Roberto and Me: A Baseball Card Adventure, by Dan Gutman (HarperCollins, 2010, middle grade, 192 pages), is the most recent in Gutman's series about Joe Stoshack (aka Stosh), a boy who has a special gift--when he holds an old baseball card, he can travel back in time to actually meet the player shown.
Stosh's Spanish teacher, Senorita Molina, uses a wheelchair. When Stosh meets with her to talk about how he can pull up his (deplorable) grade, he takes advantage of the occasion to ask a question he's had for ages--why does she have a candle burning on her desk? Turns out, she keeps it in memory of Roberto Clemente, one of the most famous Puerto Rican baseball players of all time. Roberto was more than just a great ball player--he was also a dedicated humanitarian. And one of the things he planned to do was to send a Puerto Rican hospital the hundred dollars that would pay for the drugs that young Senorita Molina needed to cure her spinal infection. But Roberto died before he sent the money, when the plane he was taking to help earthquake victims in Nicaragua crashed.
Stosh knows what his next mission back in time is going to be--he's going to go find Roberto, and tell him not to get on that plane.
Time travel being a tricksy thing, Stosh is never delivered right up to the baseball players he hopes to meet. And this time is no exception--he finds himself at Woodstock, listening (with little enjoyment) to Jimi Hendrix. But fortunately he makes friends with a savvy young teenager calling herself Sunrise, who's run away from home, and she helps him hitchhike to Ohio to find Roberto.
And Stosh gets to see for himself what a great ball player, and a great man, Roberto really is. But changing the past is harder than a person might think....even when you're showing someone the newspaper account of how they are going to die, it might not change the decisions they feel they have to make.
When he gets back to his own time, Stosh finds a further adventure waiting for him--a journey to the future, where his own descendant, a boy with the same time travel gift, begs him to somehow set in motion a pattern of environmental awareness that will change the future. Because the future is a rather hellish place, environment-wise...
Roberto and Me is thus both a time travel adventure (with a generous dose of play-by-play baseball), and a serious disquisition on a variety of issues (especially the last odd journey to the future). I don't, as a rule, leap to insert my political opinions into my reviews, but this book, I think, requires some statement in that regard. I myself agreed whole-heartedly with the humanitarian, anti-racist, anti-war, global-warming-as-coming-catastrophe messages, and so enthusiastically endorse the book from that perspective (even though I wish the author's hand had been less heavy), but those who don't think along such lines might take issue with various elements of the story.
Now, back to the Adventure part. Stosh and Sunshine's trip together, and the ball game they watch, is perfectly fine, fun reading (even for one like myself, who doesn't care a whit about baseball). But what makes the book work is the character of Roberto himself--a true hero, who doesn't require any heavy underlining of messages to make a point. I loved the inclusion of actual pictures of Roberto--they truly made him come alive.
I think there's enough baseball detail to hold the interest of the young sport's fan. And it's not unenjoyable for the time travel aficionado--the baseball card as conduit-to-the-past was interesting, and the author was both convincing and entertaining in his portrayal of Stosh's encounters with hippie counter-culture. It might seem like this book bounces all over the place, but Gutman does a nice job keeping the story going, with humor, historical fact, and baseball combining to keep the reader's attention.
(this one gets a Reading in Color label for Roberto Clemente--I'm very glad to have met him!)
(Here's a much more detailed review at BooksforKidsBlog, and another at Ms. Yingling Reads)