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Together, words and art bring young readers through the lives and careers of a varied group of poets in this collection of picture-book biographies.
April is National Poetry Month, and no one is too young to celebrate. Though often considered a complicated art form, poetry’s rich language, quick wit, and visual imagery help increase its appeal for the new reader. It’s no surprise that many poets started their careers when they were very young. These pictures books introduce like-minded young readers to their lives and work, enhancing the reading experience by pairing biographical information and poetry with attractive, illuminating artwork.Poets are attentive listeners and keen observers captivated by the small and simple as well as the large and majestic. The following 19 lovers of language, organized alphabetically and hailing from across the world and through many time periods, demonstrate mastery of the editing process, showing the world that fewer words frequently convey more.Matsuo Basho (1644–94)Grass Sandals: The Travels of Basho. By Dawnine Spivak. Illus. by Demi. 1997. Atheneum, $16 (9781442409361). Gr. 3–5.Matsuo Basho’s walk across Japan leads the reader on a sensory adventure. The narrative, based on Basho’s journals, is enriched with his haiku, Japanese caricatures, and a map of his journey.Gwendolyn Brooks (1917–2000)A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks. By Alice Faye Duncan. Illus. by Xia Gordon. 2019. Sterling, $16.95 (9781454930884). Gr. 1–4.In her smoke-filled neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, eight-year-old Gwendolyn Brooks wonders if the pink flowers outside her home can grow without sunlight. The flower metaphor continues in this picture-book biography of the award-winning poet, as Duncan’s own blues-style free verse recounts Brooks’ life and work.Dave the Potter (c. 1800s)
Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave. By Laban Carrick Hill. Illus. by Bryan Collier. 2010. Little, Brown, $16.99 (9780316107310). K–Gr. 3.
This book is a poem honoring Dave, his life and his craft. His heart is revealed in the short poems carved into the ceramic vessels that he created. Examples of Dave’s poems and bowls are included at the end of the book.
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (c. 1651–95)
A Library for Juana: The World of Sor Juana Inés. By Pat Mora. Illus. by Beatriz Vidal. 2002. Lee & Low, $10.95 (9781643790589). Gr. 1–3.
A curious, determined, and passionate young girl, Juana Inés was eager to learn how to read and write. She aspired to attend university in Mexico at a time when women didn’t, and she ultimately won the right to live out her days as a scholar, a poet, and a nun.
E. E. Cummings (1894–1962)
Enormous Smallness: A Story of E. E. Cummings. By Matthew Burgess. Illus. by Kris Di Giacomo. 2015. Enchanted Lion, $17.95 (9781592701711). Gr. 1–4.
Edward Estlin Cummings’ childhood in Massachusetts was rooted in imagination. As an adult, he playfully manipulated phrases and words into poems. Here his poems are integrated into the illustrations as well as featured at the end of the book.
Emily Dickinson (1830–86)
Emily. By Michael Bedard. Illus. by Barbara Cooney. 1992. Doubleday, $16 (9780440417408). Gr. 3–5.
In this fictionalized account, a little girl and her family move in across the street from the reclusive Emily Dickinson. Emily invites the girl’s mother to play the piano, and the little girl’s brief encounter with Emily results in an exchange of thoughtful gifts.
Robert Frost (1874–1963)
Papa Is a Poet: A Story about Robert Frost. By Natalie S. Bober. Illus. by Rebecca Gibbon. 2013. Holt/Christy Ottaviano, $17.99 (9780805094077). Gr. 1–3.
The center of this picture book is Leslie Frost, Robert’s 15-year-old daughter, who reveals memories of her enchanted childhood while also hinting that the Frosts felt like outsiders in their New England community. Created with ink, colored pencil, and watercolor, Gibbon’s illustrations light up the pages with fresh, naive images portraying the family’s activities. Twelve of Robert Frost’s poems are featured at the end of the book.
Juan Felipe Herrera (1948– )
Imagine. By Juan Felipe Herrera. Illus. by Lauren Castillo. 2018. Candlewick, $16.99 (9780763690526). K–Gr. 3.
In his first of two autobiographical picture books to appear here, Herrera, the only poet on this list still living and the poet laureate of the U.S. from 2015 to 2017, looks back on his early childhood as the son of migrant workers, and on the days when he first discovered his voice. The beautifully illustrated pages have a soft, dreamlike look.
The Upside-Down Boy / El niño de cabeza. By Juan Felipe Herrera. Illus. by Elizabeth Gómez. 2000. Children’s Book, $7.56 (9780892392179). Gr. 2–5.
This English-Spanish bilingual, autobiographical book focuses on Herrera’s struggles to learn English in a new school and his celebrations of learning with his family. The book is dedicated to Herrera’s teacher, who recognized and nurtured his early gift for writing poetry.
