February 18, 2020

Meet Willie O'Ree (Scholastic Canada Biography)

Written by Elizabeth MacLeod
Illustrated by Mike Deas
Scholastic Canada
32 pp.
Ages 5-9
January 2020

Though there is still time to read this illustrated biography for Black History Month, Meet Willie O'Ree will become one of those books that will be a go-to story about civil rights, athleticism and perseverance that will resonate throughout the year.
From Meet Willie O'Ree by Elizabeth MacLeod, illus. by Mike Deas
Willie O'Ree was born on October 15, 1935 in Fredericton. By the time he was 5, he was already skating and playing hockey, though he liked all sports, including baseball, tennis, volleyball, rugby and swimming, and enjoyed school. Though the kids in his neighbourhood all played together regardless of skin colour, Willie and other black people had to deal with discrimination. But Willie knew that things had to change, and when, at thirteen, he defied the racist requirement that blacks get their hair cut outside the barbershop, he took an important step in saying "No" to discrimination.
From Meet Willie O'Ree by Elizabeth MacLeod, illus. by Mike Deas
Though a great hockey player, Willie also played baseball, even trying out for Milwaukee's minor league team. But, travelling in the Deep South, Willie was disgusted by the racism he endured at hotels, on buses and most everywhere, so he was pleased when he was let go and able to return to Canada and play hockey. He started playing in 1952 and made his way through different and progressively better leagues. However, when playing for a major junior league team, Willie took a puck in the eye and was blinded. Still, he never told his team, fearing it would prevent his rise to the NHL.
From Meet Willie O'Ree by Elizabeth MacLeod, illus. by Mike Deas 
Willie became the first black player in the NHL, playing for the Boston Bruins. He still endured racist comments from opposing players but he fought back. He was traded several times and ended up in pro leagues other than the NHL but he didn't retire until he was forty-three, and then went on to work for the NHL's Diversity Task Force, helping to encourage children of colour to play hockey.
From Meet Willie O'Ree by Elizabeth MacLeod, illus. by Mike Deas
The accolades and honours Willie O'Ree received were numerous but probably none as great as his induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018.
Willie reached his goal of playing in the NHL by believing in himself. He worked hard, even when he faced racism and serious injuries. And he never gave up on his dream. (pg. 29)
Author Elizabeth MacLeod and illustrator Mike Deas probably had a tough job telling Willie O'Ree's incredible story. From his childhood and experiences with racism to his athletic career with its ups and downs and more racism, Willie O'Ree endured much, accomplished more and persevered always. His story is one of effort and determination, and Elizabeth MacLeod makes sure to tell as much of his story as possible, including a timeline with photographs at the end of the story.

Mike Deas's illustrations, which are a blend of digital art with gouache, watercolour and ink, are animated, showing a kid with a love of sports and a young man determined to play a sport he loved. Though the art is cheerful, it finds a way to demonstrate Willie O'Ree's experiences with racial discrimination and hardship related to his injury without ever trivializing either.
It was a pleasure to meet Willie O'Ree, a pioneer of black achievement in hockey and a hero of sports dreams. 

With Meet Willie O'Ree, the Scholastic Canada Biography series now includes five volumes.

1 comment:

  1. I really like this review. I never knew all that Willie endured. Thank you for your detailed descriptions. This book will be perfect in my school library.