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How I Discovered Poetry

by Marilyn Nelson
Illustrated by Hadley Hooper

Published by Dial, 2014
103 pages
ISBN: 978-0-8037-3304-6

Age 12 and older

“Mama’s rented a colonial house / a block from the ocean, in a village / where we’re the First Negroes of everything.” Poet Marilyn Nelson combines her own memories with “research and imagination” in this collection of unrhymed sonnets based on her experiences growing up in the 1950s. The daughter of a military officer father and schoolteacher mother, Nelson moved often: Texas, Kansas, New Jersey, Maine, England, California, Oklahoma. There was the tension of the Cold War—bomb drills and Sputnik. There was Amos ‘n’ Andy and The Lone Ranger and his sidekick, Tonto, images unquestioned by a young child. And there was the burgeoning mid-twentieth- century Civil Rights Movement, with talk of segregation and integration swirling around her, and to which she attached greater meaning as she matured. Almost all of her peers were white; sometimes that mattered, sometimes it didn’t, but having a Black friend was like coming home for a girl who understood home as comfort more than place. Her poems paint a vivid picture of family and the times, and capture a girl’s growing awareness of identity—being Black, being female—and the power of words. The stirring, stinging title poem is a masterful account of the ways that power can transport (“It was like soul-kissing, the way the words / filled my mouth … / Mrs. Purdy and I wandered lonely as clouds borne / by a breeze off Mount Parnassus…”) and crush (“…I stood and opened my mouth to banjo-playing / darkies, pickaninnies, disses and dats. When I finished / my classmates stared at the floor.”) An author’s note provides readers with intriguing glimpses into her approach to telling this story, while occasional spot illustrations and photographs grace the pages. (MS) ©2014 Cooperative Children’s Book Center

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