How I Discovered Poetry
by Marilyn Nelson; illus. by Hadley Hooper
Middle School Dial 103 pp.
1/14 978-0-8037-3304-6 $16.99 g
In fifty poems (some previously published) Nelson chronicles her formative years during the 1950s, from age four to thirteen, against the backdrop of the cold war and stirrings of the civil rights movement and women’s lib. Each piece includes a title (“Blue Footsies” begins the book), a date, and a place name. Nelson’s father was a military officer — “one of the first African American career officers in the Air Force” — and the family crisscrossed the country. Nelson’s mother was a teacher who instilled in her children the importance of breaking ground: “Mama says First Negroes are History: / First Negro Telephone Operator, / First Negro Opera Singer at the Met, / First Negro Pilots, First Supreme Court Judge.” Throughout their travels the family encountered racism (both the subtle and not-so-subtle types) but also loving kindness from friends and neighbors. The book ends with “Thirteen-Year-Old American Negro Girl,” in which Nelson realizes that poetry is her métier and that it will be her contribution to the world. Her author’s note calls this volume a “late-career retrospective…a ‘portrait of the artist as a young American Negro Girl,’” and readers will be gratified to follow the progression of “the Speaker” (as Nelson refers to the main character, “whose life is very much like mine”) from tentative child to self-possessed young woman on the cusp of a creative awakening. A few family photos are included, rounded out by spare 1950s–ish spot art that underscores the time period and accentuates the deeply personal nature of the remembrances.