This is a 2003 honor book for the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award:
Testa, Maria. 2002. Becoming Joe DiMaggio. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick.
Here is a Digital Trailer for BECOMING JOE DI MAGGIO created by graduate student Tracy Blackwood and available at Animoto here and YouTube here.
Here is a Readers' Guide created by graduate student Katelyn Verrill.
Recommended Age Levels 9-12
Summary of Book
In the summer of 1936, the Yankees have a new center fielder whose name sounds like music—Joe DiMaggio. Papa-Angelo has a new grandson named Joseph Paul who, like his namesake, holds the promise of a better life and a brighter future. In the midst of WWII and his father’s trouble with the law, Joseph spends time with his grandfather and listens to radio broadcasts of DiMaggio’s baseball games. As Joseph grows up he dreams of becoming a hero like his favorite baseball player.
Papa-Angelo gives Joseph a strong namesake and a positive Italian-American role model throughout the course of this book. He understands the importance of providing his young grandson with a cultural heritage and a good moral example. Author, Maria Testa, narrates this power story using 24 brief poems. Illustrator, Scott A. Hunt’s charcoal and pastel illustrations are scattered throughout, adding a subtle visual aid to the story. “Becoming Joe DiMaggio” is about two Italian-American’s learning to soar and making their families proud as they strive towards new life in America.
“Testa's (Some Kind of Pride) 24 brief vignettes, in verse, introduce young Joseph Paul, born in 1936. His melodic narrative tightly braids together strands integral to his life: family, baseball and the ways in which the exploding world affects him and those close to him. His maternal grandfather Papa-Angelo, who helps raise Joseph Paul while his father is serving time, gives the boy his name (after Joe DiMaggio), his passion for baseball and the handmade chair on which Joseph sits alongside the kind man, listening to broadcasts of DiMaggio's triumphs on the field. When the boy announces, "I want to be Joe DiMaggio when I grow up," wise Papa-Angelo answers, "That's wonderful... but someone else already is."
Yet he hardly discourages Joseph's dreams. In the concluding image, the two stand before the gates of the university Joseph will soon enter, at the age of 16, to study medicine. Details of DiMaggio's career ("It seems like the perfect number, now, 56 but at the time we prayed with all our might that the streak would go on forever" refers to his 56-consecutive-game hitting streak in 1941) mitigate the shadow cast by WWII and the prison sentence of Joseph's father ("Bombs fell on Pearl Harbor and my father was released before his sentence was over and all the newspapers showed Joe DiMaggio looking uncomfortable in a uniform not meant for playing baseball"). In an endnote, Testa reveals that her own father's life inspired Joseph's story, which explains the affection and immediacy of her words.”
“Growing up in New York City during the 1940s and 1950s, Joseph Paul, an Italian boy, finds solace from a difficult life by listening to baseball games with his beloved grandfather. This powerful story, told in 24 poems, describes their relationship and their love of listening to another Italian, Joe DiMaggio, achieve success. The influence of Papa-Angelo and the ballplayer help the boy escape from the realities of having an abusive and criminal father. He learns to dream and finds that he can "soar" in his own way. The beauty and the charm of the poetry-its concise language, its flow and descriptive power-add to the intensity of the experiences described. Hunt's charcoal-and-pastel spot illustrations are scattered throughout. Some knowledge of the times and culture may enrich the reading experience, but it is not required for children to understand or appreciate this poetic narrative.”
-School Library Journal
“Joseph Paul, named for the wondrous new rookie centerfielder of the 1936 New York Yankees, has big dreams and a long hard road to travel in order to achieve them. Papa-Angelo, his grandfather, teaches him baseball, honor, compassion, courage, perseverance, and so much more. His very existence is a special gift to the old man, for he gives him "dreams to go with his nightmares." His father is in jail during much of his childhood, but in spite of the shame and the broken promises, these two love him. The son of poor Italian immigrants, Joe DiMaggio is a guiding star for both of them. In 1941, when most of the world is already engulfed in war, DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak postpones for a while the dread of what is to come. "Hits were the same as hope that summer, filling our hearts in the face of the truth that the president had been wrong: there really was something to fear after all."
