Nominated for a 2005 Sibert award and winner of an ALA Notable Book for Children award in the same year, Barbara Kerley’s Walt Whitman: Words for America presents an American legend, patriot, and staunch supporter of President Abraham Lincoln. Presented in a picture book format, this biography is written for kids in second to fifth grades, but is weighty enough for older kids, too.
Whitman’s early life is described in terms of his passion for writing and reading, and progress in a linear fashion through the end of his life. What the reader learns is how Whitman was connected to Lincoln, via his admiration for the president, as well as his connection to the soldiers of the Civil War. Readers can follow Whitman as he travels across America, writes about “the common people” he so admired, and spends much of his time caring for wounded soldiers. He is presented as a sympathetic figure who was passionate, kind, and proud to be American.
Peppered throughout the book are excerpts from Whitman’s poems. Kerley’s style is what some may refer to as “creative nonfiction.” She weaves facts with flowing, imagery-filled text. She makes many allusions to Whitman’s writings, such as the allusion to his poem, “Oh Captain! My Captain!” in the line, “He began to see Lincoln as a captain, guiding his ship through troubled waters” (Kerley 2004).
Not to be forgotten, the illustrations by Caldecott award-winning artist Brian Selznick deepen the sympathy the reader is likely to feel toward Whitman. Real people are presented in stunning detail and, in the case of Whitman, a remarkable likeness when compared to black and white photographs. “The brilliantly inventive paintings add vibrant testimonial to the nuanced text” (Taniguchi 2004). Each illustration is a singular moment in time that teases the reader to continue. In design, the illustrations take up most of the pages, but the text carries equal weight in importance. The two balance each other out to create a larger historical framework for understanding the connections between Whitman, Lincoln, and the Civil War.
The last few pages contain an author’s note and brief but important details about Whitman, Lincoln’s fondness for Whitman’s poetry, and what happened after the war. There is also a long note from the illustrator, as well as eight poems and a list of the author’s sources. Kids who take the time to read these sections will be richly rewarded. This book segues wonderfully into an exploration of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Drum-taps. If you host a creative writing group, encourage your students to write their own poems about America and the lives of Americans after learning about Walt Whitman. Combine the poems to create a book about America for the whole group to share.
Taniguchi, Marilyn. November 2004. School Library Journal. http://ezproxy.twu.edu:2125/DetailedView.aspx?hreciid=|13106048|9386762&mc=USA#. Accessed October 26, 2013.