Walt Whitman was a nice guy. He liked things like words, democracy, nature, and friendship. It stands to reason, then, that any biography about his life should be nice, especially when the biography is a children’s picture book. And that’s just what Walt Whitman: Words for America, written by Barbara Kerley and illustrated by Brian Selznick, is—it’s nice in every way. Kerley does not set out to give young readers a watered down version of Whitman’s poetry. Rather, she focuses on the traditional defining events of Whitman’s life, his experience as a printer, his journey across America, his love of his brother and subsequent service to soldiers in Civil War hospitals, his sorrow over the assassination of Lincoln. While the delivery is choppy in the opening paragraphs, often lacking satisfying transitions, the story is still deftly told with great attention paid to the inclusion of well-documented primary sources such as Whitman’s poetry and letters. By the end of the book, the reader does gain a sense of the great humanity of Whitman and thus a sense of why Whitman deserves his title, “voice of the nation.”
Selznick’s illustrations are also nice. Set against a 12-point Scotch Roman type-face which an end note tells us was “Walt’s favorite,” they are a fine complement to the text. Readers may, at first, find the inclusion of several different illustrative styles and color palettes to be a bit discordant, until they realize that the illustrations are very much like Whitman’s life and poetry—vibrant, varied, enthusiastic, bold and soulful. Illustrator’s notes highlight Selznick’s careful study of Whitman’s life and attention to detail, down to the portrayal of African-American Civil War soldiers. A jaunty young Whitman greets you in an old-fashioned oval cutout in the front cover. Standout close-up portraiture of Lincoln and an aged Whitman have a remarkable, sculpted quality, and Selznick’s incorporation of Whitman’s poetry into three of the illustrations left me wanting to see much more of this treatment. Overall, the illustrations are stronger than the text, but are dependent on the text for their significance.
This book is a labor of love for Walt Whitman, a celebration of his life, offered by the author and illustrator. It would make a fine addition to any classroom or personal collection of biographies for children and adults.
Awards and Reviews
- Robert F. Sibert Honor Book, 2004
- New York Times Ten Best Illustrated Books, 2004
- ALA Notable Children’s Book
- Publisher’s Weekly Best Children’s Books
“Try this sophisticated offering on readers who won’t quail at the lengthy text and who will be less likely to skip the dense, illuminating end notes.”—Jennifer Mattson, Booklist (November 15, 2004)
According to the Teacher’s Guide on Barbara Kerley’s website, the Library of Congress has a collection of images of Walt Whitman’s original notebooks. Student’s could study the notebooks and make poetry notebooks of their own, as mentioned in the book.
Selznick mentions his inspiration for one of the most memorable inspirations in the book as being photographs of Civil War soldiers. Students could peruse the Library of Congress collection of Civil War Photographs as an entry point into the Civil War using visual, primary sources. The very extensive collection of Civil War Maps would also serve the same purpose as well as an opportunity to study selected Civil War battles in detail.
One final offering from the Library of Congress is a lesson plan on Whitman’s famous poem, “O, Captain! My Captain!” This plan comes complete with an image of Whitman’s handwritten corrections to the poem. This is a great cross-curricular connection between language arts and history.
Readwritethink has several lesson plans based on Walt Whitman, but one entitled “Varying Views of America” would be especially fitting for this book because Selznick’s illustrations enhance the idea of various points of view. In addition to Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing,” this lesson explores views of America from poets Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou as a multicultural connection. Selznick’s inclusion of African-American soldiers can be discussed as well.
Kerley, Barbara (2004). Walt Whitman: Words for America. Illus. by Brian Selznick. New York: Scholastic. ISBN 978-0439357913