Posted by: jeannineatkins | December 4, 2009

What I’m Reading: Sweethearts of Rhythm by Marilyn Nelson illus. by Jerry Pinkney

The book’s cover suggests the musical language and energy within, and of course the WWII period look and language. One of my favorite authors working with one of my favorite illustrators: I was excited and not disappointed. Marilyn Nelson chose to tell each poem from the point of view of an instrument that had been stored and given a new chance to speak. We hear a trumpet first feeling it’s a step down to be played by a woman instead of a man become jubilant to expand his range from marching tunes. The verse seems less grounded in imagery than Nelson’s other work, but more in sound. There’s a lot of repletion as there is in a song, and that helps capture the thumping beat of many. Sometimes the poems are about music, while others turn philosophical, addressing the role of music in wartime and whether something done for “fun” can be an instrument of social change. We get lines such as: “It was Chattanooga Choo-Choo, but it was a prayer for peace,” and “Must beauty apologize for simple elegance?”

Poems are titled after songs, something Carole Boston Weatherford did in Becoming Billie Holiday, a life told through verse intended for older readers.

In notes at the back, Nelson and Pinkney tell how they made a pact to do something new in this book. For Nelson, it was the point of view and using triple meters to evoke the swing band, while Pinkney added collage to his usual gorgeous paintings. I love the way torn sheet music or maps and scraps of color add a lively and jazzy feeling to the red, yellow, sepia, and blue images of women playing music and dancing. There’s buzz about Jerry Pinkney getting the Caldecott for his nearly wordless Lion and the Mouse also out this year. It’s charming, but If I were awarding prizes from my kitchen, it would go to Sweethearts, which I think is livelier, and bigger in scope, drawing in and through history, and I love the way he depicts humans.

The book includes a chronology as well as the mentioned author and illustrator notes. I was happy to hear that Marilyn Nelson danced around the house as part of her process!

Even if you need more poetry today (and I know I do: I heard Sherman Alexie talk about poetry last night at UMass, but he didn’t read any) please visit poetry roundup at Wild Rose Reader



  1. I worship Marilyn Nelson.

  2. Liz, I worship Marilyn Nelson, too.

  3. Wow, thanks for sharing about this book! I love the concept, esp. as I have a young musician in the family. This is a great example of how creative and unified a poetry collection needs to be in order to be published. I’m paying attention…

  4. Marilyn Nelson is a master–and lucky you to hear Sherman Alexie. I would so do that if he ever gets to Vermont (or even someplace like Dartmouth).

  5. Well, this is done by two great geniuses in children’s literature, but you’re right: this is the high bar and there’s so much to learn from and enjoy. Thank you for stopping by! I hope your young musician loves the book.

  6. I learn so so much from Marilyn Nelson whenever I read her.
    And Sherman Alexie was fabulous: he is clearly a performer as well as a writer, and at least last night, came across as more warm and full of hope than I expected from reading some of his wonderful but on-the-bleak side stories. He’s been touring this fall, but I haven’t heard of a VT stop. I would definitely want to hear him again now.

  7. Wonderful review, Jeannine. Marilyn Nelson’s A Wreath for Emmett Till is something of a miracle.

  8. What a duo! We’re fans of swing here, so the subject sounds perfect, too.

  9. “Something of a miracle” is a lovely way to put it.
    And you are lovely, too, Sarah. Thanks for stopping in to comment!

  10. Yes, the book does make you want to dance.
    Sweetpea might like the Pinkney Lion and the Mouse. That lion looks fairly benign to me, with hints of Aslan, but I’ve been assured that the young find him deliciously scary.

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