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When I was young and falling in love with poetry, most of the poems I read were written by dead poets, but even if they lived long ago and far away, I wondered about their lives. Where did they live? What were their childhoods like? Did they have other jobs? Why did they write poetry? And so began my research. Discovering more about the lives of the poets increased my interest in and love of poetry.
Although poets don’t trend high in the celebrities we follow these days, we can find biographical notes in collections of their poetry and the occasional full-book biography. I’m encouraged that more books about poets are being published for childrens and teens, who can read about poets in picture book, middle grade, or YA biographies, and can find fictional works, too, in which the poets appear. Here are a few selected titles that provide insights into the lives and personalities of poets whose works deserve to be read and pondered. (All of the poets are dead except one.) Included, too, are collections of the poet’s work in editions targeting children or teens.
A picture book introduction to Emily Dickinson called simply Emily, written by Michael Bedard and illustrated by Barbara Cooney, portrays the reclusive poet from the point of view of a girl who moves with her family into a house across the street. At times the simple rhythms of the picture book text call to mind the lyrical brevity of a Dickinson poem. Looking out the window in winter, the little girl observes: “There was no one there but winter, all in white.” Eventually the girl goes to the poet’s house and they exchange gifts – lily bulbs from the girl to the poet and a poem to the girl from the poet: “Who has not found the Heaven --/ below --/ will fail of it above --/ For Angels rent the house next ours,/Whenever we remove –”
In 1978 Stemmer House published a collection of eighty-one poems by Emily Dickinson, called I’m Nobody! Who Are You? Among the poems are the title poem and “There is no frigate like a book.” Colored pencil illustrations depict idyllic New England scenery of green meadows and bright flowers, bugs, butterflies and people in clothing of the period. The art has an old-fashioned appeal, but the poems remain timeless.
William Carlos William
Biographies of William Carlos Williams targeting a child audience are rare. A River of Words, written by Jen Bryant with illustrations by Melissa Sweet, highlights aspects of Williams’s life that informed his decision to become a poet while also practicing medicine. Nine of his poems are featured on the end pages, and numerous drafts of his poems appear as background for text and the collage art that depicts everyday objects that were of great importance to a poet who broke away from constrictions of formal poetry and its meter and rhyme.
One of Williams’ poems “The Red Wheel Barrow” features in Sharon Creech’s verse novel Love That Dog. Middle graders who read the novel will have the chance to ponder the famous poem by Williams, and they may be just as perplexed as narrator Jack, who questions what is so important about a red wheelbarrow and why everything depends on it. Readers may further identify with Jack’s resistance to reading and writing poetry which he nevertheless explains in a series of unrhymed poems. Gradually as he expresses himself through writing, he discovers the power of poetry.
Walter Dean Myers
In Love That Dog, the fictional Jack (above) also meets the actual poet Walter Dean Myers, who currently serves as National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Jack’s teacher uses the first stanza of Myers’ poem “Love That Boy” as a model for the students to write poetry. Using the model, Jack is inspired to write “Love That Dog.” A cameo of Walter Dean Myers in a verse novel is not a biography, but Jack’s poem about the poet’s visit gives a distilled portrait: “ . . . And when you read/ your poems/you had the/ best, best, BEST/voice/low and deep and friendly and warm/like it was reaching out and/wrapping us all up/in a big squeeze/and when you laughed/you had the/best best BEST/laugh I’ve ever heard in my life/like it was coming from way down deep/and bubbling up and/ rolling and tumbling/ out into the air . . . .”
After that brief introduction to Walter Dean Myers, readers may want to check out not only his prose works but his poetry as well. Blues Journey, illustrated by Christopher Myers, is a book that both describes and demonstrates the blues. In a series of short, rhythmic blues poems, Myers refers to the the collective struggle of African Americans and the trials of individuals from the Middle Passage to contemporary America. Bold illustrations dominated by deep blue and brown tones are almost audible.
