My Uncle Emily is dear

July 6, 2010 at 8:29 pm Leave a comment

My Uncle Emily by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter; published by Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, New York; 2009.

Gib’s Uncle Emily gave him a bumble bee and a poem to take to school.  He was a little embarrassed to read the poem to his class–afraid the other children would make fun of his dear aunt.  She is unusual, Uncle Emily.  She always wears a white dress and rarely leaves the house.  But she dotes on her nephews and niece.  And she is a prolific poet.  Gib’s mother insists he take the poem to school because it is rare for a poem of Emily Dickinson’s to leave the house.  That much of the story is true.  The fight between Gib and a classmate may or may not have happened.  The exchanges between the aunt and nephew are conjecture, but based entirely on research about the poet and her relationship with her family (as Yolen explains at the end of the story).  Carpenter captures the period in her pen and ink illustrations, often giving a face to the text–such as when Gib is surrounded by his doting family, but he looks back (guilt painted across his face) at Uncle Emily’s feet on the stairs after she has challenged him to tell the rest of the story.  Her retreat leads us to believe she is disappointed in little Gib, and he is feeling the full brunt of her disappointment rather than relishing the compassion of his doting family.

I confess.  I have been an Emily Dickinson fan since high school, when I did a project about the reclusive poet (and even performed some of The Belle of Amherst, white dress included, as part of my presentation).  But Yolen’s tender depiction of the poet and her nephew paints a picture of a far different woman than I studied.  What a pleasure to learn that she was well-loved and engaged with her extended family.  And I find I have something in common with Miss Dickinson: I have a nephew that has called me “Uncle Nancy” for as long as he could talk.  I will remember the Belle as I tinker in my garden, shooing away bumble bees, and remembering my nephew’s endearing name for me.

This picture book should be included in reader’s advisories for anyone studying Emily Dickinson; it provides warm insight that is not often depicted.  It’s also a terrific example of Yolen’s immense gift for weaving wonderfully rhythmic stories in verse that carry the reader into another world.  Leave it to Jane Yolen to craft the perfect book about my favorite poet.

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Entry filed under: Picture Book, Poetry/Verse, Starred Review Book (Horn Book, Booklist. School Library Journal, Kirkus or PW). Tags: , , , , , .

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