Borrowed Names: Poems About Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madam C.J. Walker, Marie Curie, and Their Daughters

Borrowed Names: Poems About Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madam C.J. Walker, Marie Curie, and Their Daughters

by Jeannine Atkins


View All Available Formats & Editions
Members save with free shipping everyday! 
See details


Extraordinary women raise extraordinary women.

As a child, Laura Ingalls Wilder traveled across the prairie in a covered wagon. Her daughter, Rose, thought those stories might make a good book, and the two created the beloved Little House series.

Sara Breedlove, the daughter of former slaves, wanted everything to be different for her own daughter, A'Lelia. Together they built a million-dollar beauty empire for women of color.

Marie Curie became the first person in history to win two Nobel prizes in science. Inspired by her mother, Irène too became a scientist and Nobel prize winner.

Borrowed Names is the story of these extraordinary mothers and daughters.

Borrowed Names is a 2011 Bank Street - Best Children's Book of the Year.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250183408
Publisher: Square Fish
Publication date: 01/23/2018
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.27(h) x 0.60(d)
Lexile: 910L (what's this?)
Age Range: 12 - 18 Years

About the Author

Jeannine Atkins is the author of several books for young readers including Anne Hutchinson's Way. She teaches children's literature at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and lives in Whatley, Massachusetts.

Read an Excerpt

Borrowed Names

Poems About Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madam C.J. Walker, Marie Curie, and their Daughters

By Jeannine Atkins

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2010 Jeannine Atkins
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-5940-7




Laura Ingalls was born in the big woods of Wisconsin, but within a few years called many other places home: the Kansas prairies, a dugout by Plum Creek in Minnesota, covered wagons rolling westward, and at last a little house near Silver Lake in the Dakota Territory. There her family survived many blizzards, but one long winter they almost starved before Almanzo Wilder drove horses through the deep snow to get wheat and saved them all.

Almanzo began courting Laura when she was fifteen years old. Her father didn't object, though her mother believed Laura was more smitten with Almanzo's half-wild horses. At eighteen, Laura stood before a preacher, who agreed that a bride should promise to honor and love but not obey, and changed her name to Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Almanzo called his wife Bessie to distinguish her from his sister, who was also named Laura. Their daughter, Rose, who was born about a year after the wedding, would call her Mama Bess.


    Rose sees blood on the linen
    before her grandmother plunges
    the sheets in a tub. Pa scrubs dirt
    from his hands. What ever happens,
    fields must be tended.
    Mama Bess goes back to bed. Again.

    Won't you get up?

Mama says, but Rose is hungry.
    She puts a stick in the woodstove.
    When the kindling, burning at one end,
    turns too hot to hold,
    she drops it.
    Fire creeps
    across the floor and laps the wall.
    Air, once quiet and invisible,
    spits sparks and orange flames.
    Burning tablecloths twist like memory.

    Where are you?

    Smoke stings her eyes. Someone grabs her arm
    and a fistful of forks. They rush
    from the crackling, tumbling house.

    Outside, Rose breathes the stink of burning chairs,
    bedding, sacks of flour, jars of plum preserves,
    beans left soaking in a yellow bowl.
    The house becomes an oven, ruining
    broom and dustpan,
    the sewing box with its tomato-shaped pincushion,
    an embroidered needle case, pewter buttons,
    scavenged ribbon,
    spools of crimson and sky-blue thread.

    Little is saved but old dresses, silverware,
    and a platter decorated with a sheaf of wheat, bordered
    with a prayer: Give us this day our daily bread.

    Under a blackened cottonwood tree,
    its slim shade useless now,
    Pa leans on his cane. What happened?

    Mama says, I shut the door to sweep,
    so dust wouldn't get in the kitchen.
    A spark from the woodstove caught the floor.

    Rose, three years old, cries, I'm sorry.

    We built one house. We can build another,
    Pa says. What matters is we're safe and all together.

    Mama nods. It was an accident.

    She turns to sort through what might be saved.
    A wilderness of cracked china, ashes,
    days when safety
    was as common as a roof. She folds her black
    wedding dress and tells Rose, You did nothing wrong.

    But then she whispers,
    We won't speak of this fire again.

The Second Secret

    Rose's grandparents welcome the family
    to their home where everything is kept in place
    so Aunt Mary, whose blue eyes
    can't see past their own shine,
    knows which tin holds sugar and which flour
    and exactly how many steps
    to take between the ivy and geraniums she waters.
    Rose minds her grandmother, who says,
    Keep away from the woodstove.
    Rose can feel even Aunt Mary's blind eyes on her.

    Grandpa plays traveling songs on his fiddle
    while Mama flips through brochures about farmland.
    She, Pa, and Rose move to Minnesota,
    where the cold winters deepen the pain in Pa's legs.
    They journey to Florida to grow oranges,
    but Mama finds Southern air too steamy.
    Back in South Dakota, wolves howl. Rain beats
    down the wheat and corn fields one summer.
    The next July, flax and oats wither without rain.
    Rose says, I want a brother or sister.

Mama Bess distracts her with a story
    of a land where bright red apples grow.

    She works for a dressmaker sewing buttonholes,
    tucking in the short edges of cloth,
    striving for stitches too small to see, trimming thread.
    Her stiff hands move up and down
    twelve hours till sundown,
    six days a week. She earns a dollar a day.

    At last she unclasps the needle, stops at the bank
    for a one-hundred-dollar bill she hides
    in the lap-sized desk Pa made and sanded smooth.
    She says, Don't touch.

    I know,
Rose replies, obedient at eight, though
    she loves to watch her mother's hand slide
    over the slanting surface covered with green felt,
    the crack of brass hinges when the lid is lifted.

    Mama warns, Don't tell a soul what's in that box.


    Pa cuts black oilcloth to cover and make curtains
    for a carriage they load with a bedspring,
    feather mattress, quilts, pots, Mama's desk,
    and a coop of noisy chickens.
    Is this their last summer on the prairie,
    their last good-bye?
    Rose throws her arms around Grandpa,
    who smells of wood smoke and hay.
    Grandma's apron smells of cinnamon and flour.
    Rose touches Aunt Mary's hair, the color of flames.

    Pa hitches up horses that pull them to the plains,
    where the world is all land and sky,
    the only sounds, birds, wind, grasses.
    As dust billows, Rose bumps her mother's steady arm.
    Pa lets Rose hold the reins.
    She snaps them, willing the tired horses to trot faster.
    Pa takes back the lead and shouts, Whoa!

    They rest the horses at creeks.
    Pa spits watermelon seeds.
    Rose tries to spit farther. She and Mama Bess
    hold up their skirts to wade.
    Women come here for water,
    but linger for words.
    Where are you from? Where are you going?
    Mama sniffs the heads of bundled babies.
    She watches children
    play shadow tag. The running water
    seems to sing not here, not yet.

    Some nights, Mama hauls out her lap-sized desk.
    Rose watches her pearl-handled pen glide
    like a lullaby. What are you doing?

    I want to remember.
Her hand makes small circles
    before she shuts the lid on secrets.

    As darkness and stars fill the sky, Mama talks
    of olden days, back when she was called Laura
    and won a prize for memorizing the most Bible verses.
    One hard winter when her family ran out of coal,
    they twisted hay to burn. After the flour was gone,
    they ground wheat in a coffee mill to make bread,
    almost as sweet as milk and honey.
    When water got scarce,
    they prayed for rain. They relied on self and neighbor.

    Sometimes tales end with Pa
    taking Grandpa's line: Go west.
    Mama mimics Grandma: What ever you say, Charles.

    They laugh at words Mama never uses
    except in these stories
    where she's a child until she meets Pa,
    who risks his life in a storm to get everyone food.
    They find a preacher who agrees
    to take obey out of the wedding vows.

    One night Mama and Pa walk in the moonlight.
    Rose is alone in the covered carriage, though neighbors
    are a quick call away.
    Rose runs her hands over the green felt,
    then opens her mother's desk. The brass hinges squeak.
    She doesn't find a corner of sky, but hears
    the river roll like Mama's hand over paper,
    a quiet claim: Here I am.


    The horse-pulled carriage rumbles through Nebraska,
    the Kansas plains, and into Missouri's
    Ozark Mountains
    where Mama Bess says, Stop.

    Rose stares at the woods and a log cabin

    with no windows,
    its walls plastered with old newspapers.
    Mama smiles as if she can already see
    crops turning green where trees stand,
    a cozy house made from logs split to lumber.

    Pa says, Forty acres is a lot of work for one person.

    But not too much for two. Let's put down our money.

    Mama pins a robin's-egg-blue ribbon
    to her best black dress and talks swiftly:
    A brook that runs all year long!
    Four hundred apple trees already growing!

    Possibility is as delicious as what's here
    until she opens the writing desk
    where she'd tucked the one-hundred-dollar bill.
    Her face turns pale,
    as if all four hundred trees topple.

    The creek stops flowing,
    the door of the log house is nailed shut.

    Rose, did you tell someone we hid money?

    No! You told me to keep it secret.

    Did anyone come near when we were gone?

    No, Mama.

    What about you, then? Did you take the money
    for a game?
    I know not to play with money!

    Of course. Mama slams the lid shut, risking a crack.
    She tears off her good dress,
    the one she wore at her wedding,
    changes into her plain clothes, and sweeps.
    We'll stay here. I'll look for work with a seamstress.
    Someone always needs buttons.

    A few days later, she opens the desk and looks again.
    The bill is stuck in a crack where it must have slipped
    during the rough journey. Relief is as quick
    as the earlier fury. Mama puts on her black dress
    but this time doesn't pin on the blue ribbon.
    She runs as if everything might be lost again.

Rocky Ridge Farm

    Mama pulls one end of the crosscut saw,
    Pa pushes the other,
    clearing the green hills for new orchards.
    The scents of broken pine, oak, and balsam split the air.
    They dig up rocks
    and pile them for a fireplace.
    Pa puts down the shovel
    to show Rose how to crease a stalk
    of grass and whistle. Mama sews Rose a dress
    for the first day of school. Rose is proud
    until girls stare as if it has too many buttons
    or not enough.
    Maybe the collar is the wrong shape.
    Stuck-up Mary Ellen Tucker,
    with gold glints in her hair,
    chants, Farm girl.
    Rose hides at lunch,
    so town girls can't see she doesn't have
    butter on her bread.
    She pretends not to mind wearing her hair unbound
    by the penny-a-yard ribbon
    sold in Mary Ellen's father's store.
    Rose claims, I like going barefoot.

    She's glad to go home,
    where Mama and Pa trade firewood for groceries,
    plant strawberries and oats, peach and cherry trees.
    They buy red chickens, a gray mule, and a cow.
    Rose collects eggs from the hen house,
    breathing the sweet smell of damp straw.
    Over time, forest becomes a farm. Mama changes
    flour and water into bread, cloth into dresses,
    and, at night, with spoken words,
    her childhood into legend.

General Store

    Rose picks pails of blackberries and huckleberries
    that she and Mama carry into town to sell,
    walking past the cider mill
    and canning factory to the hotel,
    where men whittle and spit tobacco. Boys pitch
    horse shoes on the common,
    fish from the narrow bridge.

    Mama trades the berries at the general store
    where rakes, pitchforks, bolts of calico, candy,
    molasses, and rifles are sold.
    Rose smells puckered-skin apples
    and barrels of pickles floating in brine.
    Mary Ellen Tucker's mother stands
    behind the counter chatting with Mrs. Reynolds,
    whose little girls wiggle behind her back,
    shift their weight in shoes
    that are probably too tight.
    Mary Ellen is home watching her sisters and brothers.
    I don't know what I'd do without her.
Mrs. Tucker
    leans toward Mrs. Reynolds and whispers
    about a lady who stole a peach pie,
    then claimed it as her own
    for the baked goods table at the church bazaar.
    She gossips about pool halls
    and saloons in Kansas City,
    the dirt, the crime,
    a girl sent away to an aunt's for nine months.
    At the end of a sentence, she squeezes her lips
    like a knot with no spare room.
    Cutting cloth for Mama,
    she smiles but takes note of how Mama's hands
    are hardened by hoes. Rose knows she finds
    the lilt of Mama's voice not familiar enough.
    This town has too many rules and stories of fathers
    and the fathers of fathers who grew up here.
    As if staying in one place
    is the sole measure of goodness,
    as if ponds are better than running rivers or rain.
    People in Mansfield want women to bear many children
    to work fields or stock shelves.
    An only child raises suspicion or pity.
    When was fate a fair judge?

