Yes! It’s National Poetry Month!

**Originally published on**

Ekua Holmes/Candlewick Press

You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen, by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Jeffrey Boston Weatherford (New York: Atheneum, 2016)

Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets, by Kwame Alexander with Chris Colderley and Marjory Wentworth, illustrated by Ekua Holmes (Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2017)

Let’s dive in with poetry for middle grade readers. Each selection warrants repeated readings, as poetry typically does, to ruminate over the themes, the exquisite language, and the outstanding visuals.

Carole Boston Weatherford, poet, and her son, illustrator Jeffery Boston Weatherford, collaborated on the 2016 book, You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen. You can hold the book in one hand, its petite size belying the vastness of the themes captured within. The work pulls you into the 1940s and the historical experience of young black men and women eager to make their mark during an era of upheaval and change.

Weatherford writes of segregation, racism, gender, and patriotism during World War II, through the eyes of an Airman who seized the chance to fight and fly. “You hail from big cities and country roads/and are not run of the mill by any measure./Thirteen men—not thirty-five, as expected—/and not an “average Joe” among you.” Ambitious young men are not the only stars of the book. We learn as well of the bravery of those black women allowed into the Army Nurse Corps because the military faced a shortage of nurses. “You cannot go to war without a medical corps./…It really takes a good nurse to KEEP ‘EM FLYING.” Weatherford doesn’t shy away from the fact that black people were fighting on two fronts, abroad and at home where “In this war, the enemy is you./In 1941 and 1942, eleven black men—/if you count the three boys—/were lynched in the United States.” Black newspapers pressed the point in reportage and editorials; William Henry Hastie, “a freedom fighter,” pressed the military: “How could a black man be expected to fight,/he asks, and defend a country/that doesn’t respect his rights…?” In depicting Dorie Miller’s bravery at Pearl Harbor, boxer Joe Louis’s and songbird Lena Horne’s support of the war effort, Weatherford emphasizes the complexity of African American patriotism. For the Airmen of the Fighting 99th, “The color barrier was granite,/but you not only chipped away at it,/you did victory rolls over the rubble.”

Jeffrey Boston Weatherford’s scratchboard illustrations are like woodcuts from the era. The images are intimate (we see an Airman studying the picture of his girl, other Airmen playing cards and listening to the jukebox) and expansive (the Fighting 99th in flight formation in the sky, a rendering of the bombing of Pearl Harbor); they capture black cultural figures (Horne, Louis) and American segregation.

Check out a discussion between the two here:

As Weatherford shows, we turn to poetry for inspiration, whether to tell a story about the past or, as Kwame Alexander, Chris Colderley, and Marjory Wentworth do, to show how our own art draws on the beauty of others. The book’s title draws on poet Lucille Clifton who understood that “Poems come out of wonder, not out of knowing.” That wondering is the task Alexander, Colderley, and Wentworth task themselves in Out of Wonder. They embrace the art of twenty other poets, such as Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, e. e. Cummings, and Rumi, and create new work inspired by them.  As Alexander explains, “I believe that by reading other poets we can discover own wonder…. The poems in this book pay tribute to the poets…by adopting their style, extending their ideas, and offering gratitude to their wisdom and inspiration.” (Brief bios of each of the poets referenced are included for further exploration.)

Each section of the collection has a short introduction covering ideas around style, feeling and theme, and connection. Chris Colderley, in celebrating Nikki Giovanni, writes,

people forget…poetry is not just words on a page…it is…

a snowflake on your tongue…a tattoo on the inside of your arm…a dashiki and a kaftan…

 poetry is remembering the things that matter…the ones you love…

when night comes softly…like ripples on a pond

That’s why, after your first read of Out of Wonder, you must lay it flat on a table and dive more deeply into Ekua Holmes’s mixed-media collages. (See her work above.) Each poem is illustrated in exuberant colors and textures that spring from the page. Holmes gives us the stillness of nature and the urgency of the city, the playfulness of young children and the blues of adults. She expertly depicts the variety in scope of the poems, teasing out the fullness of the poets’ words in her art.

Kwame Alexander was interviewed on NPR by Rachel Martin about Out of Wonder; check it out here: