Coretta Scott by Ntozake Shange, illustrated by Kadir Nelson.
Amistad imprint, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2009.
Biographical poem picture book, 30 pages.
Lexile: not leveled
AR Level: 4.9 (worth 0.5 points)
Note: this book is an illustrated poem.
Ntozake Shange has written a poem and Kadir Nelson has illustrated it in this gorgeous, but non-traditional biography.
I’m not quite sure what I expected from this book. Probably something more like Martin’s Big Words because the cover style looked similar to me. Actually, it was quite different and I have some mixed feelings about it. I’ve ordered another, more traditional children’s biography of Coretta Scott King which I’m hoping will compliment this one nicely.
The artwork is spectacular, although as the kids pointed out, there are portions where it is difficult to tell which person was Martin Luther King, Jr. in the crowd. They also found it confusing that some pages didn’t include either Coretta Scott King or Martin Luther King, Jr.
Personally, this didn’t bother me at all. I found it very clear from the context of the illustrations and text who was who and what was happening at each point. However, that’s why I like having the kids read the books I review or reading them at school, because they will sometimes have a different perspective.
One of the kids I was reading to has strong negative reactions to the word Negro which occurs four times in this text (always capitalized). Therefore as I was reading I had to omit that word. Sometimes I was able to simply leave out the line, while at other points the line was integral to the meaning and another word had to be substituted which was less triggering.
It’s for that reason also that I would not read this book aloud to my students at school. The subtext of a white woman reading Negro to black and other minority students is difficult at best (plus one of my students also has a similar trigger), so I prefer to share other diverse books with them during read-aloud.
This book did not use conventional punctuation, which you might think I was bothered by, given my reactions to this book and this one. However, in this case it didn’t bother me at all, for two reasons. First, the meaning was still abundantly clear. Proper nouns were still capitalized, and line breaks in the free verse poetry served the same purpose that commas or periods would have in more conventional English writing. Second, this was a poem and a picture book. What annoys me greatly over the course of a novel is hardly on my radar during a poem.
The imagery was lovely and it’s curious how Nelson worked with this poem. I wonder if the page breaks were already there, or if he decided how to work them around his intended images? Some areas of the poem have clear, concrete images for him to depict, while others were more open-ended.
The colors and shapes were well thought-out and flow from one into the other. There is some subtle detail connecting each page to the ones previous and text, such as the white background for one page becoming the text color on the next, darker page, or two pages with different color palettes both using silhouettes. These subtle details do a lot to lure the reader onward, as does the lack of punctuation which works to entice the reader to continue, hoping for the finality of a period.
The kids felt a little cheated by the ending, thinking it was too abrupt. N pointed out that CSK’s life didn’t end with her husband’s death, and she wanted to see the aftermath addressed in this book. However, we haven’t read much in this style, so I think the new-to-them format of picture book poetry influenced their opinion.
The format and vocabulary leave me curious about the intended audience for this book. It’s a little high for a picture book audience to read independently, and a good deal of context is needed for read-aloud. The content is just heavy enough that the lowest I would feel comfortable reading this to a group is 2nd grade (but I wouldn’t as mentioned above – a white woman saying “Negro” to PoC children carries a weight I’m not ready for).
I see this as having a place as a supplemental material in the classroom or library or being used as an individual read-aloud. Because this also covers a few major events in the Civil Rights Movement, it could be good primer on or introduction to that time in history for children who are not already familiar with the movement. The book also ends with an informative page about CSK’s life, and short bios on the author and illustrator, who are both #ownvoices.
This book could be great for a one-on-one read-aloud, or as a family read, if it was previewed first and the adult was prepared to talk the kids through some of the challenges such as the language, formatting, and illustrations that aren’t always following the main character. Certainly it is a beautiful book and a very evocative poem even without the images.
The important thing to remember is that this is a poem, not a biography. While it gives biographical details about the subject’s life, that is not the purpose of the book. Therefore it is judged by somewhat different standards and skews to a different audience than the title and cover might portray.