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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | Marilyn Nelson

Jen Bryant

In this interview with Jen Bryant, author of A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, our Bookstorm™ this month.

A River of WordsDo you recall the first time you encountered a William Carlos Williams poem?

I was in high school—and it was part of an anthology reading that we did for English class. I had disliked/not understood/ been unmoved by all of the other poems in this assigned reading (I recall that the language in those poems was archaic and flowery, and the forms very, VERY traditional)—and then—whooosh—like a breath of fresh air, here were a few selected W. C. Williams poems, which used little punctuation, were freeform in structure, and focused on everyday scenes and real life. They were the first poems I enjoyed and felt “welcomed” into.

Do you have a list of Most Favorite Poets? Was William Carlos Williams on that list before you began the research for this book? Is he on that list now?

He’s definitely on the list—and there are too many others to name here, so I’ll just start by listing a few of them: Emily Dickinson, Mary Oliver, Yusef Komunyakaa, Wendell Berry, William Stafford, Rita Dove, Marge Piercy, Robert Frost, Lucille Clifton, Phillip Levine, Marilyn Nelson, Gary Soto, Galway Kinell, Eamon Grennan, Jane Kenyon … (see? way too many!)

When you turned your manuscript in to your editor, did you envision how the book might be illustrated? What do you think when you first saw Melissa Sweet’s ideas for illustrating Williams’ life?

Melissa and I did not know each other before Eerdmans paired us for this book. Gayle Brown, the art director at EBYR, chose Melissa as the illustrator—and I believe that this single act has influenced my writing life ever since! I’d already written three picture book biographies on creative people (O’Keeffe, Messiaen, and Moore) and I had never met ANY of those illustrators. All of their styles were very distinct, very different from one another’s—so, no, I had no clue what an illustrator would do with this text. You can just imagine my reaction when I saw Melissa’s art for this book … I wept with happiness. She’s truly amazing.

A River of Words

How did you find information about this poet’s younger years?

I had to piece scenes together from many different sources: forewords and prefaces to poetry collections, a few audio recordings, an old film, some archival records, etc. The key, though, was to keep the river as the central image around which the rest of the story could spin. Once I had made that decision, the rest became a bit easier.

A River of WordsDid you have to cut much material from your original concept of the book? Did you go through a few revisions with the editor or many revisions with the editor?

I always prefer to give the editors more than they need—then let them give me feedback on which scenes/stanzas are more compelling and which are redundant or less compelling (and thus can be cut.) Yes, there were on-going revisions with this manuscript—but if I recall correctly, the originally-submitted version was the one that was sent to Melissa and she got started from that text. We didn’t make HUGE changes to this story, but we tweaked wording here and there—and then the back matter was added later on.

If you had met William Carlos Williams, what question would you have asked him?

“If you had been able to quit your day-job (as a physician) and could support your family full-time by writing, would you have done that? OR, did your daily rounds—with all kinds of patients and in many different settings—feed your art so much that you needed to do both in order to write well?”


Jen, thank you for sharing your answers with our readers. Your style of writing biographies is so unique, and so well researched, that it’s valuable for us to know more about the process of this book’s creation.

For use with your students, Jen’s website includes a discussion guide that you’ll find useful as you incorporate this book into your planning.

illustrations in this article are copyright © Melissa Sweet


My Seneca Village

by Marsha Qualey

My Seneca Village
by Marilyn Nelson
Namelos, 2015

My Seneca Village cover

I’m going to begin with a disclaimer that is also a bit o’ bragging. I’ve had the good fortune to meet and work with Marilyn Nelson (A Wreath for Emmett Till, Snook Alone, How I Discovered Poetry). I’ve stayed up late and sipped wine and talked with her, spent a day escorting her to school visits where she wowed elementary students; she once supped at my table. I also had the good fortune to hear some of the poems in My Seneca Village when the book was a work in progress.

So, obviously I was predisposed to like it. I was not prepared, however, for how quickly and completely I fell in love.

The book opens with Nelson’s “Welcome,” which includes a succinct history of Seneca Village, “Manhattan’s first significant community of African American property owners,” that was founded in 1825. The village was short-lived: “By 1857, everyone would have been forced to move, and Seneca Village would be completely erased by the creation of Central Park.”

41 poems are at the heart of the book. Each was inspired by a name and “identifying label” Nelson found in census records. Presented in chronological order, the poems span thirty-two years; several of the characters reappear, maturing and changing along with the village. For the first reading, it’s beneficial to read the poems in order, even if a quick glance at a table of contents that reveals such titles as “Miracle in the Collection Plate” or “Pig on Ice” tempts you to skip ahead.

Equally important are the one-page scene-setting prose descriptions that preface each poem. Were My Seneca Village ever to be an image-illustrated book, I’d wager not even the finest of our picture book artists could animate the characters and setting as well as the author’s language; it would be akin to breaking a spell.

Seneca Village Project; Google Earth; Photo: City Metric

  Central Park West is the street bordering the park in the right hand image. Seneca Village Project; Google Earth; Photo: City Metric                                          

Historical footnotes accompany several of the poems. Those and the excellent concluding author’s note, in which Nelson explains the poetic forms and rhyming techniques she used, remind the reader that the literary mural unfolding in her hands is the result of history, imagination, and hard and intentional work.

