9 Poetry Books by Master Wordsmiths: Nikki Grimes, Andrea Davis Pinkney, & Others

As part of our continuing coverage of Black History Month, I’m thrilled to be able to introduce the following poetry titles from legends such as Hope Anita Smith, Carole Boston Weatherford, and Mahogany L. Browne (watch her reading of “Black Girl Magic”). Each collection is unforgettable in its mastery of form, style, and subject, from Lesa Cline-Ransome’s luminous biography in verse to Nikki Grimes’s use of the golden shovel (Newbery prediction alert!).

Also check out our previous roundups on picture books, nonfiction, and middle grade and YA fantasy titles. More to come!

BROWNE, Mahogany L. Black Girl Magic: A Poem. illus. by Jess X. Snow. 40p. Roaring Brook. Jan. 2018. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781250173720.
Gr 6 Up–In this book-length poem, Browne, the cofounder of Brooklyn Slam, chronicles the many injustices, limitations, and stereotypes that Black girls face, leading up to a resounding celebration of Black girlhood and a rejection of all that is harmful. Browne’s verse radiates energy and urgency, achieved through patiently building up momentum and then cutting it with voltalike segments: “You ain’t ‘posed to dream at all/You ain’t ‘posed to do/Nothing but carry babies/And carry/Weaves/Felons/Families/Confusion/Silence./And carry a nation—/But never an opinion.” The rhythm and use of enjambment lends the work a spoken word–like cadence, making this an imminently readable poem. The ending chorus of “You Black girl shine!/You Black girl bloom!…” will stick with readers long after they have closed the book. Snow and Key’s striking illustrations keep to a limited color palette of white, black, red, and gold, a choice that is elegant and effective, conveying a raw honesty. Nearly every spread could be framed. While the picture book format may signal younger readers, its often intimate content is more appropriate for tweens and teens. VERDICT Browne celebrates a Black girlhood that is free, unforgettable, and luminous. Middle and high school poetry collections will want to consider.–Melissa Williams, Berwick Academy, ME

This review was published in the School Library Journal January 2018 issue.

redstarCLINE-RANSOME, Lesa. Before She was Harriet. illus. by James E. Ransome. 32p. Holiday House. Nov. 2017. Tr $17.95. ISBN 9780823420476.

Gr 3-6 –Before and after Harriet Tubman became the stalwart conductor leading enslaved people to freedom on the Underground Railroad, she played many remarkable roles during her long life. Cline-Ransome honors Tubman in lyrical verse, beginning when the heroine is “tired and worn/her legs stiff/her back achy.” In each stanza, Tubman looks back to the time “before she was an old woman.” She recalls speaking out against injustice as a suffragist providing “a voice for women/who had none/in marriages/in courts/in voting booths.” She recollects everything she accomplished during the Civil War, spying for the Union and nursing the wounded. Looking back even farther, she remembers leading her people out of bondage and then her own arduous years in the slave owners’ fields. Before all of this, Tubman was a little girl named Araminta who dreamed of the time she would “leave behind slavery/along with her name/and pick a new one/Harriet.” Each episode in her compelling life is illustrated by a luminous watercolor. The expertly done expressive paintings evoke Tubman’s strength and integrity showing “the wisp of a woman with the courage of a lion.” VERDICT This lovely tribute effectively communicates Tubman’s ­everlasting bravery and resolve, and will ­inspire curious readers to learn more.–Linda L. Walkins, Saint Joseph Preparatory High School, Boston

This review was published in the School Library Journal October 2017 issue.

GIOVANNI, Nikki. I Am Loved. illus. by Ashley Bryan. 32p. S. & S./Atheneum. Jan. 2018. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781534404922.
PreS-Gr 4–This dynamic collection of verse thrums with musical language, exploring the interconnectedness between individuals and generations, humanity and nature. Pulsing through each brief poem is a leitmotif of love, and Bryan’s warm illustrations underscore the book’s comforting refrain. While a few poems are bittersweet, dealing with aging and loss, serene and contented elements emerge amid the wistfulness. Non-religious spirituality pervades Giovanni’s language with a reverence for nature, and for life itself, in simple words that will resonate with young and old. “No Heaven” questions “How can there be/No heaven/When rain falls/gently on the grass/When sunshine scampers/across my toes.” “Kidnap Poem” is especially metaphor-rich and overall lush, and the final poem, “Do the Rosa Parks” is perfect for reading to groups of young children, as it invites recitation and movement. Bryan’s bold illustrations reflect the energy of the verses, splashing rainbows of rich color across every page. The paintings highlight a particularly poignant line or illuminate wording that some young readers might find complex, thereby aiding their meaning-making process. Children will especially enjoy the mirror included beside the poem “I Am a Mirror,” a luminous verse that speaks of resilience. VERDICT A recommended addition to all picture book poetry collections, one that encourages children to embrace their personal histories and to love and be loved. A vibrant burst of positivity for readers of any age.–Melissa Williams, Berwick Academy, ME

This review was published in the School Library Journal January 2018 issue.

nf-sp-grimes-onelastwordredstarGRIMES, Nikki. One Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissance. illus. by various. 128p. bibliog. index. Bloomsbury. Jan. 2017. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9781619635548.

