By Marilyn Carpenter, Eastern Washington University, Spokane, WA, and Holly Johnson, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH
This month we celebrate artists of both the visual and written word who inspire us and sustain us. Their works remind us of the beauty of the earth, the celebration of life itself and perhaps, most importantly, the possibilities we all contain to sustain each other through times of challenge. We selected three biographies and one autobiography that contain both the written and the visual, allowing for the richness picturebooks and illustrated pieces present to readers. We start with a new picturebook about Emily Dickinson, a comforting global presence, and move on to discuss a book by Ashley Bryant and biographies of Pura Belpré and Gyo Fujikawa in the following weeks. What lives these artists/authors/storytellers lived! What legacies they have given the world, and what joy it was to read these works that celebrate their lives.
HOLLY: Okay, so I didn’t go looking for the book, On Wings of Words. I saw it at the local bookseller and had to have it because, well, I love Emily Dickinson. She is a gift, and this book is also a gift. While a picturebook, it gives a sense of Emily’s life from birth to death and with Emily’s words sprinkled throughout. How can you not love it? It is a great entrée into one of the world’s most known and beloved poets, and it is also lovingly illustrated. I say, “lovingly,” because Becca Stadtlander took the care to maintain historical accuracy in respect to the illustrations by using images from the Emily’s time period as reference material for the work in the text. There is one illustration that I absolutely love, and that is the head profile of Emily filled with images from her poems and written thoughts.
I mentioned this would be a good entrée into Dickinson’s work because, while we get a sense of her life, there is so much more to learn about her. Interestingly, there is another work I recently picked up about Emily: Emily Dickinson’s Gardening Life: The Plants and Places that Inspired the Iconic Poet (2019) by Marta McDowell. Right now, I am not even a gardener, but that book, too, is a fascinating look into Dickinson’s life. I have more to say about On Wings of Words, especially the idea that one of her principals divided the class and put Emily into the “No Hopers” category. What?! What?! I want to talk about that in a minute. But first, what did you think of the picturebook overall, Marilyn?
MARILYN: I will cherish this book, I am so glad that you recommended it, Holly. The first pages immediately pull me into the narrative. That first page reads, “Soft moonlit snow draped the Dickinson house in white.” On the page opposite that text are words by Emily about snow:
It reaches to the Fence—
It wraps it, Rail by Rail,
Till it is lost in Fleeces—
It flings a Crystal Veil.
The picture on those two pages shows a peaceful scene with a New England-style yellow house, one window illuminated, snow falling all around it in the night. The next illustration, set off with a white background, shows Emily’s parents inside that illuminated room, cuddling their newborn daughter. These words are opposite the illustration, “Her parents celebrated the holiday/they called Emily.”
These first pages pulled me into the biography, and I eagerly continued reading because the lovely combination of text and illustrations wrap me in sense of well-being, wonder and anticipation of the words and illustration to come. That sense of well-being and wonder continues throughout the book.
This book is beautifully crafted with a poetic text and illustrations. The illustrations echo the text showing the landscapes where Emily lived in New England and then interiors of inside spaces that were precious to her too. “Emily spent more and more time in her room. Writing, creating. She ventured out less and less.” Emily’s words are included on many pages, shown in font that looks like Emily’s own printing, set apart from the narrative but at the same time enriching it.
The four pages at the end, About Emily’s Poetry, Discovering the World of Poetry, Author’s Note and Artist’s Note provide even more riches for the reader. Berne writes in her Author’s Note, “Every writer, every poet, every reader will probably have their own definition of poetry. Here is mine. Poetry is a deep exploration of each subject the poet approaches. An exploration that starts with the poet looking, feeling, thinking. Wondering. Imagining. Discovering.” I am about to teach a poetry class. I will start with those words to set us thinking about our own definitions of poetry. This book is a gift to those of us who love poetry and Emily Dickinson. It should have wide appeal from eight years old through adults.
HOLLY: So, the “No-Hopers” remark. Seems Emily had questions, was a critical reader of the world, and didn’t quite accept the world and the explanations of the social stratification of the human world. I can only imagine what ruckus that may have caused! I mean, we are talking the 1840s most likely, when she attended Amherst Academy. This young girl (still a teenager), questioning the way of the world would be met with disapproval. For me, this makes Emily an activist and perhaps a truth-teller willing to select “her own Society” rather than accept the status quo. Ironically, her most famous poem is “Hope is a Thing with Feathers,” so I can’t help but wonder if that is a response to her principal’s categorization of her. Activist, no-surrender kind of person was Emily Dickinson!
Essentially, this picturebook gives readers a sense of her strength as both a writer and as an individual. The parts of her writing shared within it gives readers just enough of a taste of her work and her sensibility that many would want to know more. Thus, a great book into inquiry about Emily herself, her work, her society and the natural world. Don’t you love when an individual can inspire such exploration? And then there is the sustainability aspect. Dickinson’s work encompasses sustainability in respect to the natural world, to ourselves as truth-seekers, and as individuals with possibilities. Yeah, I really like On Wings of Words and Emily Dickinson. How do you see Emily Dickinson, Marilyn? Does she sustain you?
MARILYN: Emily Dickinson’s poetry has always been sustaining to me. My mother read it aloud to me in the evenings when I was a child, and I remember going to bed and chewing over the words. What did they mean? I especially remember trying to decide the meaning of, “I’m Nobody!/Who Are You?/Are you—Nobody—too?” Her words then and now give me something to imagine and discover. I have a large collection of treasured poetry books and the ones with Emily’s poems are favorites.
This biography makes me want to revisit several of the biographies I read about Dickinson years ago. Berne gives me insights about Emily like the “No-Hopers” remark that I want to investigate more closely.
Berne has two other biographies that I enjoyed and gave me new information about her subjects: Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau and On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein. I hope this biography of Emily will be read aloud in classrooms to give children a wonderful introduction to Emily Dickinson. When I taught children’s literature and it was time to share poetry my college students would always groan. They had been made to dissect poetry in high school and were not looking forward to a unit on poetry. I would often start with Emily Dickinson and there was a new enjoyment of poetry. Now with On Wings of Words, students will have an introduction to poetry and Emily that will leave them wanting more.
Title: On Wings of Words: The Extraordinary Life of Emily Dickinson
Author: Jennifer Berne
Illustrator: Becca Stadtlander
PubDate: February 18, 2020
Throughout May 2020, Marilyn and Holly give their takes on books that feature art and artists who inspire and sustain us. Check back each Wednesday to follow the conversation!