Pablo Neruda (Neftali Reyes)
The Dreamer by Pam Munoz Ryan is a fictional, poetic, moving exploration of the childhood of Nobel-prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda. Eschewing the realism of dates and facts, Munoz Ryan focuses on the intellectual and emotional development of a unique Chilean poet whose love of nature and commitment to speak for the underdog inspired rich, musical, and surrealistic poems with both sophisticated and childlike observations. Inspired by Neruda’s Book of Questions, Munoz Ryan creates her own questions (“In the largest of worlds,/ what adventures await/ the smallest of ships?”) which are as thought-provoking as the illustrations by Peter Sis. An author’s note, ten poems by Neruda, and a bibliography appear in the afterward.
Pablo Neruda, Poet of the People by Monica Brown and illustrated by Julie Paschkis presents young Neruda to a picture book audience. Brown captures Neruda’s love of nature in poetic prose worthy of its subject. The book is an inspiration and a visual delight.
Another picture book biography of Neruda, To Go Singing through the World, written and illustrated by Deborah Kogan Ray, incorporates Neruda’s poetry throughout her lyrical picture book text, one that focuses on Neruda’s happier experiences of childhood.
I have yet to come across an extensive selection of Neruda’s poems that would appeal to and be appropriate for young readers. With Neruda’s growing popularity, young readers would benefit from a collection targeting them. Perhaps one will be forthcoming soon.
Anyone who has ever heard of Sylvia Plath will think “genius” and “suicide.” A film of her autbiographical novel The Bell Jar is currently in production and when released will introduce her to a new generation. There is no need to wait for the film though. You can check out Plath’s novel from the library or order it from your favorite bookstore. Another moving book about Plath is Stephanie Hemphill’s verse portrait Your Own, Sylvia, in which Hemphill gives a passionate and inspired rendering of Plath’s life, not a just-the-facts biography, although dates, places, and names appear in footnotes, but an interpretation of a poet’s dark journey through life and the intense and painfully beautiful poetry she crafted.
Many collections of Plath’s work are available including Colossus, Plath’s first volume of poetry, and Ariel, her last, written with manic energy at two or three poems a day. These collections reveal Plath from her arrival on the scene as a talented poet to her departure as a myth.
Brilliant though she was, Plath is most often associated with anger, doom, and depression. Another aspect of her character is revealed in three whimsical works for children that can be found in Collected Children’s Stories of Sylvia Plath illustrated by David Roberts. Among the works is “The Bed Book,” a playful poem with a rhythm that inspires jumping on the bed. My choice of beds: “In a Spottable Bed/ It never matters? Where jam rambles/And where paint splatters!”
Recommended books in order of appearance:
Emily by Michael Bedard, illustrated by Barbara Cooney (Dragonfly Books of Random House, New York, 2002).
I’m Nobody! Who are You? Poems of Emily Dickinson ( Emily Dickinson), illustrated by Rex Schneider with an introduction by Richard B. Sewall (Stemmer House, Owings Mills, Maryland, 1978).
A River of Words by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, GrandRapids, Michigan, 2008).
Love That Dog by Sharon Creech (Joanna Cotler Book, HarperCollins Publishers, NY, 2003).
Blues Journey by Walter Dean Myers, illustrated by Christopher Myers (Holiday House, NY, 2003).
The Dreamer by Pam Munoz Ryan with illustrations by Peter Sis (Scholastic Press, NY, 2010).
Pablo Neruda, Poet of the People by Monica Brown, illustrated by Julie Paschkis (Henry Holt, NY, 2011).
To Go Singing through the World written and illustrated by Deborah Kogan Ray (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, NY, 2006).
Your Own Sylvia, a verse portrait of Sylvia Plath by Stephanie Hemphill (Alfred A. Knopf, NY, 2007).
Collected Children’s Stories by Sylvia Plath, illustrated by David Roberts
(Faber Children’s Books, London, 1976).
Also mentioned in the text above:
The Bell Jar, a novel by Sylvia Plath (Faber and Faber, London ).
Colossus, poems by Sylvia Plath (Faber and Faber, London 208).
Ariel: the Restored Edition, poems by Sylvia Plath (Faber and Faber, London, 2004).
Juanita Havill's first book, Jamaica's Find, illustrated by Anne Sibley O'Brien, has been in print for twenty-five years. Among Havill's published works are picture books, an easy reader, middle grade novels, a poetry collection, and a verse novel Grow, which won the Santa Monica Public Library Green Prize for Youth Fiction. Her latest work is a picture book about horse rescue: Call the Horse Lucky.