A powerful and thought-provoking Civil Rights era memoir from one of America’s most celebrated poets.

Looking back on her childhood in the 1950s, Newbery Honor winner and National Book Award finalist Marilyn Nelson tells the story of ...
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How I Discovered Poetry

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A powerful and thought-provoking Civil Rights era memoir from one of America’s most celebrated poets.

Looking back on her childhood in the 1950s, Newbery Honor winner and National Book Award finalist Marilyn Nelson tells the story of her development as an artist and young woman through fifty eye-opening poems. Readers are given an intimate portrait of her growing self-awareness and artistic inspiration along with a larger view of the world around her: racial tensions, the Cold War era, and the first stirrings of the feminist movement.

A first-person account of African-American history, this is a book to study, discuss, and treasure.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 11/11/2013
Nelson crafts a stirring autobiography in verse, focusing on her childhood in the 1950s, when her family frequently moved between military bases. Complemented by muted screen print–like illustrations, Nelson’s 50 poems are composed of raw reflections on formative events, including her development as a reader and writer. The political and social climate of the 1950s infuses the poems through references to bomb drills at school (“Everybody’s motto is Be Prepared,/ so we practice tragic catastrophes”), the Red Scare, the death of Emmett Till, and the stirrings of the civil rights movement. Nelson’s introduction to poetry reads like falling in love: “It was like soul-kissing, the way the words/ filled my mouth as Mrs. Purdy read from her desk./ All the other kids zoned an hour ahead to 3:15,/ but Mrs. Purdy and I wandered lonely as clouds borne/ by a breeze off Mount Parnassus.” An intimate perspective on a tumultuous era and an homage to the power of language. Ages 12–up. Illustrator’s agent: Marlena Agency. (Jan.)
VOYA - Jennifer Rummel
In this title, a young girl shares her life while growing up in a military family in the 1950s: the trials of constantly moving, trying to settle into new places, and meeting new friends. Not everyone is friendly and tempers in the country are at an all time high. The young girl learns to care for her younger sister as they live in new towns and on army bases in Texas, Kansas, California, New Hampshire, Maine, and Oklahoma. Through a teacher, the young girl discovers poetry and that she has a gift for writing it. Fifty poems create a personal narrative about a young girl learning who she is and where she fits into the world. Through her travels, she shares her understanding as an African-American in the world of the 1950s. Although this book is a memoir, it reads like a novel. The poems make for a fast read, full of historical significance, and this title could easily be used as a starting point for a class discussion of the time period. How I Discovered Poetry would be an excellent book for classroom use as an introduction to the Civil Rights Movement. Reviewer: Jennifer Rummel
School Library Journal
Gr 6 Up—Nelson traces her childhood and developing awareness of civil rights issues in this eloquent collection of 50 unrhymed sonnets. In 1950, her father, one of the first African American Air Force officers, is recalled to duty, launching the family on the first of several cross-country moves. Her father takes a leave from law school, her mother takes leave from teaching, and: "Our leaves become feathers. With wings we wave good-bye to our cousins." Their travels take them from Cleveland to Texas, Colorado, Kansas, California, Maine, and Oklahoma; the leave-takings are always painful. In "Traveling Light," she muses over the family dogs (Pudgy, Lady, and General) left behind. "Daddy explains. We've been transferred again. We stand numb as he gives away our toys." Close family ties help them confront the small-mindedness and racism encountered along the way. In "Bad Name," she observes: "TV is black-and-white, but people aren't. There's a bad name mean people might call you, but words aren't sticks and stones." Books, television shows, and friends provide a respite from the menace of the Cold War. Through snatches of grown-up conversation, she learns of Rosa Parks, Emmett Till, and Little Rock. She overcomes school yard bullies, wonders about boys, and is humiliated by a teacher who makes her read aloud a racist poem: "She smiled harder and harder until I stood and opened my mouth to banjo-playing darkies…." This hurtful episode only underscores the awesome power of words and leads Nelson to wonder whether "there's a poet behind my face." Altogether, Nelson's poems offer a candid portrait of her formative years as well as a triumphant message, which will resonate with readers, young and old, who cherish and recognize the power of words and stories.—Marilyn Taniguchi, Beverly Hills Public Library, CA
Kirkus Reviews
Multiaward-winning poet Nelson (A Wreath for Emmett Till, illustrated by Philippe Lardy, 2005, etc.) tells how growing up as a daughter of one of the first African-American career officers in the Air Force influenced her artistic development. In its 50 unrhymed sonnets, the memoir reflects on Nelson at ages 4 through 14, as she and her family followed her father during the pivotal 1950s. Moving to 11 locations in 10 years, from Ohio to Texas, Maine to California, Nelson, her sister and parents crossed the country, repeatedly giving the speaker in these first-person poems the full-throttle experience of being not only the new kid on the block, but often the lone African-American in her class. Nelson grippingly conveys the depth of her resulting isolation, noting the strangeness of how in Kittery Point, Maine, "we're the First Negroes of everything." There's also the bafflement of having meaning attached to simply being herself--for example, while standing in line to get a polio vaccine in 1955 Kansas, "Mrs. Liebel said we were Making History, / but all I did was sqwunch up my eyes and wince. / Making History takes more than standing in line / believing little white lies about pain." With sophisticated wordplay and poignantly spare description, this lyric bildungsroman creates as effective a portrait of race relations in 20th-century America as of formative moments in Nelson's youth. (author's note) (Memoir/poetry. 10 & up)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781101635391
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 1/14/2014
  • Sold by: Penguin Group
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 112
  • Sales rank: 857,919
  • Age range: 12 - 17 Years
  • File size: 6 MB

Meet the Author

Marilyn Nelson is a three-time National Book Award Finalist, has won a Newbery Honor, a Printz Honor and several Coretta Scott King Honors, and has received several prestigious poetry awards, including the Poets' Prize and the Robert Frost Medal "for distinguished lifetime service to American poetry." She has recently been a judge of poetry applicants at the National Endowment for the Arts and Yaddo, and has received three honorary doctorates.
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