This blog is a continuation of a class assignment for the TWU course 5603, Literature for Children and Young Adults. Subsequent entries are for TWU course 5653, Multicultural Literature for Children and Young Adults. The new entries are for TWU course 5663, Poetry for Children and Young Adults.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Carver: A Life in Poems

A Life in Poems
by Marilyn Nelson

cover image retrieved 3/30/13 from

Nelson, Marilyn. Carver, a Life in Poems. New York, N.Y: Scholastic, 2002. ISBN 9780439456739

Critical Analysis
Much has been written about the life and works of the great scientist and trail-blazer George Washington Carver. In Carver: A Life in Poems Marilyn Nelson examines the work and personal characteristics of Mr. Carver in verse form. Ms. Nelson employees primarily free verse poetry to capture this deep-thinking man who devoted his life to bettering the lives of the poor. He is most well-known for his work with peanuts as a food staple, though his scientific work was not limited to peanuts.

Expressing the life of a devoted scientist in verse that appeals to readers could be a difficult task for an author. Ms. Nelson uses descriptive language to add life to topics or events that could be viewed as mundane. There is no discernible rhythm or sound in the poems. Length of words, phrases, and the poems themselves is varied, influencing the impact of each poem. For example, “Coincidence” is written in short lines that match the short time-frame of a coincidence. “House Ways and Means” is written in longer, more detail-filled lines befitting the importance and scholarly subject matter of the topic. There is sparse sensory imagery and emotional impact; rather, the poems are each written as a brief rendering of the ordinary events of an extraordinary man.

Carver: A Life in Poems is organized chronologically. There is not table of contents, but rather an alphabetized index in the back of the book. The author’s acknowledgements and photographic resource citations document the credibility of these poems as a legitimate representation of the events depicted. This book, as a whole, is rather dry and informational in nature. This can be seen as an advantage, since it seems to be achieving its goal of representing snapshots of history in short, poetic form. It can be seen as a disadvantage, in that the book is not all that appealing to read. Even as a self-described history nut, I found the book to be rather boring overall. Without careful guidance from the teacher or librarian, it would be difficult for it to hold the attention of most middle and high school students. Ms. Nelson is an accomplished, award-winning author. All of the poems in this book carry the quality she is known for. Students will gain knowledge and perhaps look at a historical event in a different light after reading this book. Occasional captioned photographs provide welcome visual support for the poems. Footnotes on some poems help place it in proper historic perspective. Used as a support mechanism in an integrated curriculum, this book would be a great resource in a high school classroom. Younger students would most likely lose interest quickly. This volume of biographic verse is worth the investment as a resource, as a look at the life of an incredible man in an unexpected format.

Book Reviews
J. B. Petty, Ph.D. (Children's Literature)
George Washington Carver comes alive in these poems. Nelson sets the poems in the chronological order of Carver's life. One even forgets that the poems are modern; they seem to have been written by Carver and those who knew him best. This book is a must for any library's poetry collection, regardless of whether the collection is for children, young adults or adults.

Deborah Stevenson (Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, September 2001 (Vol. 55, No. 1))
While one wouldn’t really term George Washington Carver forgotten, one might consider him too often reduced, historically speaking, to a caption-sized contribution involving peanuts and just maybe the Tuskegee Institute. A sequence of poems (most initially published elsewhere, appearing here in chronological sequence so as to suggest biography) occasionally punctuated with historical photographs would seem an odd counteractant to that sad fate, but it’s startlingly effective. In her free-verse lyrics, Nelson (herself the daughter of a Tuskegee Airman) employs a variety of perspectives: an astonished teacher, a grateful student, an envious colleague, the regretful subject of his broken-off courtship, and, obliquely, Carver himself.

Susie Wilde (Children's Literature)
Marilyn Nelson unites poetry and biography in Carver: A Life in Poems, a Newbery-honor book. These are not simple verses, but intricate expressions of Carver's enigmatic and complex personality. Carver was driven by a desire to know and he paid for his education by becoming "a wizard with a washboard,/a genie of elbow grease and suds...the best washerwoman in town."

