Review of One Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissance

grimes_one last wordOne Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissance
by Nikki Grimes; illus. by various artists
Intermediate, Middle School, High School   Bloomsbury   120 pp.
1/17    978-1-61963-554-8    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-1-61963-555-5    $12.99

The vibrancy of the Harlem Renaissance is illuminated in Grimes’s provocative poetry collection. In a tribute to the great poets of the era, she offers new verse with contemporary settings using an unusual form called Golden Shovel, in which each line of the new poem ends with one of the words in a line from the original. For example, from Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” she renders a poem about a son in a “dwindled” family who proclaims, “…I stand strong like / a tree my baby brothers can lean on. I try to be the / raft that helps carry them over this life’s rough rivers.” Themes of the new poems include self-pride, aspirations, bullying, and peer relations. A clean layout that juxtaposes each original poem with its new verse helps readers make thematic connections. In a framing device, a contemporary girl contemplating a world full of hate and fear revisits, on her teacher’s advice, the powerful works of eight prominent Harlem Renaissance figures, including Gwendolyn Bennett, Jean Toomer, and Paul Laurence Dunbar. Returning from her dip into the “glory days” of the Harlem Renaissance, she feels hopeful, reassuring her sister that “life will be rough, / but we’ve got the stuff / to make it.” The poems are complemented by original artistic interpretations by fifteen black artists (e. g., E. B. Lewis, Javaka Steptoe, Christopher Myers, Shadra Strickland) who offer absorbing and engaging images. This enterprising and unusual volume not only introduces the Harlem Renaissance to young readers but also presents the challenge of a new way to write and enjoy poetry. Poet and artist biographies, sources, and an index are appended.

From the March/April 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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Pauletta Brown Bracy
Pauletta Brown Bracy is professor of library science at North Carolina Central University. She is chair of the 2015-2017 Coretta Scott King Book Awards committee and serves on the 2017 Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards committee.

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