Joseph matures during the war, watching his grandfather's sadness intensify, and accepting that his father will never become a hero. At war's end, DiMaggio returns from the army, hitting a homerun in his first game, bringing forth "a sigh of relief so pure and loud you would have thought the whole world had finally remembered how to breathe." Joseph identifies with DiMaggio and everything he stands for in reality and in his imagination. He wants to become Joe DiMaggio, but he is reminded "that someone else already is." So Joseph chooses his own path and becomes someone truly wonderful and unique. Testa tells the entire story in verse. Each poem is a perfect, gripping chapter in Joseph's story. Words are carefully selected and images are beautifully crafted. Strong emotions are evoked, but there is no sentimental manipulation. When the author states in an endnote that Joseph was her father, it serves to validate the reader's instant recognition of his humanity. A powerful, glowing, unforgettable achievement.”
“In delicate, deceptively simple unrhymed verse Testa refashions the story of her father’s youth and, particularly his close relationship with his Italian immigrant grandfather…Middle-schoolers who think they don’t like poetry might want to take a swing.”
-The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books
“With ineffable tenderness and absolute clarity, Testa tells a tale in blank verse about a boy named Joseph Paul after the great DiMaggio; about a grandfather, Papa-Angelo, and his garden; about the boy's three sisters; about a father in prison. In quick strokes, she sketches embarrassment over a ne'er-do-well dad, the fear and horror of World War II, and the quiet bravery of a mother and grandfather. Through it all, there is baseball on the radio. After Joe DiMaggio hits a homer in his first game back from the war, "Papa-Angelo and I / both let out / a sigh of relief / so pure and loud / you would have thought / the whole world / had finally remembered / how to breathe." The last poem sees the boy standing with his grandfather before the gates of the university where he will study to become a doctor. Beautiful, simple spot images in charcoal and pastel--a pile of books, a chair, a baseball--illustrate the story. Powerfully moving as it braids together baseball, family, and the Italian American experience.”
“This book is like one of those magic bags that hold so much more than physics allows. Your child may be surprised that in discussion it takes far longer to unpack all the layers of meaning and content than it did to read the book. That’s the power of poetry.”
-Matt Berman, Common Sense Review
• Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, Honor Book 2003
• ALA Notable Book for Children
• New York Public Library Children’s Books: 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing
• International Reading Association Children’s Choices
• Chicago Public Library’s Best Books for Children and Teens
• Maine Lupine Award Winner
• Bank Street College Best Children’s Books of the Year
• Voice of Youth Advocates (VOYA) Poetry Pick
• Booklist Top Ten Sports Books for Youth
Questions to Ask Before Reading
*If you could grow up to be like anyone, who would it be?
*What skills or qualities does that person possess that you admire? Why?
*What do you know about Italian-American heritage, Joe DiMaggio, or baseball (particularly the New York Yankees)?
Suggestions for Reading Poems Aloud
*Read and discuss the poem “War.” Compare this recollection with stories told by children’s own grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents, etc. Did Papa-Angelo and Joseph admire Joe DiMaggio more for his service to his country during WWII? How is this different from the example set by Joseph’s father?
*After reading “Holidays,” discuss the similarities/differences between Joseph’s holiday experiences and listeners.
*Read and discuss the poem “My Father, Running—1945” and what this poem means. How did Joseph rise above his father’s short-comings and bad behavior? Would you say that he followed Joe DiMaggio’s example, by looking up to him as a role model (and model citizen)?
*Read the last poem- “Becoming Joe DiMaggio.” What can you learn about someone by knowing their heroes?
Follow Up Activities
*Have students create a timeline of 10 important events in their lives so far. After reading “Becoming Joe DiMaggio,” invite children to write poems about the events that they have highlighted through their timeline. Who are they becoming?
*Discuss what changed for Papa-Angelo in the summer of 1936. Why wasn’t the boy named after his father? Who inspired his name? Have children write about the story of their own naming and share with the class.
*Setup a math baseball game for children (using basic addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and word problems). Divide the group/class into teams. The librarian/teacher will act as the announcer. The announcer calls out the problem to the player at the swing station. If the player gets the question correct, he/she is awarded a hit and moves to the next base. Etc.
*Share the book “Grey’s Anatomy of the Human Body” (student edition) and flashcards with children, after reading the poem “Happiness.” Discuss Joseph’s dream of becoming a doctor.
*Have children describe the community where Joseph lives. How is it different from the communities they live in? Discuss cultural customs and references present in “Becoming Joe DiMaggio.”
*Discuss the immigration of Italians from Italy to America. New York was once considered a “melting pot,” why?