George Moses Horton (1798–1883)
Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton. By Don Tate. Illus. by the author. 2015. Peachtree, $16.95 (9781561458257). Gr. 2–4.
Born a slave but inspired by his love of words, George Moses Horton taught himself to read. As a young man, he created and recited his poems. He was taught to write, and though his master never let him purchase his freedom, he eventually became a published poet. Tate’s full-color mixed-media illustrations are slightly cartoonish, which helps leaven the serious subject matter and effectively portrays Horton’s love of language. Lines from Horton’s poems are woven through the illustrations, keeping his voice a constant presence.
Langston Hughes (1902–67)
Coming Home: From the Life of Langston Hughes. By Floyd Cooper. Illus. by the author. 1998. Puffin, $6.99 (9780698116122). Gr. 2–5.
Young James Langston Hughes spent his early years alone. He dreamed of being reunited with his parents and of traveling the world. He believed in heroes and the power of storytelling. Eventually, Langston flourished as a writer and a dreamer and was not alone—his life was full of travel, heroes, and storytelling.
Langston’s Train Ride. By Robert Burleigh. Illus. by Leonard Jenkins. 2004. Scholastic/Orchard, o.p. Gr. 3–6.
The book opens with Langston Hughes’ reflections on a key moment in his life, when he knew himself to be a poet. Langston rode the train from Ohio to Mexico to visit his father. Langston crosses the Mississippi and is inspired to write “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” The poem is featured at the end of the book, and Jenkins’ beautiful, rhythmic collage illustrations capture the changing view through the train window and the dreaming writer in his seat.
Love to Langston. By Tony Medina. Illus. by R. Gregory Christie. 2002. Lee & Low, $16.95 (9781584302834). Gr. 3–5.
Medina honors the rich life of Langston Hughes in a way that would make most poets smile. Fourteen first-person poems detail Hughes’ life, while additional notes at the end offer further biographical information.
Cool Melons—Turn to Frogs! The Life and Poems of Issa. By Matthew Gollub. Illus. by Kazuko G. Stone. 1998. Lee & Low, $16.95 (9781880000717). Gr. 3–5.
Japanese poet Issa is introduced as a sensitive child who becomes encouraged by his teacher to write haiku: “With Haiku . . . you can show what you are feeling inside.” Issa leaves his home to travel Japan and write poetry. Although numerous events in Issa’s life were tragic, he devoted himself to capturing and sharing moments of beauty. Issa’s haiku are integrated into the book in Japanese and English.
Emma Lazarus (1849–87)
Emma’s Poem: The Voice of the Statue of Liberty. By Linda Glaser. Illus. by Claire A. Nivola. 2010. HMH, $16 (9780547171845). K–Gr. 3.
Glaser introduces Emma as a fortunate child born into a family who wanted for nothing. Emma ultimately becomes a writer inspired by those who immigrated to America and wanted for everything. A facsimile image of the original handwritten copy of her poem “The New Colossus” is included in the book.
Liberty’s Voice: The Story of Emma Lazarus. By Erica Silverman. Illus. by Stacey Schuett. 2011. Dutton, $17.99 (9780525478591). Gr. 1–3.
Emma’s father publishes a book of her poems written during her teenage years. Notoriety from this book extends into further independent publishing of her work. Emma continues to write and is even mentored by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Accompanying ink-and-watercolor illustrations serve the historical setting, characters, and plot well.
Gabriela Mistral (1889–1957)
My Name Is Gabriela: The Life of Gabriela Mistral / Me llamo Gabriela: la vida de Gabriela Mistral. By Monica Brown. Illus. by John Parra. 2005. Cooper Square, $15.93 (9780873588591). K–Gr. 2.
This bilingual book, written in English and Spanish, introduces Gabriela, an imaginative child living in rural Chile. She becomes a teacher in her heart and then as a vocation. As an educator and poet, Gabriela traveled the world advocating for children in the realm of education.
Pablo Neruda (1904–73)
Ode to an Onion: Pablo Neruda and His Muse. By Alexandria Giardino. Illus. by Felicita Sala. 2018. Cameron + Co., $17.95 (9781944903343). PreS–Gr. 3.
This picture book is less a biography, more an invitation to lunch with Pablo Neruda and his beloved Matilde. Through colorful paintings, we watch them gathering vegetables and experiencing the same walk from opposite points of view; where sensitive Pablo sees sorrow, Matilde counters with feelings of happiness and wonder.
Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People. By Monica Brown. Illus. by Julie Paschkis. 2011. Holt, $16.99 (9780805091984). Gr. 1–3.
Neftali is a child who lives in Chile—an adventurer and collector. With his interest in books and the encouragement of his teacher, Gabriela Mistral, Neftali gains confidence as a writer. The young writer Neftali ultimately blossoms into the poet Pablo Neruda. Collections of Spanish and English words are woven into the illustrations.
