A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams. By Jen Bryant. Illustrated by Melissa Sweet. Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 32 pp., $17. Ages 7 and up.
By Janice Harayda
Melissa Sweet says in a note at the end of this book that her “Brownie troupe” once visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That gaffe is, alas, all too typical of this runner-up for the title of “the most distinguished American picture book for children.”
Jen Bryant has written a lively but unexceptional introduction to the life of William Carlos Williams (1883—1963), who combined practicing medicine in a New Jersey suburb with writing experimental verse that broke with the classical traditions of 19th-century lions like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. A River of Words is the rare book for its age group that shows a man — not a woman — balancing multiple roles.
Williams’s best-known book of poetry, the multivolume Paterson, is often called collage of that city. And Sweet tries hard to apply the artistic counterpart of that technique. Working with mixed media, she combines watercolors and items from Williams’s world: a map, a report card, sheet music, pages from an anatomy book, the stationery from his medical office.
The poet Sara London wrote diplomatically in the New York Times Book Review that Sweet’s pictures are “playfully distracting – the eye hops sparrowlike from leaf to leaf, uncertain where to settle.” At times the images are so frenetic, they’re confusing. On one spread, the left-hand page shows Williams sitting at his desk writing poetry as a boy. The right-hand page shows in childlike handwriting the first lines of his poem “Pastoral”: “The little sparrows / hop ingenuously / about the pavement / quarreling.” The juxtaposition suggests that Williams wrote the poem as a child when, in fact, he wrote it in early adulthood.
Some people have criticized the American Library Association for not honoring enough poetry, and they have a point. The ALA has snubbed prize-worthy books like Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant, which combines wonderful pictures by Carin Berger with some of the best recent work by Jack Prelutsky, the popular children’s poet.
But giving a 2009 Honor Book citation to A River of Words was doing the right thing — showing respect for poetry — for the wrong reason. A River of Words deserves a place in many libraries and bookstores for its spirited and in some ways successful portrait of what it takes to succeed as a poet. That is different from deserving a place on the medal stand.
Best line/picture: A chronology of Williams’s life at the end of the book includes this event for 1909: “His first verse collection Poems is printed and published by a friend. It sells only four copies.” The line is incorrectly punctuated – Poems should be set off by commas – but it offers a healthy jolt of shock therapy to would-be poets.
Worst line/picture: From the illustrator’s note at the end: “Living in northern New Jersey (not too far from where Williams grew up in Rutherford), my Brownie troupe took a field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.”
Furthermore: A River of Words won a 2009 Caldecott Honor citation. The book has the full text of Williams’s most famous poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow”, and five others: “The Woodthrush,” “The Great Figure,” “Metric Figure,” “This Is Just to Say”, and “Pastoral.” It has excerpts from “Complaint,” “The Descent of Winter” and “Part X, Pictures from Brueghel.” All of the poems appear on the endpapers.
Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.