BooksForKidsBlog

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Timely Travel: Roberto and Me by Dan Gutman

If you have a chance to accomplish somethng tht will make things better for people coming behind you, and you don't do that, you are wasting your time on this earth.
---Roberto Clemente

Time is something Josh Stoshack thinks about a lot. After all, he's the kid with the amazing ability to move through time. Just by holding an old baseball card in his hand, he can be transported back to the date on the card and into the life of the pictured player. In his latest book in the Baseball Card Adventures series, Josh not only goes back to 1969 but is given an opportunity to move forward in time and get a look at baseball in the very different world of 2080.

But as the novel opens, Josh has more prosaic personal problems in his own time--a batting slump and a equally slumping grade in Spanish. Warily he approaches Ms. Molina, hoping for an extra credit project to bring his grade up enough to stay out of trouble with his mom. As he talks to his sympathetic teacher, he impulsively asks her about her handicap and the candle she always keeps burning on her desk. With a wistful look, Ms. Molina tells him of the time when, as a poor three-year-old in a Puerto Rican hospital, she was visited by star baseball player Roberto Clemente. Clemente promised to send her family the needed $100 for a round of an expensive antibiotics to treat her spinal infection, but died in his ill-fatal rescue mission to Guatemala before he could pay for the medication. "It is for Roberto Clemente," she says, pointing to the candle.

Suddenly Josh knows what he must do. All he needs is a Clemente baseball card to take him back and give him a chance to warn Clemente not to board that plane on December 31, 1972. Josh hurries over to the sports card shop where his grizzled coach and mentor Flip comes up with a yellowed clipping reporting Clemente's death but fails to find a Clemente card in stock. Josh's dad has more luck, digging out a tattered card dating from his childhood. "I was a Yankees fan," he admits apologetically. "Me and my friends used it as a dartboard." Although the card's date is obliterated, Josh takes it home, determined to use it that night. He even brushes up on his Spanish to make sure he can talk to Clemente. "Donde esta' el correo?" "Necessito ayuda," he repeats from his useful phrases list. And then he carefully memorizes the key words he knows he must say: "No subas el avion, Roberto!" " Don't get on the airplane, Roberto!

The card gets him back to 1969, all right, but not to the Pirates' stadium in Pittsburgh as he had hoped. Instead he is dropped right into a screaming crowd just as Jimi Hendrix comes to his ear-shattering crescendo on "The Star-Spangled Banner." From his mother's often-played records, Josh guesses instantly that he is at Woodstock. Josh is intrigued with the people around him. He has dressed as a "hippie" for Halloween often, but surrounded by the real thing, he follows the crowds as they leave the field for the trip home. Josh picks up a muddy newspaper and reads in the sports section that the Pirates are playing in Cincinnati the next day, and spotting a pretty teenaged girl holding up a Cincy sign, he falls in with her. Luckily they find a ride with Wendy and Peter, heading for San Francisco in their VW van. As they travel through the night from New York, Peter holds forth on the Viet Nam War protest and the demonstration in their home town they are joining on Friday. Wendy gives Josh some beads and a headband to make him feel more at home, and the girl, who calls herself "Sunrise," confesses that she has slipped away from home to travel to Woodstock and is afraid to go back to her family in Cincinnati. Eagerly she asks if she can postpone that moment by going with Josh to Crosley Field for the game where Clemente is playing.

After the game Josh and Sunrise manage to talk with Clemente, who allows him to tell his improbable story. Handed the faded newspaper clipping, Clemente is taken aback to read the account of his own death, still three years ahead of him, and finally promises not to take off on that flight. As they part he impulsively hands Josh a $100 bill to help him out. Convincing the teary Sunrise that she should go back to her own family and try to make a difference there, Josh returns to his own time, tired and dirty with the dust of the 1960s, but feeling that this time he has managed to change the past for the best. Hastily he goes to his computer and Googles Clemente, only to find that he had indeed died in 1972 after all. Despite his promise, Roberto had gotten on that plane, still determined to make a difference in his own time.

And there Gutman's adventure story could have ended. But at 2:14 the next morning, Josh Stoshack is suddenlyawakened by a slight movement in his room.

I looked across the room, over at my desk.

There was somebody sitting there. Looking at me.

"Are you awake?" the boy whispered.

"I'm not sure. If this is a dream, then no."

"My name is Bernard," he said. "Bernard Stoshack."

"Are you related to me?" I asked.

"Yeah," he replied. "I'm your great-grandson.

I live in the year 2080."

Bernard Stoshack is apparently the only recipient of Josh's baseball card gene, and he tells Josh that he must go back with him to 2080. "I need to take you to the future, Grandpa," he pleads.

And life in 2080 is not what "Grampa" Josh expects at all. The card that takes him and Bernard back to the future reads "Bob Feist, Lowstop, Chicago CubSox," and metropolitan Chicago is pretty much gone, leveled by frequent mega-storms. Bernard and his family live without electricity on a ramshackle farm where the suburbs used to be, and the pickup game of baseball he joins has some surprising differences from the game he knows. Sweating in the plus-100 degree heat, Josh is amazed to learn that this is considered a cool day in January of 2080. As the clincher, Bernard shows him a textbook with a familiar map of the United States--familiar except that the east and west coasts look somewhat different. And then he sees why Bernard has told him that the Marlins and Rays are no more. Most of Florida is underwater. It is obvious why Bernard has used his time travel powers to find his great-grandfather, hoping that he can convince him to help change the difficult future in which they are forced to live. Then as a sudden tornado approaches, Bernard quickly has Josh return to his own time before the violent storm hits, and Josh understands that the very lives of his descendants may depend on the changes that he must make in his own time.

Back home, as Josh hurriedly suits up for his team's game that day, his head whirling with the the two turbulent times he has visited, he comes across Roberto's $100 bill in the pocket of his dirty jeans. Immediately Josh sees one thing he can do to change the past for the better. Begging a 1972 baseball card from Flip after the game, Josh waits for that familiar all-over tingling to do its work.

I opened my eyes. I was sitting on a bench in a bus stop next to a lady with a shopping bag.

"Excuse me, ma'am," I asked. "Is there a post office around here?"

"No hablo Ingles," she said.

Just my luck.

Wait! It was okay. This one I could handle.

"Donde esta el correo?" I asked.

Running in the direction she points, Josh enters the post office. The date says October 27, 1972.

"I'd like to buy one envelope, please," I say to the lady behind the counter. I fished Roberto Clemente's one-hundred-dollar bill out of my pocket and slipped it into the envelope.

Taking the pen on the counter that was attached to a little chain, I wrote this neatly on the outside of the envelope:

Senorita Molina
San Jose Children's Hospital
San Juan, Puerto Rico


Dan Gutman's Roberto & Me (Baseball Card Adventures) (Harper, 2010) gives middle readers a time travel adventure, some vivid game play action, and plenty to think about as its hero experiences the good and bad of his present, the past, and the future. Gutman's skilled storytelling never falters as he moves through what could have been a cumbersome plot without a hitch, giving his readers a taste of history, some laughs, and plenty of adventure in this slim and fast-paced time-travelling fantasy which will keep its readers turning those pages.

Oh, and Josh gets that A in Spanish from Ms. Molina, whose candle is still burning and whose legs are just fine, thanks.

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