Prather’s Pick: “A River of Words,” a classic on poetry
William Carlos Williams, one of America’s most influential poets, is the subject of this week’s picture book.
“A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams” was written by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Melissa Sweet. The book is intended for ages 7 and up, with an emphasis on the “up” as older children and adults will enjoy the book a lot.
The artwork is a mixture of various media and is so effective to the book’s story that it earned illustrator Melissa Sweet the Caldecott Honor, a prestigious award, indeed. I’ll have more about the artwork a little later.
The book is a biography. Some of Williams’ poems or excerpts from his poems are included on the back and front inside covers of the book and within the book, too.
Willie Williams grew up in Rutherford, N.J., where he played baseball and other games with his friends, but Willie liked to wander alone in the woods and fields beyond town, too.
In the outdoors, Willie noticed everything.
One of his favorite pastimes was lying down next to the Passaic River while he listened to the rhythm of the water as it moved along.
Later, when Willie listened to Mr. Abbott read poetry in English class, he was reminded of the musical sound of the river (thus, the book’s title). And eventually, Willie began to write his own poetry.
At first, Willie experimented by writing poems using rhythm patterns he had learned in class, but before long, he was writing in his own distinctive style. Willie liked to write about ordinary things, such as plums, wheelbarrows and birds.
Although Willie wrote notebooks full of poems, he realized he couldn’t make a living that way. His mother told him about Uncle Carlos, who had become a doctor and made quite a good living. When Willie was 19, he went off to study medicine.
Willie didn’t give up his love of poetry, though. While at the university, he met Ezra Pound, Hilda Doolittle and Charles Demuth, who were studying the arts, and he enjoyed talking with them.
When Dr. Williams returned to Rutherford, he hung a sign over his door that read, “William C. Williams, M.D., – Family Medicine.” He delivered babies, healed wounds, set broken bones and wrote prescriptions, but at night, he sat in his attic office and wrote poems – literally books of poems.
This week’s book includes a timeline of Williams’s life, plus a list of world events that took place during his lifetime. There’s an “Author’s Note,” too, about Williams’ writing style. An “Illustrator’s Note” explains how Sweet decided on the artwork used in the book.
The artwork is wonderful, but it’s hard to describe. Illustrations are done in watercolor, mixed media and collage.
Different textures, colors, various styles and sizes of lettering and numbering, and portions of typewritten pages are all utilized, sometimes on one page.
In some cases, book covers were used as canvasses for painting. Sweet also used lined papers, prescription pad papers, and even “Bills Receivable” sheets for her collages, most of which contain notes or lines of poetry.
You’ll just have to pore over the pages.
This book is superb. It would be a great addition to a class unit on poetry. I’m so impressed with the book that I’m going to order one for my library.
“A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams” was published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers (2008). The book costs $17 in hardcover. It also can be found at the Craig Moffat County Library.
Copyright Diane Prather, 2009.
Diane Prather can be reached by calling 824-8809.
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