Gr 6 Up –In this innovative and powerful compendium, Grimes pairs original poems with classics from the Harlem Renaissance. In a brief historical note on the period, she acknowledges the significance of black artists giving voice to the experiences of black life and cites the continued relevance of the literature of the period in a society that, decades later, still struggles with racial identity and injustice. The author credits as inspiration the messages of hope, perseverance, survival, and positivity she finds in the work of poets like Countee Cullen, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and Langston Hughes, and she, too, explores these themes in her own poems. Furthermore, Grimes brilliantly uses the words of her literary predecessors to structure the book, employing the golden shovel, a form in which the words from selected lines or stanzas are borrowed, only to become the last words of each line in a new poem. The result is not only a beautiful homage to the Harlem Renaissance but also a moving reflection on the African American experience and the resilience of the human spirit: “The past is a ladder/that can help you/keep climbing.” In addition, each pair of poems—each of Grimes’s works follows the poem that inspired it—is accompanied by a full-color illustration by a prominent African American illustrator. Featured artists include Pat Cummings, E.B. Lewis, Christopher Myers, Brian Pinkney, and Javaka Steptoe, among others, and the back matter contains brief poet and illustrator biographies. VERDICT This unique and extraordinary volume is a first purchase for all middle school poetry collections.–Lauren Strohecker, McKinley Elementary School, Elkins Park, PA

This review was published in the School Library Journal January 2018 issue.

redstarPINKNEY, Andrea Davis. Martin Rising: Requiem for a King. illus. by Brian Pinkney. 128p. bibliog. chron. notes. photos. Scholastic. Jan. 2018. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9780545702539.

Gr 4 Up –A powerful celebration of Martin Luther King Jr., set against the last few months of his life and written in verse. Divided into three sections, (“Daylight,” “Darkness,” and “Dawn”), Andrea Davis Pinkney’s poems focus on the winter and spring of 1968, from King’s birthday on January 15 through the horror of his assassination on April 4 and end with a tribute to his legacy of hope on Easter Sunday, April 14. The poems begin broadly, painting a portrait of spring emerging in Memphis as garbage collectors fight against discriminatory wage policies, ultimately bringing King to that city to organize and uplift the movement. But as the last moments of King’s life tick away, the narrative zooms in, detailing the emotional beats of his final public speeches, the feverish exhaustion of long days and nights away from home, and the relief of stolen moments of leisure with his closest friends. Throughout, the crowds filling churches seeking inspiration and bravely marching in the face of violence are as much a part of the story as King himself. Brian Pinkney’s watercolor, gouache, and India ink illustrations convey warm moments of victory and joy, as well as the darkness and chaos of loss, through swirls of color. Impressionistic brush-stroke portraits of King alternate with spreads full of faces listening, marching, and mourning. Back matter includes author and artist reflections, a time line, and additional historical information with photographs. VERDICT Beautifully illustrated and begging to be read aloud, this poetry collection is an exceptional classroom tool for civil rights lessons and offers much for individual readers to linger over.–Chelsea Couillard-Smith, Hennepin County Library, MN

This review was published in the School Library Journal January 2018 issue.

STAR-NF-Smith-MyDaddyRulestheWorldredstarSMITH, Hope Anita. My Daddy Rules the World: Poems About Dads. illus. by Hope Anita Smith. 32p. Holt/Christy Ottaviano Bks. May 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780805091892.

PreS-Gr 3 –Dedicated to “every man ‘fathering’ a child,” this volume spotlights the bond between dads and their kids. Written in a child’s voice, the poems depict dads snoring, making breakfast, giving a haircut or guitar lesson, wrestling, playing catch, teaching a child to ride a bike, and reading. “Love Letter” is about writing to a military dad abroad: “My daddy—/he is far away./I wish him home/most every day.” The one exception to the child-narrated voice is the call-and-response poem “Daddy!,” which prompts listeners with questions: “Who do you like? Who do you love?/Daddy!/Who do you wrestle? Who do you shove?/ Daddy!…. Who shows you the world from the top of his head?/Daddy!/Who tells you a story and puts you to bed?/Daddy!” The final selection, also the title poem, describes a near-perfect dad: “He helps me with my homework/and always gets it right./He teaches me ‘most of the time,/it’s better not to fight.’/…. Whenever I have a problem,/he knows just what to do:/‘In order to solve anything,/be honest, kind, and true.’ ” The torn-paper collage illustrations depict faceless children and their dads sharing special moments together. The youngsters are boys and girls with a variety of skin and hair colors, thus representing every child—if only every child could have a father as loving and attentive as the ones portrayed in this book. The poems are accessible and a true celebration of fatherhood. Pair with Javaka Steptoe’s award-winning In Daddy’s Arms I Am Tall, another work of poetry and collage on the same subject. VERDICT A lovely addition to poetry collections that may just inspire kids to write verse of their own.–Barbara Auerbach, New York City Public Schools

This review was published in the School Library Journal April 2017 issue.

redstarWEATHERFORD, Carole Boston. In Your Hands. illus. by Brian Pinkney. 32p. S. & S./Atheneum. Sept. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781481462938.