Book Awards
Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Excellence in Children's Literature, 2001 Winner Fiction and Poetry United States
Connecticut Book Awards, 2002 Winner Children's Literature Connecticut
Coretta Scott King Book Award, 2002 Honor Book Author United States
Flora Stieglitz Straus Award, 2002 Winner United States
John Newbery Medal, 2002 Honor Book United States
National Book Award, 2001 Finalist Young People's Literature United States

Best Book Lists
Best Children's Books of the Year, 2002 ; Bank Street College of Education; United States
Books to Read Aloud to Children of All Ages, 2003 ; Bank Street College of Education; United States
Bulletin Blue Ribbons, 2001 ; Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books; United States
Capitol Choices, 2001 ; The Capitol Choices Committee; United States
Children's Books of Distinction, 2002 ; Riverbank Review; United States
Great Middle School Reads, 2004 ; ALSC American Library Association; United States
Horn Book Fanfare, 2001 ; Horn Book; United States
Middle and Junior High School Library Catalog, Ninth Edition, 2005 ; H.W. Wilson; United States
Middle and Junior High School Library Catalog, Supplement to the Eighth Edition, 2002 ; H.W. Wilson; United States
Notable Children's Books, 2002 ; ALSC American Library Association; United States
Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People, 2002 ; National Council for the Social Studies NCSS; United States
Parent's Guide to Children's Media, 2001 ; Parent’s Guide to Children’s Media, Inc.; United States
Senior High Core Collection, Seventeenth Edition, 2007 ; The H. W. Wilson Co.; United States
Senior High School Library Catalog, Sixteenth Edition, 2002 ; H.W. Wilson; United States
Special Interest Group of the International Reading Association, 2002 ; Special Interest Group of the International Reading Association; United States
YALSA Best Books for Young Adults, 2002 ; American Library Association; United States

Poetry Break!
Spotlight Poem

Beauty is the vocation of the earth.”
William Bryant Logan

       God’s breath on a compound of silica,
alumina, and various oxides –
primarily iron— gave Adam life.
There is a primal, almost mystical
connection between mankind and clay,
from the footed bellied first receptacles
to frescoed Renaissance cathedral walls
to Carver’s eye, the muddy creek banks say
Here, to be dug up strained, and painted on,
Is loveliness the poorest can afford;
azures, ochres… Scraps of discarded board
are landscapes. Cabins undistinguished brown
bloom like slaves freed to struggle toward self-worth.
Beauty is commonplace, as cheap as dirt. 

Learning Extensions
Coretta Scott King curricular resources to accompany this book at
§  Share this poem by reading it aloud with images showing the colors and images described in the poem, to allow students to make connections between the potentially unfamiliar words and images. Suggested words/images to pre teach/reinforce:
                                           azure - blue

image retrieved 4/4/13 from

ochre - clay that is yellow, brown, or red
image retrieved 4/4/13 from

oxides - a compound of oxygen & another element
image retrieved 4/4/13 from 

alumina - a white oxide found in minerals
image retrieved 4/4/13 from

silica - a compound found in many minerals
image retrieved 4/4/13 from

§  Give each student a printed copy of the poem. Share it again, asking students to highlight examples of imagery or descriptive phrases.
§  As students share the imagery they found in the poem, initiate a discussion of how poets bring deeper meaning and connections to common items through imagery.
§  Challenge students to brainstorm descriptive phrases for common items found in nature: trees, a field of cotton, the ocean, a stream, the moon etc. Working in pairs, have students try their hand at composing a short, free verse poem about an item found in nature, using descriptive phrases for impact.

Other books by Marilyn Nelson
Poetry Books
Sweethearts of Rhythm: The Story of the Greatest All-Girl Swing Band in the World,
The Freedom Business: Including A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of
A Wreath for Emmett Till
The Cachoeira Tales, and Other Poems
Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem
Carver, a Life in Poems
The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems
The Homeplace
Mama's Promises
For the Body

Chapter books
She-Devil Circus
Triolets for Triolet
Partial Truth
Hundreds of Hens and other poems for children
The Freedom Business: Connecticut Landscapes Through the Eyes of Venture Smith 

Collaborative Books
Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color. with Elizabeth Alexander
Pemba’s Song : A Ghost Story. with Tonya Hegamin
The Cat Walked Through the Casserole. with Pamela Espeland
Hundreds of Hens and other poems for children by Halfdan Rasmussen with Pamela Espeland

The Ladder by Halfdan Rasmussen (translated from Danish)
The Thirteenth Month by Inge Pedersen (translated from Danish)
Hecuba by Euripedes, in Euripedes I, Penn Greek Drama Series (translated from earlier English
Hundreds of Hens and other poems for children' by Halfdan Rasmussen (translated from Danish)

Books for Young Children
Snook Alone
Beautiful Ballerina
The Ladder by Halfdan Rasmussen
The Cat Walked Through the Casserole
Hundreds of Hens and other poems for children by Halfdan Rasmussen 

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