This is a book for all ages, but, oh, what a terrific book to read aloud or simply make available to young readers (though I should warn any interested teacher that there is one poem that might trigger PG-13-ish questions or comments; I won’t mention it by name because I don’t want anyone reading ahead, but it includes the lovely compound noun “pleasure-purveyors”). 

Seneca Village is an almost-lost world.  With My Seneca Village, Marilyn Nelson brings that world near in time and close to home.


Catch You Later, Traitor Companion Booktalks

To get you started on the Bookstorm™ Books …

America in the 1950s cover  

America in the 1950s

Edmund Lindop with Sarah Decapua
21st Century Books, 2010

  • Topic-centered chapters, e.g.: the transition from WWII, the Korean War, the 50’s economy and society, the Red Scare

  • Photo-illustrated

  • Report material galore, including substantial back matter

Bat 6 cover


Bat 6

Virginia Euwer Wolff
Scholastic, 1998

  • In rural Oregon not long after WWII, the annual softball game between 6th grade girls from two towns is a cauldron of secrets, simmering racism, class divide, hope and friendship.

  • Quick-reading, multiple-viewpoint narrative shared by all the girls and some adults provides a “you are there” report of the big event

  • Jane Addams Peace Award, an SLJ Best Book of the Year

Belles of the Ballpark cover  

Belles of the Ballpark: Celebrating the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League

Diana Star Helmer with Thomas S. Owens
Summer Games, 2015

  • The 1992 film A League of their Own is now a generation old and possibly unknown to many young students; this book is perfect for those just discovering the women’s-league topic or for fans of the film that want to know more

  • Detailed league history from its origins during WWII, through its 12 seasons

  • Loads of photos and many interviews

Catch a Tiger cover  

Catch a Tiger by the Toe

Ellen Levine
Viking Juvenile, 2005

  • It’s 1953 in New York, and 13-year-old Jamie’s father IS a communist; life changes

  • Communists in the ‘50s were often very involved in civil rights actions; this novel explores the relevance of that connection to the “witch-hunting” and finger-pointing

  • Author’s note and additional back matter

City of Spies cover  

City of Spies

Susan Kim and Laurence Klavan
illus by Pascal Dizin
First Second, 2010

  • It’s 1942 and the world is at war, and in New York 10 year old Evelyn has the run of the city; adventure ensues in this graphic novel

  • Visual blend of old-style-American comics (Evelyn reads them and draws her own) and updated European (Tin-Tin) visual storytelling

  • Seeing the enemy everywhere—a great current topic for discussion and a terrific narrative backbone for a mystery

Cold War cover  

Cold War

Josepha Sherman
Lerner Publications 2004

  • Begins with historical background on the “rise of the superpowers,” including a brief rundown on both the US and Russian revolutions and the partitioning of Europe during and after World War II.

  • Strong photo illustration

  • Back matter includes glossary, timeline of Cold War events, maps, and reading list

Fabulous Fashions cover  

Fabulous Fashions of the 1950s

Felicia Lowenstein Niven
Enslow, 2011

  • 48-page overview of the fashion era

  • Photo illustrated, with reproductions of actual 50s advertising

  • Glossary and fashion timeline in back matter

Green Glass Sea  cover  

The Green Glass Sea

Ellen Klages 
Viking Books, 2006

  • And you think your family has a secret… A novel about growing up in the shadow of the Manhattan project

  • Set in 1943, provides context for why the Soviet Union and communism would loom as such a foe in the 1950s

  • Scott O’Dell Award for historical fiction


Discovered Poetry cover  

How I Discovered Poetry

Marilyn Nelson
illus by Hadley Hooper
Dial Books for Young Readers, 2014

  • Childhood memoir—fictionalized—in poems, each set in the years 1950-1959

  • Illustrations and black and white photographs expand the “curb appeal” for the reader wary of poetry

  • Coretta Scott King honor book

LIFE cover  

Life: Our Century in Pictures for Young People

edited by Richard B. Stolley
adapted by Amy E. Sklansky
Little, Brown and Co., 2000

  • Before, during, and after the 1950s. Great context for study and discussion of the decade

  • Introductory essays for each decade written by notable children’s authors, including Lois Lowry, Patricia and Frederick McKissack, Avi, and Katherine Paterson.

  • Illustrated with photos from the Life magazine archives

Francine cover  

The Loud Silence of Francine Green

Karen Cushman
Clarion Books, 2005

  • Communism, the Red Scare, injustice; also, friendship and being 13

  • Detailed and unusual setting (1950 Los Angeles, a Catholic school) with many cultural reference students will enjoy exploring; discussion guide  

  • Newbery medal author

Spy cover  


Richard Platt  
DK Eyewitness Books, 2009

  • History of spying with many bios of famous spies

  • Gadgets galore

  • The usual DK magic potion of well-done visuals and text

Played for Nothing cover  

We Would Have Played for Nothing: Baseball Stars of the 1950s and 1960s Talk About the Game They Loved

Fay Vincent
Simon & Schuster, 2008

  • Interviews with some of baseball’s best players from the 1950s and 1960s

  • Second installment of the author’s project, an oral history of baseball; interested readers can go back to Volume 1 (1930s and 40s) or jump to Volume 3 (1970s and 80s)

  • Illustrated with period photos  


Musings of a lifelong reader, part two

Why do we have books without illustrations? Only in the last few years has the concept of a “visual learner” become familiar to me. By all definitions, and pedagogical controversy aside, this describes the way I absorb knowledge. I wasn’t aware of a name or theory when I was learning to read, or actively engaged […]