PreS-Gr 3 –From award-winning Weatherford (Voice of FreedomMoses), this poem from a black mother to her firstborn son will resonate as a prayer for all black boys. A mother holds her child’s hand while expressing her hopes for his safety, his confidence, and a world that will see him as a “vessel to be steered rather than a figure to be feared.” The narrative moves through the child’s life and the struggle most parents go through when they realize that they can no longer hold their children close and protect them, but acknowledges that extra worry that parents of black boys face as the mother asks God to hold her son in his hands. The book ends with the mother adding her prayer to the chorus: “Black lives matter. Your life matters.” The text is given the space to shine opposite Pinkney’s art, with font size changes for impact. The illustrations, loose and fluid pastel watercolors with India ink outlines, offer a sense of warmth and comfort with swirls around the images projecting the mother’s love. Hands are integral to each picture, with larger hands at times representing God embracing the young boy. A final image shows God’s hands enveloping a world where everyone holds hands as the mother ends, “Hold my son in your hands.” VERDICT An exceptional gift to black families, and with its important underlying messages of our times, this title should be added to most library collections. Best shared one-on-one with a loved one.–Danielle Jones, Multnomah County Library, OR

This review was published in the School Library Journal July 2017 issue.

redstarWEATHERFORD, Carole Boston. Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library. illus. by Eric Velasquez. 48p. bibliog. chron. notes. Candlewick. Sept. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780763680466.

Gr 3-6 –Born in 1874, Afro-Puerto Rican Arturo Schomburg’s sense of wonder was stoked early on by listening to el lector, who read aloud from newspapers and novels to the cigar workers Schomburg kept company. When a teacher asserted that “Africa’s sons and daughters” had no history or heroes worth noting, it sparked Schomburg’s lifelong quest to uncover his people’s stories, “correcting history for generations to come.” He immigrated to New York in 1891, and though stymied in his hopes to pursue higher education, began amassing a collection of Africana books and art. Through text and art, Weatherford and Velasquez craft a winning portrait of both collector and his collection. Oversize oil-on-watercolor paintings accompany each page of text: one arresting image finds young Schomburg immersed in a book, with a portrait of Benjamin Bannecker hanging above his shoulder. Velasquez captures Schomburg’s proud bearing and intent focus. His research led to writers and poets, including Frederick Douglass and poet Phillis Wheatley; revolutionaries like Toussaint Louverture; and luminaries whose “African heritage had been whitewashed,” including John James Audubon and Ludwig van Beethoven. By day, Schomburg worked as a mailroom clerk, but his collecting and scholarship introduced him to members of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. Schomburg’s collection was donated to the New York Public Library and now boasts over 10 million items. VERDICT This excellent work of history illuminates Schomburg and his legendary collection for a new generation—it belongs in all public and school libraries.–Marilyn Taniguchi, Beverly Hills Public Library, CA

This review was published in the School Library Journal August 2017 issue.

redstarWRIGHT, Richard & Nina Crews. Seeing into Tomorrow. illus. by Nina Crews. 32p. further reading. photos. Millbrook. Feb. 2018. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9781512418651.

K-Gr 3 –This book collects 12 of Wright’s outstanding haiku, written 50 years ago and still available in the anthology, Haiku: The Last Poems of an American Icon. The poems offer a view of the world through the lens of his experience, but the appreciation of nature and the emotions felt in such moments have a universal appeal. Crews uses photo collage to illustrate each scene. She explains, “I photographed African American boys for this book, because I wanted the reader to imagine the world through a young brown boy’s eyes.” Crews shows familiar scenes of boys playing on a shady porch, walking a dog, or writing in snow with a mittened finger. Her chosen medium emphasizes how haiku creates snapshots of single instances or feelings. The final poem ends with the phrase “seeing into tomorrow,” which inspired the book’s title. On the page, readers will see a young boy gazing up into a brilliant blue sky as if he can glimpse the future. An archival photo of Wright reading to his young daughter accompanies the introduction, and a brief biography of Wright along with a list for further reading is included in the back matter. VERDICT A must for all children’s collections. These verses are an introduction to haiku as well as an entry point into Wright’s work; they can be read aloud to younger children or enjoyed independently by older readers.–Suzanne Costner, Fairview Elementary School, Maryville, TN

This review was published in the School Library Journal January 2018 issue.

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