Telling a Life in Poetry

I love reading biographies, and when an author succeeds in telling the story of a person’s life in poetry– that’s magic. In honor of National Poetry Month, here are three favorites I have come across lately.

 

RUNAWAY: THE DARING ESCAPE OF ONA JUDGE by Ray Anthony Shepard, Illustrated by Keith Mallett. (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2021)

Shepard manages to break open history in a way that is bracing and forthright. Many young readers may not know that there were enslaved people in the household of our nation’s first president, George Washington. Ona Judge was one of those enslaved people, and she escapes in this dramatic and poetic story of her life. Shepard uses lyrical language and repetition in such an effective way. As Shepard writes in the backmatter, “In my poem, I reclaim those questions to show the inherent humanity of the enslaved.” I love this book and the illustrations by Keith Mallett are breathtakingly beautiful.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T: ARETHA FRANKLIN, QUEEN OF SOUL by Carole Boston Weatherford, Illustrated by Frank Morrison. (Atheneum, 2020)

Masterful poet Weatherford manages to tell the story of Aretha Franklin’s life in a spare, poetic text that highlights adversity as well as Franklin’s rise to fame. The story is told in COUPLETS, and it works beautifully! And they all have the same end rhyme– a poetic feat. In less than 300 words, Weatherford conveys the Queen of Soul’s life, her struggles, hardships, and glorious moments of triumph.

GRASPING MYSTERIES: GIRLS WHO LOVED MATH by Jeannine Atkins. (Atheneum, 2020)  

In this middle-grade work in verse, Atkins portrays the life of seven women who employed math in their trailblazing lives. A Native American statistician, two astronomers, a scientist who mapped the ocean floor…each portrait in verse uses precise, poetic language to show us the subjects in childhood, their love of math, and their striking accomplishments. Atkins drew me into each life with finely crafted images, lyrical language, and a sense of wonder. As she writes in the backmatter, “History can happen when no one watches, as simply as a girl wonders about the sea, counts backward, turns over a rock, or reaches up holding the string of a kite.”  With beautiful illustrations by Victoria Assanelli.

As I work on my various projects, including a poetry collection and a picture book biography, these poets inspire me! I hope they inspire you, too. Happy National Poetry Month!

On Fridays, I love taking part in Poetry Friday when I can, where writers share their love of all things poetry. This week, Mary Lee hosts the Poetry Friday Roundup today at A Year of Reading. Check out the feast of poetry there today, and all the treasures abounding for National Poetry Month!

6 comments

  1. Linda Mitchell says:

    ooooh! I can’t wait to get my hands on R-E-S-P-C-E-C-T! And, I had the good fortune to hear an early version of Oney Judge read by Ray. It’s a compelling story and a wonderfully captivating form he uses to tell it. I’m so glad that book is out, now.

  2. haitiruth says:

    I’m reading Fever 1793 with my Haitian students, and I was happy to tell them about how Philadelphia was a less segregated place than much of the US, and how there were so many free Black people there – and then a video about the history reminded us that George Washington was living there (it was the US capital at the time) with his family and enslaved people. C’mon, George! You could have done better!
    Ruth, thereisnosuchthingasagodforsakentown.blogspot.com

Leave a Reply to Mary E. Cronin Cancel reply