St. Louis native returns for the J’s Children’s Mitzvah Program

Photo+of+author+Dean+Robbins+with+book+cover+image

Children’s book author Dean Robbins, a St. Louis native, will return to his hometown to speak at the J during the “Children’s Mitzvah Program” on Feb. 27. Robbins grew up in the St. Louis Jewish community, and attended camps and played sports at The J in Creve Coeur. Robbins’ most recent books include “Thank You, Dr. Salk!: The Scientist Who Beat Polio and Healed the World,” “You Are a Star, Ruth Bader Ginsburg” and “Mambo Mucho Mambo!: The Dance That Crossed Color Lines.” Robbins photo by David Giroux

BILL MOTCHAN, Special to the Jewish Light

Dean Robbins fondly remembers growing up in St. Louis and playing softball at the Jewish Community Center. When he was rounding the bases, “I was thinking about Jackie Robinson, Babe Ruth, Lou Brock and all the great Cardinal stars in the late ’60s.”

He never made it as a major leaguer, but Robbins, 64, now inspires and educates young readers about heroes like Jackie Robinson. A former editor of the Madison, Wisc. alternative weekly newspaper Isthmus, Robbins has written eight non-fiction picture books for kids. On Feb. 27 he’ll return to his hometown to speak at the J’s Children’s Mitzvah Program.

During the event (see full details below), which is part of the Jewish Book Festival, Robbins will read from four of his biographies, including his most recent, “You Are a Star, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.” The theme of his talk will be “How to be a real-life hero.”

“I’m planning a funny, interactive multimedia show with video clips and lots of pictures,” Robbins said. “I hope the kids will learn about both well-known and little-known heroes, including Kitty O’Neil, who set the world land-speed record. She’s one of the lesser-known heroes. We’ll figure out what makes these people heroes and how kids can follow in their footsteps.”

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Robbins started writing children’s non-fiction books after a career as a journalist. His son, who is now grown, became Robbins’ best audience and loved hearing stories about his father’s heroes.

“I began telling him stories about all these heroes that I had since I was young,” Robbins said. “I had this whole pantheon of heroes that I’m passionate about, from Louis Armstrong to Jonas  Salk, and tons of others. I was gratified by how powerfully he responded to these stories as a little kid and it occurred to me how fun it would be to do that on a grand scale by writing nonfiction picture books. So I wrote a manuscript about Babe Ruth. I sent it to a publisher at Harcourt and they accepted it. That’s what started the whole thing.”

Often, Robbins selects a hero to profile because he or she is a source of Jewish pride.

“Writing about Jonas Salk and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, my foundation of Judaism was hugely influential. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was imbued with the idea of equality and justice, and Jonas Salk was inspired by the idea of tikkun olam, repairing the world since he was a little kid. He was determined to make the world a better place. And through my Jewish education I am deeply inspired by people like that.”

The Jonas Salk biography, “Thank You, Dr. Salk!: The Scientist Who Beat Polio and Healed the World,” is especially timely because it deals with a life-saving vaccine. It was just published in 2021 but was not inspired by the pandemic.

I was actually inspired by a Google doodle that ran on the 100th anniversary of Salk’s birth and emphasized the joyous quality of his fight against polio in the 40s and 50s. He got the whole country to pull together to create an effective vaccine,” Robbins said. “He inspired faith in the scientific method and got millions of people to volunteer for this huge medical field trial. His is a good lesson to emphasize during the coronavirus period.”

Robbins often gets positive feedback about his books from teachers, but one of his most gratifying compliments came from a child who attended one of his presentations.

“I get notes and it’s absolutely wonderful to read some of them,” he said. “I was talking about Jackie Robinson during a presentation, and I got a note from a kid who said, ‘My two favorite heroes are Jackie Robinson and Dean Robbins.’ There’s a huge distinction between those two figures, but I was just glad that he became passionate about Jackie Robinson.”


Children’s Mitzvah Program

WHAT: Event with children’s book author and St. Louis native Dean Robbins

WHEN: 1 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 27

WHERE: Jewish Community Center’s Performing Arts Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive

HOW MUCH: Free

MORE INFO: Registration information is available at https://bit.ly/0227-mitzvah. Held in partnership with the St. Louis County Library. Recommended for families with children ages 5-10. Proof of vaccine or a negative COVID test are required for all eligible attendees. Masks must be worn properly at all times.