Bryant, J. (2008). A River of Words: The story of William Carlos Williams. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.
*Takes a brief moment to wave at Eerdmans Books* I know somebody whoooooooo wooooooooorks there! *waves again*
Appetizer: This picturebook biography focuses on the younger years of Willie Williams's (1883-1963) life as a poet--His childhood nature walks, his enjoyment of listening to his teacher read poetry, experimenting with writing his own poetry to deciding to become a doctor.
A poet herself, Jen Bryant uses lyrical language to share Williams's story. I especially liked that she called Williams "Willie" throughout the narrative, which helps him to seem more childlike and relatable than DR. WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS. I also liked that she kept referring back to his mother and how she'd tell her neighbors about Willy's successes. That also should (hopefully!) be a relatable experience for young readers.
I thought it was a very nice touch to include several of Williams's poems on the end papers as well as in the narrative. Bryant's lyrical language worked well around Williams's poetry.
Bryant's writing also worked exceptionally well with Melissa Sweet's illustrations. On one page in particular, Bryant describes Willie listening to the perfect turn of the river's music while on a walk. Sweet's illustration of that page incorporates words such as "gurgle" and "hush" into the waves and flow of the river. I thought that was a very nice touch. (And, you know, it plays into the title of the book....)
And that's not the only place where things like that happen. Sweet includes many poems in a child's handwriting throughout the illustration, which shares the wonderful message that kids can write their own poems. She also used old book covers and end pages as the basis for her collages throughout the book. I can see why A River of Words received a Caldecott Honor. (BTW, 6 days until the new winners and honors are announced!!!!!!!!!)
"Like the other boys in Rutherford, New Jersey,
Willie Williams loved to play baseball
and to race his friends up and down the street."
"But when Mr. Abbot read poetry to Willie's English class,
Willie did not feel hurried. The gentle sounds and
shifting rhythms of the poems were like the music
of the river. As the teacher read each line, Willie
closed his eyes and let them make pictures in his mind."
"One night, alone in his room, Willie began to write
his own poems. At first, he imitated the famous
English writers he had learned about in school."
"He had pictures in his mind that didn't fit exactly
into steady rhythms or rhymes.
"I have never seen a swan or an archer," Willie thought.
"I want to write about ordinary things--"
To Go with the Meal:
Not only can A River of Words be used to provide background when studying the poetry of William Carlos Williams, but the picturebook could be used to start conversations and writings on nature, the ordinary or writing in free verse. A teacher could mention how if a student finds something they love (like poetry!) they can still make time to work on it even as they are assigned to do other things in school or to take on other jobs later on (as Williams did).
A teacher could also use the artwork to encourage students to make their own collages from found objects.
As one of the poets discussed in Sharon Creech's Love That Dog, a teacher could bring in this picturebook biography to give middle grade readers more background about the poet.
This book also has the side benefit of sharing the typical work of a doctor. It may capture some readers' attention as being an enjoyable job.
Tasty Rating: !!!!