Based on her childhood but not tied down to it, Marilyn Nelson’s buoyant new book also takes some liberties with the sonnet form. None of the 50 14-line poems here follows a particular rhyme scheme. Instead, Nelson’s rich rhythms, pointed recollections and sly humor carry young readers confidently along as the girl narrating these poems grows from 4 to 14. Each poem bears not only a title but also its geographical setting and year. Nelson’s father was one of the first African American officers in the Air Force, and, starting in 1950, when the book opens, he and his wife and two daughters zigzagged across the United States from one base to another. Shifting between the playful to the serious, Nelson has fun with a Bible story she misconstrued at age 4 (“Why did Lot have to take his wife and flea/ from the bad city, like that angel said?”), and often alludes to the emerging civil rights movement she’s hearing about. As the poems chart her development and appreciation of language, they also record the country’s progress, stumblings and myths. In the multilayered “Kemo Sabe,” she remembers watching “The Lone Ranger,” admiring Tonto and pondering where she would be if her mother had married a Native American boy she knew as a girl: “A me with another name? An Indian me?/ Could I be someone else, but think my thoughts?/ How different could I be, and still be me?/ The music throbs. They ride toward the sunset.”

Abby McGanney Nolan


By Marilyn Nelson. Illustrated by Hadley Hooper

Dial. $17.99. Ages 12 and up

“How I Discovered Poetry” by Marilyn Nelson and Hadley Hooper. (Dial/Dial)