Sharon Robinson On Her Memoir, Activism, and Growing Up as Jackie Robinson's Daughter

Sharon Robinson is more than just the daughter of famed baseball player Jackie Robinson. The author of Child of the Dream (A Memoir of 1963) hopes to "inspire a new generation of activists and empower children to lift their voices against the injustices in their lives."

Sharon Robinson is more than just the daughter of famed baseball player Jackie Robinson. The author of Child of the Dream (A Memoir of 1963) (Scholastic, Sept. 2019; Gr 3-7) hopes to "inspire a new generation of activists and empower children to lift their voices against the injustices in their lives." We spoke to Robinson about her memoir, her commitment to activism, and her father's legacy.

Many readers associate you and your books with your father and baseball. This memoir takes a different turn—it focuses on your father’s involvement and deep commitment to the civil rights movement. For you, how important is it to bring that part of his legacy to young readers?

While most people associate Jackie Robinson with breaking the color barrier in baseball, I remember my father as an activist. He used his celebrity to support the civil rights movement. As a young girl, I was keenly aware of his involvement in the movement. But in 1963, that involvement shifted to include the entire family. The Children’s March inspired me to bring the larger story to young readers. My father’s baseball story continues to inspire kids. I wanted to show them that my dad’s activism went far beyond his decade with Major League Baseball. I hope Child of the Dream will inspire a new generation of activists and empower children to lift their voices against the injustices in their lives.

How can young readers, regardless of race, better understand the significance of the civil rights movement beyond what is taught in schools? Do you feel our current education system accurately and thoroughly depicts the cultural impact of this moment in history? Or do schools  present only one narrative? If so, why?

As a young girl, I was turned off by the memorization required by my history teachers. Instead of dates and battles, I learned to love oral history and wonderful historical novels. At home, my parents talked about the movement with my brothers and me, but they encouraged us to form opinions and debate issues freely. Through my travels, I have met and been inspired by many teachers who have found creative and expansive ways to bring history alive for their students. As an author, I work to have the same effect. I try to challenge young people to learn from history and be inspired by it. My hope is that Child of the Dream will give kids a greater understanding of the civil rights movement of the Fifties and Sixties and help them apply lessons learned, successes and failure from that movement to current issues such as bullying, immigration, activism, climate, school shootings, and so on.

The memoir also deals with some fairly difficult family issues: your brother Jackie Jr.’s struggles to live up to his father’s image, your efforts to fit into a social group where you felt accepted, and your coming of age as a young teen. How important is it that young readers “see” themselves in writing today?

I believe that it helps young people to know that I’ve met challenges, too. In my writing and during question-and-answer sessions, I am open and honest with them, reassuring kids that struggle is part of life. Through the Breaking Barriers program, we bring players to schools and ask them to share a personal struggle with kids. It’s amazing to see how their honesty opens the young people up. They come up and share in exchange. I am blessed with an incredible family, but like all families, we had major challenges. This fact led me to design the Breaking Barriers program with Major League Baseball and Scholastic and gave me an opportunity to share nine values that helped my dad succeed on and off the field.

Your background was very different from many African American families at the time. However, your family fought vigorously for equality and justice for everyone. In light of serious race issues facing our nation today, how can young people use your story to get involved in civil rights the way Dr. King’s approach inspired you?

Last year, I marched against school shootings and for gun control with families from Parkland, FL. Then, I watched with enormous pride as thousands of young people took to the streets in Washington, DC. Students from Stoneman Douglas were inspired by the Children’s March in Birmingham, AL, 1963. As I listened to those young people speak, I marveled at how crisis forces leaders to step up. In Child of the Dream, I share examples of how I moved past my comfort zone and began to use my voice: a school paper on Dr. King, speaking up in class, pride when my homeroom teacher acknowledged my essay, taking the opportunity to join in discussions about race at Jack & Jill meetings. To me, voice and self-confidence are intertwined.

You recently were on a panel at the ALA conference in Washington, DC, called “The Urgency of History: How Librarians Prepare Kids for Their Times.” What is the most significant thing that young readers should take away from this book to connect them to history and ultimately their own story?

Photo by John Vecchiolla

In Child of the Dream, I describe my own path to activism hoping to inspire my readers to care about others, to want to be involved in contemporary issues, and to believe that their voice matters. There’s a scene with my father where I ask him if black people were free? My father could have answered simply by saying, ‘Yes, of course we are free.' Instead, he challenged me to define freedom and helped me understand the underlying principles and struggle of the civil rights movement. I hope every young person who reads [the book] comes away with a belief that they, too, can lift their voice against injustice.

You manage the program Breaking Barriers: In Sports, in Life. How has that program been an inspiration for you to write, and did it lead to your decision to write this book?

Over the past 23 years, I have visited and celebrated children who demonstrate resilience when faced with life’s challenges. [The program] is a character education and literacy program sponsored by Major League Baseball and Scholastic. The curriculum is values-based and culminates in a national essay contest where young writers describe how they used values associated with Jackie Robinson to overcome barriers in their lives. Through this work, I’ve met so many students and been inspired by their stories. During school assemblies, we celebrate essay winners with prizes including laptop computers and on-field appearances at Major League ballparks, but with the entire group, we also talk books and the importance of voice. I go to schools to inspire children and come away a changed person. I’ve been blessed. I entered publishing thinking I was destined to be an adult novelist. My work with Major League Baseball and Scholastic changed my perspective. My true destiny was to write for children. They are the inspiration behind each of my books. In exchange for that inspiration, I share pieces of their stories so they’ll know I heard them.

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