A Wreath for Emmett Till by Marilyn Nelson; Illustrated by Philippe Lardy.
Emmett Till was 14 years old when he was kidnapped and murdered. Two people were tried for the crime and, despite eyewitness testimony that one of those people had forcibly removed Emmett from his grandfather's home, and despite a motive, the two were acquitted. And later told a reporter the story of how they had killed Emmett.
What had Emmett done? Why were the murderers acquitted? Emmett was African American; he was a 14 year old, raised in Chicago. Emmett had gone for the summer to the South, to Money, Mississippi, to visit relatives. While there, he may, or may not, have whistled at a white woman.
Nelson's wreath is a series of sonnets: in particular, a heroic crown of sonnets. This is poetry that is structured and requires discipline; it is not easy to write. Each word, each syllable, is important. It doesn't just happen. It takes talent, it takes creativity, and it takes mastery of the form -- especially where, as here, each sonnet reads so smoothly. Art like this -- that requires time, patience, skill, dedication, practice, training, heart -- doesn't just happen.
Nelson says that this form became "a kind of insulation, a way of protecting myself from the intense pain of the subject matter, and a way to allow the Muse to determine what the poem would say."
What is brilliant about Nelson is that the discipline and structure is what frees her. This series is heartbreaking, haunting, and evocative. To learn what happened to Emmett, to see the pictures of his body, to think about the horror of his final hours... the brain shuts down, the heart cannot bear it. And so Nelson has found a way to make it bearable; and in making it bearable, we can listen, and learn. Just as each syllable matters to achieve the heroic crown of syllable, each second of Emmett's life matters.
What else is good: Nelson expects things from the reader. She makes references that are important; she assumes the reader will know. She doesn't write down to the audience. (But she also includes wonderfully detailed Notes section, realizing that not everyone will get every reference.)
I also liked the artwork. It's symbolic, rather than realistic. In examining it, I had to think: why this? Why here? What is this adding? Like Nelson, Lardy has a note, explaining some of his artistic choices.
A must-own; a must-read.
Getting Away With Murder: The True Story of the Emmett Till Case by Chris Crowe.
PBS website, The Murder of Emmett Till.
Teacher's Guide for A Wreath for Emmett Till from Houghton Mifflin.
The Ghosts of Emmett Till by Richard Rubin (published in the New York Times Magazine) includes interviews with the jurors in the Till case.
And why, or why, isn't I'll Fly Away available on DVD? This series explored race relations and the Civil Rights Movement; it was amazing; and the series ending was devastating, and built around a slightly fictionalized version of the Till murder.