To Go Singing through the World: The Childhood of Pablo Neruda. By Deborah Kogan Ray. Illus. by the author. 2006. Farrar/Frances Foster, o.p. Gr. 3–5.
As a young boy raised in Chile, Neftali explored and collected natural objects. He discovered solace in reading and was encouraged by his teacher, Gabriela Mistral, to be a poet. Neftali became the poet and humanitarian Pablo Neruda. His collections of objects became collections of words, crafted into poems. Neruda’s poems are integrated into the narrative and featured at the end of the book. The book includes bibliographic notes of Neruda and Mistral. It also includes a map and chronology of Neruda’s life.
Jalaluddin Rumi (1207–73)
Rumi: Whirling Dervish. By Demi. Illus. by the author. 2009. Marshall Cavendish, $19.99 (9780761455271). Gr. 5–8.
For much of Rumi’s early life, he was a teacher seeking a teacher. His spiritual awakening was the culminating lifelong journey from his head to his heart. This “mystical poet” became renowned for his poetry and his circle dance of prayer. This book includes many of his poems and stories. The gilded, celebratory pictures create shimmering beauty from the smallest details, and children will be particularly drawn to the scenes of dervishes whirling in perfect harmony.
Carl Sandburg (1878–1967)
Carl Sandburg: Adventures of a Poet. By Penelope Niven. Illus. by Marc Nadel. 2003. HMH, o.p. Gr. 2–5.
The son of Swedish immigrants living in Illinois, Carl Sandburg traveled and did odd jobs as a young man. He became a soldier, journalist, musician, historian, and poet. Excerpts from his writing as well as poems are featured on the right side of every page spread, while the left side offers context. The book includes a biographical time line juxtaposed with historical events.
Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753–84)
Phillis Sings Out Freedom: The Story of George Washington and Phillis Wheatley. By Ann Malaspina. Illus. by Susan Keeter. 2010. Albert Whitman, o.p. Gr. 2–4.General George Washington is worried that his soldiers will never be able to defeat the British. In December of 1775, Washington receives an inspiring poetic letter from Phillis Wheatley. Keeter’s rich oil paintings are full of period details that help to clarify both the war scenes and Wheatley’s life. Although the connection between Washington and Wheatley is somewhat tenuous, the story should help young readers to see the bigger picture of both the war and colonial life.
Phillis’s Big Test. By Catherine Clinton. Illus. by Sean Qualls. 2008. HMH, $16 (9780618737390). K–Gr. 2.
Though she was embraced and educated by the Wheatley family, Phillis was still a slave. As she prepares to publish her first book of poems, publication is halted by Boston printers who can’t believe a slave could accomplish such a thing. In this book, we follow Phillis as she walks to an examination where a group of prominent men will interrogate her, revealing her reflections and anticipations. Qualls’ mixed-media art enlivens every page, though teachers will have to provide copies of Phillis’ poetry separately, as it is not included in the book.
A Voice of Her Own: The Story of Phillis Wheatley, Slave Poet. By Kathryn Lasky. Illus. by Paul Lee. 2003. Candlewick, $16.99 (9780763602529). Gr. 2–4.
In this picture-book biography, Lasky follows America’s first black female poet from the horrific slave ship she was named for to the slave-owning Wheatley home, where Phillis’ owners educated her as an experiment. Phillis mastered several languages and began to write original verse, eventually publishing a volume of poems and gaining wide acclaim. In evocative language that’s rich with historical detail, Lasky shows not only the facts of Wheatley’s life but also the pain of being an accomplished black woman in a segregated world.
Walt Whitman (1819–92)
Walt Whitman: Words for America. By Barbara Kerley. Illus. by Brian Selznick. 2004. Scholastic, $16.95 (9780439357913). Gr. 4–8.
Whitman becomes personally impacted by the Civil War when his young brother is injured in battle. Whitman travels to be with his brother, but his presence additionally brings comfort to many of the ailing. His compassion and devotion for these soldiers inspired many of his poems. Examples of Whitman’s poetry are included at the end of the book.
William Carlos Williams (1883–1963)
A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams. By Jen Bryant. Illus. by Melissa Sweet. 2008. Eerdmans, $17 (9780802853028). Gr. 2–5.
Poetry was an integral part of William Carlos Williams’ day since childhood. In a hurried adult life as a physician, Dr. Williams continued to take stolen moments to craft poems. The book includes a bibliographic and historical time line and features his poems on the endpapers.Kristin Rydholm, a frequent contributor to Book Links, is currently working as the instructional assistant at the Library Technology Center of the Joseph Sears School, in Kenilworth (IL).
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