Posted by: jeannineatkins | March 5, 2010

Poetry, History, and Carole Boston Weatherford

Carole Boston Weatherford has written more than twenty books for children, many of which blend history and poetry: so you know I’m a fan. My favorites include:

Birmingham, 1963

This book stunningly combines poems and black and white photographs from archives. Short poems are on the left page, sometimes with purposely faint images of things that might be used by girls of the time: a handful of jacks, a locket, sharpened pencils, coins carried in gloved hands for the church offering plate, white gloves, polished patent leather shoes and white anklets. The photographs on the right page are moving and understated. The book begins with six lines of a first person poem; the last two lines on this page are: “Then, police loosed snarling dogs and fire hoses on us,/ And buses carted us, nine hundred strong, to jail.” Instead of showing the horror in a photograph, we see African American children dressed in their Sunday best, holding hand-written posters. The sign held by the girl in the center reads: Can a man love God and hate his brother.”

On another page, a fictional narrator sings, eats red-eye gravy with biscuits, and gets twirled by her daddy in the kitchen. She is allowed her first sip of coffee. Then she goes to church where she sees: “four big girls giggled on their way/ To the restroom. I would have tagged along/ If I thought they’d include me.” The book ends with page length poems that use details that suggest the essence of the girls who died in the bombing, girls who Martin Luther King, Jr. called princesses and angels. Pictures of their hopeful faces are shown within thick black frames.

This picture book magnificently illustrated by Kadir Nelson is perhaps not poetry in a conventional sense, but it is in the sense that a beautiful picture book text is crafted with pared down language and metaphor. The first surprise of MOSES is that it’s not about the Moses we read about in the Bible, but a story of the spiritual and physical journeys of Harriet Tubman. Inspired by tales and songs of Moses, and the direct voice of God who becomes an unseen character in this book, Harriet Tubman led many people through the wilderness to freedom. If poetry is making us face a hard subject and leaving us feeling uplifted, this book surely belongs among Carole Boston Weatherford’s greatest work.

Becoming Billie Holiday

The titles of the many poems in this collection are taken from songs Billie Holiday sang. Most are rhythmic, often sounding like jazz or blues. They trace the life of Billie Holiday, who was born in 1915 as Eleanora Fagan, from her childhood in Baltimore to the making of her career in Harlem. The book ends when Billie is twenty-five, radiant, and leaving her mark on history. The author calls the book a fictional verse memoir, since it’s based on true incidents shaped by the poet’s imagination.

Hardships brought passion, beauty, and grit to Billie Holiday’s voice. We land from one tough time to another, but do so accompanied by the singer’s courage and grace. Floyd Cooper’s dark palette echoes the theme that so much of importance in this life happened at night. In the note at the back, he says that he used a subtractive technique, using erasers to make shapes from a ground of paint. The book includes references, suggestions for further reading, short biographies of the real people who appear in the poems, and an afterword in which Carole Boston Weatherford writes about her long love for her subject: “Billie Holiday may have been my muse even before I was a poet.”

For more about Carole Boston Weatherford, see Laura Shovan’s post from last Friday, February 24.
And for more of today’s Poetry Friday posts visit:



  1. THANKS for your book reviews…
    I must check out that Billie Holiday one!

  2. Re: THANKS for your book reviews…
    Thanks for reading. The book ends with Billie with the gardenia behind her ear — just like in your picture! Yes, I think this book is calling you, or singing.
    Have a good weekend!

  3. LOVE her work. Have you read Dear Mr. Rosenwald? It’s terrific.

  4. Thanks, Kelly. I don’t know that book. Every Poetry Friday my list seems to grow.
    Hope you are feeling better and can have a relaxing weekend.

  5. from Laura Shovan
    Hi, Jeannine. Thanks for posting the link. I “still” haven’t been able to get “Becoming Billie Holiday” from the library. Hoping to pick it up at our regional conference tomorrow! Will let you know how it is.

  6. Re: from Laura Shovan
    Laura, enjoy the conference! What a great way to spend a Saturday in March.

  7. I’m a fan of Carol’s. I admire all three of these books but like the Birmingham one the best. I’m always toying with the idea of a themed poetry book (like yours!) because great writers make it look so easy . . . it isn’t.

  8. What a beautiful cover for Moses . . .

  9. Yes, Birmingham, 1963 is so moving. You’re right, the themed poetry book isn’t easy, but once a theme hits you and pulls you and drags you … you may find yourself wrestling on and on until you’re done.

  10. That Kadir Nelson! The art is truly lovely.

  11. Jeannine,
    I have added these books to my reading list. Thanks for sharing them.
    Laura Evans

  12. So much to read, isn’t there? But thanks for reading this and adding these to your list!
    Laura, hope you have a restful weekend.

  13. Term Papers

    I’ve only messed with Text pattern once and don’t know enough about it to even talk about it. 😉

    Term Papers

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