I always feel a little bit inadequate when I review a book of poetry or a book about a poet, even if it’s for kids. I feel like I’m encroaching on someone else’s territory or something. Like I’m some kind of verse-based interloper trespassing where I am ignorant. And the feeling only gets worse when I’m dealing with a person with whom I am not truly familiar. Fortunately, if I ever needed a book to give me the skinny on a poet in terms even an eight-year-old could appreciate, A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams fits the bill. I’m not ashamed to admit that I didn’t know even the smallest smidgen of a fact surrounding Mr. Williams before I started this book (well . . . maybe I’m a little ashamed). But this book has melded text and image alongside fact and narrative so seamlessly, you’ll walk around for days wondering why more picture book bios aren’t written about the great poets of the past. There is no good answer to this question.
What makes one poet’s life any more noteworthy than another’s? Sometimes it is found in the very ordinariness of their life. William Carlos Williams, Willie to his friends, was an inquisitive boy with an ear for poetry, both in nature and in the words of the great linguists of the past. He wrote poems in his spare time, honing his craft, but when practical matters were at hand he trained as a doctor and set up a practice in Rutherford, New Jersey. Over the years he would continue to work on his poems, shaping them when he was able. An extensive Timeline and Author’s Note at the end go on to explain how William finally was recognized as a great poet in his sixties. An Illustrator’s Note explains how Melissa Sweet found a way to illustrate the book. A small bibliography is included for further reading (with websites and a suggested video) and nine poems (three excerpted) are visible on the endpapers for closer examination, though they appear throughout the book in one form or another.
I was talking with someone the other day about the essential puzzle of the picture book biography. Throwing aside the concerns about the millions of subjects out there who have led less than entirely child-friendly lives (for example I suspect you won’t be seeing the picture book bio of Robert Evans anytime soon), there’s also the puzzle of what to tell and how much. When you’ve only 32 pages with which to work, how do you cull a life into its most essential moments? Now add to all of this the problems that come with artists. You couldn’t write a bio of Andy Warhol without looking at his paintings, could you? You couldn’t mention Michelangelo without getting in a shot of David, right? But do you include ALL their famous works, or just a sample? And if it’s just a sample, does that really and truly reflect who the artist is? If we’re a sum of our parts, why on earth would you pick and choose amongst them? Now in the case of William Carlos Williams, Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet had an advantage. He was a poet? Then the poetry must be everywhere. It should inform every image, appear in the details and borders of the pages. And then, if you want the book to also be practical, you can put a selection of the man’s greatest or best-known poems on the endpapers for easy access. Do it wrong and you’ve got yourself a noxious muddle. Do it right and you’ve a delicate balance between fact and art. And Bryant and Sweet are definitely in the latter category.
Bryant’s decision here was to tell only as much of William’s life as would fit within her story. The focus isn’t on related rote facts about a great man (though there are plenty of those at the end of the book if needed) but to show the process through which a person becomes a poet. The story embodies the idea of living and breathing your art, even when you have other practical day-to-day considerations to attend to. It’s not a very romantic notion, that of a man holding down a steady job AND writing poems on the sly, but it is a rather inspiring one. It suggests that no matter how ordinary a life is it can be made extraordinary by its subject’s appreciation of that ordinariness. Williams wrote poems about plums and chickens and wheelbarrows for a reason, and Bryant has perfectly hit upon why that is and how he found a way to make each poem, “find its own special shape on the page.”
In her Illustrator’s Note Melissa Sweet writes, “Every project furthers an artist, but this book was a true gift.” She is implying that the gift was to her, but I’d quibble with that and say it was instead a gift to us. I look at another of Sweet’s 2008 publications, Tupelo Rides the Rails and while it’s a touching tale, the art is certainly different from Bryant’s tale. In A River of Words Sweet goes wild. She illustrates book covers and ephemera, report cards and title pages. Words are handwritten on scraps of paper, or stuck together like exalted ransom notes. They gleam gold or burn blue, and the images of Williams are fit in so that instead of being lost in the whirl of words, they stand out and grab your eye. In a sense this book reminded me of The Boy Who Loved Words by Roni Schotter but with a softer, more practical edge. Words really are everywhere in this art. They’re embedded in bowls of plums and writ large within the roofs of homes. Visually, the book pairs rather well with another small publisher title from 2008, The Storyteller’s Candle by Lucia Gonzalez. I sometimes feel that mixed media is becoming more and more popular with artists in this age of computers, technology and smooth shiny gadgets. And certainly cut magazines and newspapers are cropping up in everything from Carin Berger’s, The Little Yellow Leaf to this, Sweet’s latest.
I do not think that it is a stretch to say that a lot of kids get their first introduction to William Carlos Williams through Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog. I do not think that it is a stretch to say that a lot of parents, teachers, and librarians probably ALSO discover Mr. Williams that way (though most would be loathe to admit it). So perhaps a unit on poetry or an assignment in conjunction with Poetry Month would pair beautifully with Bryant and Sweet’s newest book. Picture book biographies of poets can be tricky, difficult things. They demand an artistic sensibility entirely of their own making. Both Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet have found their own ways of dealing with the challenges that come with such a book as this. And these solutions when brought together make for a visual and audible stunner. Kudos to everyone involved. Kudos all around.
On shelves now.
Note on the Design: All right. Full credit to Eerdmans today, people. Take a gander at the endpapers on this puppy, won’t you? Yes, they’re very pretty in their own right. Green with little squares of varying shades. Lovely sure, but what is striking is that the nine poems featured here are arranged in such a way as to completely avoid falling under the bookflaps. Now you might think that was a minor detail, but it suggests that Eerdmans is aware of how libraries deal with picture books. More than anything else, we like to glue down bookflaps to the books themselves. And if we don’t do that, then we tape ‘em down (after they’ve been appropriately swathed in plastic, of course) rendering any cute little details beneath completely and utterly gone. I can’t tell you how many big publishing companies will put their accompanying CDs there, or an important dot of information (see Phooey by Marc Rosenthal if you don’t believe me). So even more kudos to the good people of Grand Rapids, Michigan for getting this one right. Librarians everywhere should salute you!
Other Blog Reviews:
- Fairrosa’s Reading Journal (in verse no less)
- The Planet Esme Plan
- A Year in Reading (also in verse)
- Helen Foster James
Other Web Reviews:
- See the book as it was in progress when Alison Morris visited Melissa Sweet’s studio.
- And there’s an interview with Ms. Sweet over at A Year of Reading.
- The plum poem gets a (deserved) drubbing over at Read Roger.
- You can download a PDF of a discussion guide of this book from the Eerdmans site if you like.
- The title was a Junior Library Guild selection and recently appeared on the 2008 NYT Best Illustrated Children’s Books list.
- And finally it’s Poetry Friday, y’all. Yat-Yee Chong has the round-up.