated in his home country but made a name for himself in the CFL, will surely become earmarked for booklists of significant youngCanLit for February, Black History Month.

Thoughtfully illustrated by Governor General award-winning artist Matt James, The Stone Thrower is “a story about a kid who lived in hard times, a kid who had a big dream that seemed almost impossible.” (pg. 2) It’s the story of Chuck Ealey, beginning with his birth to a poor, hard-working mother in 1950 Portsmouth, Ohio where segregation and racism would seem to be the norm.  Though her own education was minimal, his mother ensured that her son understood that, like the trains that ran through their neighbourhood, he shouldn’t stop until he got where he was going, and that was out of the North End and completing his education.

These same trains became a source of victorious inspiration to him as he regularly tossed stones at the cars, aiming for the large letter N on the side, practising over and over again until he could always hit his target.  Applying this same determination, focus, and practice at school and at football, Chuck was able to see beyond the hardships he and other African-American youth faced at the time and was able to achieve great things, including winning every game as quarterback for his high school.

Jael Ealey Richardson may tell more about her father’s story in the note at the conclusion of the picture book, as she does in her adult book The Stone Thrower: A Daughter’s Lessons, A Father’s Life (Thomas Allen, 2012), but The Stone Thrower focuses on but a snippet of Chuck Ealey’s successes in meeting the challenges of being a black youth.  By setting a goal and aiming for it repeatedly, even when faced with cruelty and disrespect, Chuck Ealey achieved much.

From The Stone Thrower by Jael Ealey Richardson, 
illus. by Matt James

Matt James, whose artwork has enhanced his own Northwest Passage (Groundwood, 2013) and I Know Here and From There to Here by Laurel Croza (Groundwood, 2010 and 2014, respectively), sets a gritty tone to The Stone Thrower, with his roughened outlines and coarse watercolours.  There’s nothing saccharine about this story or the art and that’s the way it should be.  Both emphasize the hardship and the courage, strength and perseverance, and the achievement.  The Stone Thrower is a story of grit, visual and inspirational, in its truest form.

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