Known for his playful poetry and for flouting typographical custom, Edward Estlin Cummings grew up happily entangled in both nature and words — contentedly aware of his “enormous smallness” while exploring the wilderness. His ode to spring, “when the world is mud-luscious” and “puddle-wonderful,” seems particularly fitting as a long, challenging winter gives way to a wet April. In this new picture-book biography, Matthew Burgess and artist Kris Di Giacomo convey Cummings’s lifelong ambition to capture the world in words. Burgess’s thoughtful text and Di Giacomo’s richly textured drawings highlight the youthful adventures that eventually made their way into Cummings’s poems and paintings. The book also emphasizes the poet’s resilience in the face of early criticism: “No matter what the world was giving or taking . . . he knew his poems were new and true. His poems were his way of saying YES. YES to the heart and the roundness of the moon, to birds, elephants, trees, and everything he loved.”
Moon, stars, trees, birds, a wheelbarrow, a ship, a shadow: For poets, the material world offers an array of subjects to explore in verse. In their fourth poetry anthology, editor Paul B. Janeczko and artist Chris Raschka present 50 poems in which the poet has used objects — natural or human-made — to describe the world. The result is dazzling and rich. Raschka’s droll sweeps of watercolor and ink are by turns bright, bold, humorous and solemn, while Janeczko’s selections range from simple riddles to longer meditations. “Where are you headed all by yourself?” asks Cui Tu, in “A Solitary Wildgoose.” Readers will find that goose flying across pages until at last it joins with a flock near the end of the book. “Once every man wore a hat,” writes Billy Collins in the title poem. “And now my father, after a life of work,/ wears a hat of earth,/ and on top of that,/ a lighter one of cloud and sky — a hat of wind.” The way in to this poetry is through objects, yet the intangible universe of human thought and experience is captured here with them. These things that seem so real are only temporary, but the poems may last for centuries.
This powerful novel in poems brings to life Clara Lemlich, an early advocate of working women’s rights. The book begins in 1903, with 15-year-old Clara punished for reading in a Russian village, and ends in 1909, with her organizing a strike of thousands of oppressed garment workers in New York City. It’s thrilling to watch this young woman grow from questioning her role as an untutored Jewish daughter to a firebrand. The free-verse poems are rich in historical detail as Clara’s family immigrates to the United States in a ship’s filthy hold, and she begins, as a teenager, to work (seven days a week for at least 10 hours a day) in a sweatshop. Protesting the deplorable conditions, Clara is fired; walking the picket line, she and others are beaten by the police. When she tries to ignite interest in the cause at a wealthy ladies club, she feels like an “animal/ on exhibit.” But resilient, witty Clara also describes moments of delight: celebrating her first night class with a salted pickle, gazing in awe at the public library, playing poker with a union friend . In a fascinating historical note, Crowder shares additional details of a life dedicated to social justice and includes portions of her interviews with Clara’s grandchildren. Pair this book with the documentary “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry” (2014) for a greater sense of the many audacious women, over generations, who have helped create change.
A Story of E. E. Cummings
By Matthew Burgess.
Illustrations by Kris Di Giacomo.
Enchanted Lion Books. $17.95.
Ages 5 to 8.
THE DEATH OF THE HAT
A Brief History of Poetry in 50 Objects
Selected by Paul B. Janeczko. Illustrated by Chris Raschka.
$17.99. Ages 8 to 12.
By Melanie Crowder.
Philomel. $17.99. Age 12 and up.