*Ask children what word changes its meaning with Joe DiMaggio’s appearance in baseball. How do words gain their power? Ask whether there are words that the children know they shouldn’t use? Discuss why DiMaggio is referred to as “Big Dago” and why this is taken as an ethnic slur.
[This site discusses the use of slang in children’s books: http://www.write4kids.com/blog/2008/08/11/using-slang-in-childrens-books/ ]
*Have children create graffiti on large sheets of newsprint. Discuss the history and significance of graffiti in relation to 1930-1940’s New York.
*Have children create an illustration to support their favorite poem in “Becoming Joe DiMaggio.”
The American Experience- Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life
[Check out this website to learn more about Joe DiMaggio’s public and personal life; includes a section specifically for kids.]
Joe DiMaggio, the Yankee Clipper
[Check out this virtual museum of the City of San Francisco for a timeline of Joe DiMaggio’s life, with a particularly interesting section on his childhood and early years.]
Maria Testa: Writer, Poet
[Look here for additional information on author, Maria Testa. This site includes her books, presentations, study guides, supporting materials for classroom study, and a brief biography.]
The Official Site of Joe DiMaggio
[This site explores Joe DiMaggio’s role as an American icon and his legacy.]
The Official Site of the New York Yankees
[Check out this site for additional information on the New York Yankees baseball team; official player stats can be sorted by year—for additional information on Joe DiMaggio’s playing record.
The Official Site of Major League Baseball
[This site includes a hall of fame biography on Joe DiMaggio, information on the New York Yankees, and 7460 search matches for Joe DiMaggio.]
Fiction Children’s Literature about Baseball
Christopher, Matt. 2004. The Lucky Baseball Bat. Little Brown Books for Young Readers.
Corbett, Sue. 2008. Free Baseball. Puffin Books.
Ritter, John H. 2005. The Boy Who Saved Baseball. Puffin Books.
Testa, Maria. 2003. Some Kind of Pride. Yearling Books.
Non-fiction Literature about Joe DiMaggio
Appel, Martin. 1990. Joe DiMaggio (Baseball Legends). Chelsea House Publications.
Bildner, Phil. 2011. The Unforgettable Season: Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and the Record-Setting Summer of 1941. Ill. by S.D. Schindler. Putnam Juvenile Publishing.
Carrieri, Joe R. 2000. Joe DiMaggio: The Promise. Carlyn Publications.
Dunn, Herb. 1999. Joe DiMaggio: Young Sports Heroes (Childhood of Famous Americans). Ill. by Meryl Henderson. Aladdin Paperbacks.
Viola, Kevin. 2005. Joe DiMaggio (Sports Heroes and Legends). Lerner Publishing Group.
Non-fiction Literature about Baseball
Berman, Len. 2010. The 25 Greatest Baseball Players of All Time. Sourcebooks Jabberwocky.
Jacobs, Greg. 2010. The Everything Kids’ Baseball Book. Adams Media.
Poetry Related to Baseball
Fehler, Gene. 2009. Change-Up: Baseball Poems. Ill. by Donald Wu. Clarion Books.
Graves, Donald. 1996. Baseball, Snakes and Summer Squash: Poems about Growing Up. Ill. by Paul Birling. Boyds Mill Press.
Hopkins, Lee Bennett. 1993. Extra Innings: Baseball Poems. Ill. by Scott Medlock. Harcourt Children’s Books.
About the Author
I have recently come to realize that my passions and interests have not changed significantly since I was a ten year old girl playing baseball in the street with the neighborhood boys. I remain as passionate as ever about books, music, peace and justice, all things Italian, and, of course, baseball. I don’t know why this makes me happy, but it does. -Maria Testa
Maria Testa was born in Hartford, Connecticut, grew up in and around Providence, Rhode Island, and now lives in Portland, Maine with her husband and two sons. She received bachelor’s degrees in Sociology and American Civilization from Brown University and a J.D. from Yale Law School. After all that time in school (20 straight years!), she almost immediately expatriated to Dublin, Ireland where she lived at the YWCA and decided to be a writer.
About the Illustrator
Scott A. Hunt is one of the few writers in the world to have gained access to the exceptional group of peacemakers interviewed in this book. He is a graduate of Harvard University, where he studied government, specializing in political philosophy. He has written for a wide array of magazines and is currently teaching Buddhism at the University of California, Berkeley's continuing education program. He is the author of “The Future of Peace: On the Front Lines with the World’s Great Peacemakers.”