How I Discovered Poetry by Marilyn Nelson

The format and style of this memoir is a lot like Jacqueline Woodson”s brown girl dreaming. The particular setting and type of story is a little different but it’s also a Civil Rights era memoir written by a WOC entirely in poetry. Given all those descriptors, one would think that they would be similar, but no. Their stories are different, as any two people’s stories are despite many similar experiences and/or a similar background. Two people growing up in the same house have pretty different interpretations of their upbringing.

Nelson is an Army brat, moving around and having first hand experience of the life of a person of color during and before the Civil Rights Movement from several locations in the US. Her poems about that time are simple and complicated at the same time. As a middle grade book of poetry, I’d love to see it taught and the meaning of the poems torn apart in a middle school English class. What was it like before that? What was going on in the country? Why would someone say or do that? As we move further from many of the more outlandish and socially acceptable racism of that time to a look at what people of color deal with today, we maybe see better why people have the reactions they do now. We can at least attempt to teach a better understanding to our children.

Though the poems aren’t all written during this period, they span Nelson’s life from 4-14 years old. As I mentioned in Woodson’s memoir as well as in Shout by Laurie Halse Anderson, I love memoir in poetry. I know all poetry collections are near to the heart of the poet, but there’s this little difference that’s hard to describe. A lot of poems and collections feel like a memory or a recounting of that time but these deliberately cover the time remembered. They get into different aspects of it while sequencing the poems with time rather than anything else. I just love it.

This was my choice for Read Harder’s task 22, a children’s or middle grade book (not YA) that has won a diversity award since 2009. It’s a middle grade book and won the Coretta Scott King Award in 2015. Add to your TBR on Goodreads or Litsy!

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