Cover image for Black Jack : the ballad of Jack Johnson
Black Jack : the ballad of Jack Johnson
1st ed.
Publication Information:
New York : Roaring Brook Press, 2010.
Physical Description:
1 v. (unpaged) : ill. ; 29 cm.
General Note:
Includes bibliographical references.
Reading Level:
AD 980 L Lexile
Personal Subject:
Added Author:
Art and poetry combine to tell the story of boxer Jack Johnson, who became the first African-American world heavyweight boxing champion in the early part of the twentieth century.


Material Type
Call Number
Item Available
Book J 921 JOHNSON 1 1
Book J 921 JOHNSON 1 1

On Order



Born as Arthur John Johnson in the southern state of Texas, Jack Johnson was one of the most renowned boxers of the twentieth century. Through hard work and persistence, he climbed the ranks, taking a swing and a jab and eventually busting the color barrier. As the first black man to win the Heavyweight Championship, there was more than a title on the line.
Published to commemorate the 100th anniversary of this history-making bout (July 4, 1910). This is an extraordinary marriage of poetry, fabulous collage artwork, and a splendid achievement in its own right.

Author Notes

CHARLES SMITH JR. is a celebrated author, poet, and photographer. He has created more than twenty books, including Twelve Rounds to Glory: The Story of Muhammad Ali, a 2008 Corretta Scott King Honor Book and a 2008 Norman Sugarman Best Biography Honor Book and Chameleon, his first novel for young adults . He currently lives in Poughkeepsie, New York with his wife Gillian and three kids, Sabine, Adrian and Sebastian.

SHANE EVANS has illustrated numerous books for children, including the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award winner Shanna's Ballerina Show. He attributes much of his influence to his travels to Africa, South America, Asia, Europe, the Caribbean, and much of the United States. He is a firm believer in education and creative development for all people.

Reviews 5

School Library Journal Review

Gr 2-5-Art and text work powerfully together to tell the story of the first African-American heavyweight champion. Smith begins by telling readers that "Black Jack was his OWN man." These bold words skillfully set the tone for the tale of how a shy, fearful young man learned to fight back and become one of history's more compelling personalities. Books play a role in the young man's development; biographies of Napoleon and Isaac Murphy (an African-American jockey) inspired Johnson to become a great man himself. Smith's brisk, rhythmic text captures the boxer's energy and vigor. For example, "But what Jack wanted most/was to be a great man/so he challenged the times./But it was Jack who was challenged/when he faced the color line." Evans's illustrations perfectly complement the text, using bold colors and strong brushstrokes to convey the athlete's larger-than-life personality. An endnote entitled "And Then What Happened?" provides an overview of the rest of Johnson's life. This book is sure to be championed by reluctant readers with energy and restlessness just like Johnson's, but it is a strong selection for library and classroom read-alouds as well.-Mary Landrum, Lexington Public Library, KY (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Publisher's Weekly Review

Jack Johnson was the first black fighter to win a heavyweight championship. The prospect of losing to a black man so worried reigning champion Jim Jeffries that, rather than fight Johnson, he retired; after Jeffries's successor lost to Johnson, public goading forced Jeffries out of retirement, whereupon Johnson defeated him, too. Smith (Twelve Rounds to Glory: The Story of Muhammad Ali) tells Johnson's story in loose-limbed verse, establishing Jack as a complex, driven man before laying the fact of his race and its consequences before readers. The word is like a slap: "Behind the wheel of his car/ Jack was just Jack,/ but everywhere else,/ Jack was just black." Evans (Olu's Dreams) draws forms that press forward out of the pages, big masses of muscle and glove barely held in by skinny inked lines. The scenes are static, tense; more action is in the typography. As the story gathers speed like a freight train, the letters shout in uppercase, marching across the page. A rousing story, one that celebrates Johnson's dignity, pride, and determination. Ages 5-8. (July) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Horn Book Review

The author of the award-winning picture-book biography Twelve Rounds to Glory: The Story of Muhammad Ali (rev. 1/08) here takes on another heavyweight champion-Jack Johnson. Smith tells the story in ballad form, which suits the larger-than-life feel of this dramatic story of the son of freed slaves: "Now, Jack was a mighty man, / and Jack was a fightin' man, / and Jack was a MIGHTY, FIGHTIN' man. / But what Jack wanted most / was to be a great man." Encouraged by his mother to fight back against bullies, the little boy learned he had a talent for boxing, but his quest to be the champion was hampered by white title-holders like Jim Jeffries who said, "I will never fight a Negro." Jack's persistence in demanding a fight was eventually rewarded, though the rest of his life, detailed in a section at the back, was troubled. The poetry is interspersed with quotes of the time, and illustrator Evans uses oil paint and ink to depict the somber, determined fighter, with collage elements of newspaper articles, maps, and crowds in the backgrounds to set the story firmly in time and place. This book faces something of a fight itself since the themes are more mature than the format, but, with help from librarians and teachers, it will be the right book for the right child. From HORN BOOK, (c) Copyright 2010. The Horn Book, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Kirkus Review

Through poetry, quotations and some prose, the life of one of boxing's most important stars is celebrated, from his youth as the victim of bullies to the 1908 championship bout against a white fighter that made him a legend. Readers get to know Jack Johnson, a man who never gave in to stereotypes and demanded to be treated equally, not as a second-class citizen. Though the author's note continues the story in greater detail, the seamier side of Johnson's life is left unreported, aside from his jail time for dating a white woman. Sometimes faltering rhythms and almost-rhymes make this a challenge to read aloud without plenty of practice. Evans's dynamic art is at its best here: Johnson comes off big and powerful and strong, with his monumental body extending into many text areas. The title pages and final spread show Johnson, backlit by a powerful sun, the perfect visual metaphor for the hope he gave to black Americans of his time. (author's note, bibliography) (Picture book/biography. 5-10)]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Booklist Review

*Starred Review* The stylish, brash, and provocative boxer Jack Johnson is the subject of this picture-book verse biography. A quick tour of his childhood has the son of former slaves learning to fight by standing up to bullies at the behest of his mother. As a gifted professional boxer, he was consistently refused a shot at the heavyweight crown because of the prevailing racism of early-twentieth-century America. He repeatedly challenged reigning champ Jim Jeffries, who chose to hang up his gloves rather than fight a black man. Jeffries did finally come out of retirement, and Johnson's win in the Fight of the Century punched a massive hole in the pre-civil rights color line. Though Smith (who covered Johnson's spiritual descendant, Muhammad Ali, in Twelve Rounds to Glory, 2007) slips at times in his verse, the elegant simplicity and rat-a-tat rhythms land some stunners Behind the wheel of his car / Jack was just Jack, / but everywhere else / Jack was just black. For better or for worse, much of Johnson's pompous and histrionic persona gets glossed over, situating him (deservedly so) as an inspirational figure and legendary fighting spirit, a persona enhanced by Evans' lithe and swaggering artwork, which lends a tremendous visual charisma, grace, and grandeur to the man. Without pounding in the lesson, this deft account makes it clear that becoming the first black heavyweight champion wasn't just a remarkable personal achievement for Jack Johnson but one that would resonate well outside the ring.--Chipman, Ian Copyright 2010 Booklist