Kerley, Barbara and Brian Selznick. Walt Whitman: Words for America. Scholastic Press. 2004. ISBN: 0439357918
America’s poet, Walt Whitman, began working as a printer’s apprentice. Soon after surrounding himself with words through books at the library, plays and listening to famous speakers, he was writing and printing his own newspaper. His assistant was his eight-year-old brother, George. Walt went to Brooklyn and began writing poetry about “the common people” of the United States. Walt travelled more to the South where he wondered what he could do to help his country during the time of slavery and the brink of a Civil War. Walt read letters from his brother, George, who served in the Civil War. Walt continued to write and spent his time caring for wounded soldiers – one of them being his own brother. Walt often saw President Abraham Lincoln ride by. His intense admiration for Lincoln was apparent when he wrote “O Captain, My Captain” for the fallen President. Today Walt is still remembered as being a voice of the American people.
Vardell writes that, “Enticing children to read biographies got a little bit easier with the arrival of picture book biographies. Here the presence of extensive illustrations adds visual interest along with details that enhance the authenticity of the time and place of the setting. In addition, the art helps personalize the subject” (245). This picture biography of Walt Whitman is full of beautiful illustrations that capture the facts about the poet. While this is a book for children, the in depth poetic analysis would be too much for such an audience, so this book does a great job of sticking to important facts. The big illustrations of Walt with his brother and seeing Lincoln on his horse, for example, give a connection to the information. This being a book for grades 4 and up, I would use for middle school and even older students. Poetry is something hard to grasp for many students so having a simple biography with visual queues can help them comprehend what the poetry is about when we get to that heavier material.
Booklist (November 15, 2004) reviews this book by saying, “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 0 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.” Again, since Whitman’s poetry is a big hefty for young readers I would use a book like Long’s to couple with the lesson on Whitman. I can see using this in an effort to tie a middle school class’s History lesson into their English curriculum (something public schools are really encouraged to do with the help of their school librarians.)