Picturing Poetry

The combination of poetry and pictures has ancient roots, of course, but in our time, it shows up mostly in books published for children. But why should kids have all the fun? The eclectic list of titles below includes some of my favorite examples of how poetry can interact with artwork in surprising, beautiful ways, creating a unique experience for readers and viewers of all ages, including grown-ups.

FridaFrida: Viva la Vida! Long Live Life!, by Carmen T. Bernier-Grand and illustrated by Frida Kahlo

Stunning reproductions of Frida Kahlo’s artwork illustrate this verse biography, creating a layered, complex portrait of the artist. In lyrical, free-verse poems, Bernier-Grand expertly extends the autobiographical imagery so evident in the art. A poem about family tensions appears opposite a painting of a very young Kahlo standing beneath portraits of her family. Later poems focus on Kahlo’s tumultuous marriage to Diego Rivera and capture the images’ themes of anguished love with the rhythm of an obsessive chant. Readers will come away thinking about how words and images can—separately and together—begin to capture a life.

Heart to Heart, ed. by Jan Greenberg

Specially commissioned, original poems celebrate some of the finest twentieth-century American art in this gorgeous compendium of ekphrastic poetry (poetry written in response to artwork), edited by art educator and multi-award-winning author Greenberg. Following a stirring, personal introduction about the interplay of art and poetry, Greenberg presents works by such writers as Nancy Willard, X. J. Kennedy, Lee Upton, and Angela Johnson, all of whom wrote poems inspired by artworks created through the century. Concluding with biographical notes on each poet and artist, this rich resource, which was named a Printz Honor Book, will encourage readers of all ages to return again and again to the pages. A companion volume, Side by Side (2008), expands the scope to include works by global poets and artists.

InsectlopediaInsectlopedia, written and illustrated by Douglas Florian

Among Florian’s numerous, whimsical picture-book poetry titles, this 1998 collection of artwork and short poems about insects and spiders remains one of my favorites. Sly, textured collage images that are both playful and sophisticated illustrate the clever verse and invite readers to wonder about the extraordinary, tiny creatures featured on these luminous pages. Don’t miss the wonderful image of the walking stick, camouflaged against an almost-abstract web of branches. Beautiful!

Is This Forever or What?, ed. by Naomi Shihab Nye

This unusual, handsome book isn’t my favorite of Nye’s poetry collections; the creator of This Same Sky (1992) and so many other unforgettable titles sets singularly high watermarks, after all. But I love the unique way Nye collects art and poetry to help readers to move past stereotypes and consider a place—in this case, her home state of Texas—in completely new ways. In a wide range of styles, the images and verse showcase the cultural and geographical diversity of a place where, as Nye says, “cities and towns have wide margins around them.”

A Kick in the HeadA Kick in the Head, ed. by Paul B. Janeczko and illustrated by Chris Raschka

Janeczko and Raschka have collaborated on a number of winning volumes of illustrated poetry, including A Poke in the I (2001), as well as the just-released The Death of the Hat: A Brief History of Poetry in 50 Objects (2015). To me, this offering stands out for its excellent selection of poems that easily mixes works by Shakespeare and Blake with entries from contemporary poets for youth, including Janeczko, all illustrated beautifully with Raschka’s freewheeling collage artwork. An elegant flurry of torn paper pieces, for example, makes a powerful accompaniment to Georgia Heard’s heartbreaking poem, “The Paper Trail,” about lives lost on 9/11.

The Negro Speaks of Rivers, by Langston Hughes and illustrated by E. B. Lewis

Lewis earned a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Award for the images he created to accompany Hughes’ classic poem. On these picture-book pages, dramatic, expertly modulated fluctuations between light and dark evoke the poem’s dichotomies of celebration and sorrow, the spiritual and the material worlds, and the single soul that follows millions of ancestors. Even if young children don’t grasp the meaning in every line, they’ll easily connect with these luminous, soul-stirring pictures that honor both African American heritage and the whole human family. As we said in our original review: transcendent images for a transcendent poem.

Moon Have You Met My MotherMoon, Have You Met My Mother?, by Karla Kuskin and illustrated by Sergio Ruzzier

In this volume of Kuskin’s collected works, the poet’s masterful mix of playful nonsense, melancholy beauty, and appealing mystery finds a perfect match in Ruzzier’s illustrations—which are subtle, funny, and a little wild, just like the words. Arranged in a spacious design that resembles a Shel Silverstein collection with its pairing of ink drawings and short lines of verse, the images feature odd flights of fancy and creatures that are not quite what they seem. A perfect collection for families to share together.

A Wreath for Emmett Till, by Marilyn Nelson and illustrated by Philippe Lardy

Award-winning poet Nelson chose Emmett Till’s brutal, racially motivated 1955 murder as the subject for this searing, illustrated collection. The poems form a heroic crown of sonnets—a sequence in which the last line of one poem becomes the first line of the next. “The strict form became a kind of insulation, a way of protecting myself from the intense pain of the subject matter,” writes Nelson. When matched with Lardy’s gripping, spare, symbolic paintings of tree trunks, blood-red roots, and wreaths of thorns, these poems form a powerful achievement that teens and adults will want to discuss.



About the Author:

Gillian served as Booklist's editorial director of Books for Youth from 2011 to 2014. She currently lives in Switzerland, while serving as Editor of Book Links, a position she's held since 2008. Follow her on Twitter at @BooklistGillian.

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