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Walt Whitman: Words for America Hardcover – Oct 1 2004
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From School Library Journal
Starred Review. Grade 4 Up–An exuberant picture-book biography that focuses on Whitman's formative years and his selfless work as a Civil War nurse. Delightfully old-fashioned in design, its oversized pages are replete with graceful illustrations and snippets of poetry. The brilliantly inventive paintings add vibrant testimonial to the nuanced text. Kerley likens the poet's restless energy to the nation itself: "Walt wrote poems as free-ranging as his big robust country. More than anything, he hoped to become the voice of America." When the conflict begins, the artist supplies a somber-hued gallery of soldiers posed in their uniforms. As the war wears on, Kerley notes the fondness Whitman held for his embattled president, whom he'd often see on the streets of the capital. Forced to return home because of his health, he heard news of the war's end, and a few days later, of Lincoln's death. Kerley observes that at this point Whitman turned again to poetry to help himself, along with the nation, resolve his grief and turn toward peace and rebuilding. There are several excellent biographies for older readers that serve the needs of report writers. Libraries will want to add this unabashedly glowing tribute as well for the infectious zeal both author and illustrator bring to their subject and his writings, excerpts of which can be found woven seamlessly into the text and the art.–Marilyn Taniguchi, Beverly Hills Public Library, CA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Gr. 4-8. Although Whitman is most known for poetry "as free-ranging as his big, robust country," much of this treatment focuses on the writer's Civil War experiences providing company and small comforts to wounded soldiers. Lines of poetry elucidate Whitman's thoughts about the war, with the full text of the poems or sections of poems appearing at book's end. It's no surprise that this hasn't the instant appeal of Kerley and Selznick's The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Watkins (2002). The vicissitudes of a poet's life are of less inherent interest to young readers than dinosaur bones, and what whisper of excitement there is in Whitman's biography, Kerley downplays by focusing on his war-scarred twilight years rather than his reverberating "barbaric yawp" against starchy literary tradition. Like his collaborator's narrative, though, Selznick's contributions reflect a keen passion for research, right down to the subtle references to early editions of Leaves of Grass in the book's typeface and design. Try this sophisticated offering on readers who won't quail at the lengthy text and who will be less likely to skip the dense, illuminating endnotes. Younger readers may profit more from the more straightforward presentation of Whitman's words in Loren Long's excellent When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer, reviewed on p.583. Jennifer Mattson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Nor any more youth or age than there is now;
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now."
--One of my favorite passages from Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" from Leaves of Grass,
Technically speaking, "breathtaking" is a term which denotes a combined physical and emotional reaction that can sometimes result from a significant stimulus to one or more of the senses.
Unfortunately, "breathtaking," (often written as "BREATHTAKING!!!"), has become an over-utilized adjective that is regularly tossed out when describing teeth whiteners, automobiles, photos from Mars, movies in which one or more people die, vacation rentals, revealing swim attire, and various other goods and services being offered for sale.
Therefore, I hesitate to use the term "breathtaking," even though it most accurately describes my initial reaction to a series of Brian Selznick's illustrations in the upcoming WALT WHITMAN: WORDS FOR AMERICA, Selznick's second illustrated biography with author Barbara Kerley.
This is a very different book for me than their previous collaboration, THE DINOSAURS OF WATERHOUSE HAWKINS, which received a 2002 Caldecott Honor. I had never even heard of Waterhouse Hawkins, and thus my fondest memories of that book naturally tend toward aspects of the man's unusual story, such as the extraordinary New Year's Eve feast Hawkins hosted inside a life-size iguanodon model, and the horror of Boss Tweed's having ordered the destruction and burial of the models Hawkins had spent years painstakingly laboring to build for an ill-fated Central Park museum.
In the case of Walt Whitman, I grew up on Long Island near Walt Whitman Road, Walt Whitman Mall, and various Walt Whitman historic markers. I became basically familiar with the work of Walt Whitman in high school English classes, and already knew the general highlights of his life. What I was hoping for, when I learned that Brian and Barbara were working on this book, was a new look at the man that would cause myself and young readers to feel like we had really gotten to know this great American poet.
As with Waterhouse Hawkins, they have succeeded in this regard with Walt Whitman.
In WALT WHITMAN: WORDS FOR AMERICA, Barbara Kerley begins with a wonderful portrayal of the poet's younger years that will provoke questions about the lives of kids in that era.
"At age 12, he began work as a printer's apprentice, learning to typeset newspaper articles. He saw the boxes of letters as a great mystery, waiting to unfold. Awkwardly, he held the compositor's stick, eager to see the words form--letter by letter--beneath his inky fingers."
"Within two years he was setting articles that he himself had written. After the newspaper was printed, his heart thumped 'double beat' as he smoothed it open and admired his work. Even when he wasn't working, Walt surrounded himself with words. He listened to famous speakers and joined a debating society. He attended plays, appreciating a fine performance 'in every...cell' of his head and heart."
So how does Selznick begin his visual accompaniment to Kerley's words? Opposite the title page he illustrates a wooden-framed typeset of that facing title page--the perfect mirror image as far as the type itself is concerned. The surrounding pieces of wood are shaded with the hints of rose and purples that anyone intimately familar with wood-grains will be able to immediately feel on their fingertips and savor just by looking at them.
In fact, throughout the book, one of the aspects to repeatedly strike me about Selznick's illustrations is his incredible success in creating that feel of the various woodgrains and the lamplight which illuminates the wood, whether it is raw wood or honeyed from varnish, wax, or wear. There was no such thing as plastic in Whitman's lifetime, and I was constantly drawn to the fact that Brian's paintings so meticulously and (yes) breathtakingly portray in every detail the texture and materials of the 19th century world in which the poet lived.
And then there are Selznick's various paintings of Whitman himself, from boy to man, to elderly poet. There is one such large portrait thoroughly etched into my brain, where Whitman, apparently reacting to the assassination of Lincoln, stares pensively out at us while a few whisps of his white hair fall across his brow.
Another unforgettable (and heartbreaking) vision is that of a family at home during the Civil War, reacting to having just received a letter from Whitman letting them know that their son, whom Whitman had been caring for in a hospital, was no longer.
Beyond the actual story, both Kerley and Selznick provide thoroughly fascinating notes at the conclusion of the book. For instance, Brian notes that:
"Ms. [Barbara] Henry told me that the capital letters were placed on the upper shelf and the others on the lower shelf which is why we now have the terms 'uppercase' and 'lowercase.' "
The book also concludes with the poems from which the excerpts in the story are taken.
I knew a bunch about Walt Whitman, but for the first time the storied namesake of paved roads and shopping emporiums has become a real person for me, both in words and in pictures.
My favorite page is the one directly after the Civil War spread. It contains the portraits of Civil War soldiers. What makes this special is that each picture is based on an actual photo of real people, and the one portrait in color is really Whitman's brother George (I am using the same picture in my Masters Project). Each painting of the portrait really captures the expression of the soldiers. My other favorite painting is the close up of Whitman's face as an old man at the end of the book. The sparkle in his eye captures the sparkle in the man's entire life.
This is a fantastic book that I highly recommend. You should look at it as an experience - it is not a complete biography of America's famous poet, but an interactive experience between the important events in his life and the paintings that convey meaning and significance. I am very happy I came across this book, and I think everyone who buys and reads this book will also be impressed.
Aside from the circular picture of Walt standing with a cocky fist on his hip, your first image in this book of the man displays him at the tender age of 12. Working carefully as a typesetter for a newspaper (comparisons to Ben Franklin seem obvious at this point), Walt began his career as a poet with a job that put him into direct messy contact with all kinds of letters and words. In addition to creating his own newspaper at 19, Walt read fantastical stories for his own amusement. You see him as a young man rushing through the streets of Manhattan fully clothed and along the beaches of Long Island buck naked (tastefully, of course). As Walt grew, his concern for fellow human beings, including the slaves of the South, did as well. He published "Leaves of Grass", traveled the country, then became involved with the war between the states. It's the Civil War that takes up most of Walt's life in this book. Whether he was tending to those wounded in battle, debating his own feelings towards President Lincoln, or collapsing from the exhaustion of working too darn hard, the book follows Whitman hither and thither. By the end Whitman truly became the poet of the people, giving the world poems that have remained deeply embedded in the human psyche, whether we know it or not.
As with their previous collaboration, Kerly and Selznick follow up their book with a long and extended section of additional facts about Mr. Whitman. They talk about how they become interested in the project, where their research took them, and how they feel about the man. They offer addition info on his life (preferring not to mention the whole homosexual aspect, I guess), Lincoln's life, and what Walt's life was like after the war. They also include eight poems, some complete and some just important snippets. It makes for a truly comprehensive picture book, I can tell you.
The book itself, however, is a visual delight. There are some truly gutsy moves being made within its pages. At one point you see only a bright blue sky containing a yellow sun and fast moving clouds containing the words, "Whoever you are now I place my hand upon you that you be my poem". At another point Selznick takes the photographs of the wounded holding slates and puts a word from a Whitman poem on each and every one. I was pleased to note that the authentic daguerreotypes that Selznick has reproduced here include black as well as white soldiers (something not every illustrator would think to include). Finally, in a truly cute move, Selznick just barely includes the two oranges and paper crane he found at Whitman's grave in the picture of the same.
As picture biographies go, this one is wordy but worth it. Kerley knows how to write an exciting tale and Whitman makes for a remarkably exciting personality. He's one of those heroes you aren't ashamed to call as such. A wonderful addition for anyone whose juvenile Whitman section seems a bit lacking.
Never before have I seen a celebration of a poet's life done so wonderfully. It manages to capture the beautiful essence of the man, while explaining to children in an easy to understand manner. The life of Walt comes alive, from his childhood to the very last years of his life, and the text is peppered with awesome quotes from some of his most famous poems.
Particularly amazing his how Kerley describes Walt's selfless love of the Civl War soldiers whom he tended in Washington DC hospitals. His actions during this time show the depth of feeling he had for these poor boys, and children will respond with their innate sense of empathy towards Walt.
The text is amazing, and the pictures equal it. Selznick has illustrated Walt in all stages of his life, from child to the wizened old man we've all come to associate with him. Selznick's pictures are honest and endearing, again, those that relate to Walt's caring of the soldiers. Even using type similiar to that Walt would have used in his earlier typesetting days, the pictures support and extend the text timelessly.
It's been amazing that within the last few years, a spate of books celebrating our nation's most beloved poets are coming to fruition. It's about time. Our youth need to hear the voices of these people... Langston Hughes... Emily Dickinson... and now Walt Whitman, not only to instill a sense of pride with the country that they live, but also, within the sense of pride within themselves. This book will serve as a benchmark for these books in years to come.
Nash Black, author of the haunting Christmas story, TRAVELERS.
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