    The little girls survey the glass-covered
    case of red-and-white-striped peppermints
    paper-wrapped taffy
    licorice that turns teeth black
    lemon drops.
    Their mother says, Choose one.

    Rose wants to fling open the glass door.
    Hasn't anyone here ever said,
    Take what you want. Take it all.

    Rose follows the girls outside. Their braids
    frame their heads as they lie on their backs
    and stare at clouds. Mama Bess joins Rose.
    I swear Mrs. Tucker joined the choir
    just so she can face the congregation
    and see who's skipping the sermon.

    Rose is no longer a child. She rarely wears braids.
    But she lies on the grass, too,
    watches clouds until the three churches,
    the newspaper office, the school,
    the bakery, bank, and general store disappear.

Lemonade and Green Pumpkin Pie

    Grasses turn golden, are mown,
    then gathered and bound,
    stacked and stored.
    By then more hay is ready to be cut.
    Rose turns thirteen and wears dresses
    that aren't waiting to be grown into.
    She wins spelling bees,
    milks the cow,
    churns butter to spread on homemade bread,
    pushes a plow, splits firewood.
    At last Mary Ellen invites her to a party.
    Rose sends her regrets. She won't say,
    I'm going hunting for rabbits and plan to make stew.
    But she finds her shotgun
    and heads to the woods.
    Wasn't this invitation
    what she wanted? When did everything change?

    The farmhouse is slowly built, room by room.
    Pa frames windows with views of the brook.
    Mama paints the porch where she tells stories.
    She cuts an old striped shirt into quilt squares,
    talking about the days
    when Grandpa worked on the railroad.
    We left loved ones, but we had each other.
    She jams the porch with stories of ancestors
    bearing guns for good causes. Even the dogs
    back then growled only to warn, never on a whim.
    Did I tell how you how your father made a way
    through snowdrifts, some forty feet deep, to fetch food?

    You told me.
Rose asks Pa, Is all that true?

    He winks at her above the shoe he patches.
    He tells Mama, You should put those tales
    down on paper.

    No one would care.
She turns to Rose.
    Though one day you'll have children
    who will want to know where they came from.

    Does Mama think she can tell the future, too?
    Rose's face burns.
    She used to like the way these stories
    of good people doing brave deeds
    stitched her family together. Now she hears
    only the refrain: My life was rougher than yours.
    Rose never faced down a bear,
    forded a flooding river,
    ground wheat in a small mill for porridge,
    or learned to be sweet to a blind sister.

    When Mama says, There's nothing like lemonade
    when you're thirsty,
Rose leaps from the porch.
    She's sick of lemonade and green pumpkin pie.
    She runs through fields. A horse flips the mane
    on her glossy black neck,
    lifts her front legs high, gallops faster,
    as if to say she'll stop if she chooses
    but only then.
    Rose loves the meadows and woods.
    Trees, like imagination, leave spaces to slip through.


    The girl named for the rare rose on the prairie
    who once click-clacked in her mother's shoes
    who tried on her aprons and dresses
    stamps her feet on the mat
    before she enters the kitchen.
    Mama Bess sweeps with the diligence
    of a criminal hiding tracks.
    She presses red-checkered cloths to cover the table
    so no one can see its beautiful wood.
    She smooths an old quilt over the sofa so the fabric
    won't fade, all the while humming songs
    her father played on the fiddle, some of traveling
    and some of home. She asks, What did you do today?

    Rose's forehead turns hot. It's a trap, not a question.
    Mama's goals are etched
    on the skin between her eyes.
    Mama's gingham blouse smells of ironing.
    She crimps the edges of her pie evenly
    dusts the china shepherdess
    so its golden hair glows.
    She can grow tomatoes without spots
    and raise prizewinning chickens
    but she can't add Rose to her collection of
    strong father, patient mother, saintly aunts.
    Rose can't pretend that silver linings can hold
    back disasters. She won't be part
    of her mother's perfect story.


Excerpted from Borrowed Names by Jeannine Atkins. Copyright © 2010 Jeannine Atkins. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane,
Madam C. J. Walker and A'Lelia Walker,
Marie Curie and Irène Joliot-Curie,

Customer Reviews