06 September 2009

Book of the Week: My Uncle Emily

Here is a delicate treasure of a picture book. It's an enlightening vignette from the life of poet Emily Dickinson. Part fact, part fiction, the book details the tender relationship between young Thomas Glibert "Gib" Dickinson and his aunt. There's is a relationship of shared joys; gardens, black cake, and poetry. Uncle Emily says that poets "light lamps", and although Gib does not always understand what her poems mean, the questions which they raise in him do, indeed, light lamps for his young mind. When Uncle Emily sends him to school with a poem for her teacher, Gib's protective affection for his unique aunt gets him involved in a school yard fracas. Gib tries to hide the incident from Uncle Emily, fearing that it will upset her kind soul to know that he got in trouble on her account. But she knows him too well, and uses one of her own poems to light a lamp for Gib, so that he may find his way to tell the truth.

In many ways, this book is slightly inscrutable like a poem, yet lights a lamp all the same. The reader is plopped in the midst of Dickinson's life with little explanation of her place in literary history and almost no biographical details except for what relates to Gib. It must stand on its own, which it does superbly. It is a great read-aloud, with text that reads smoothly, even when incorporating old-fashion terminology like "peculiar old maid." NMD was fascinated by a double spread illustration of the miscreants stood in separate corners, dunce caps on their head, which seemed much more arcane than an aunt who was called "Uncle" as a family joke and always dressed in white. Nancy Carpenter's illustrations are reminiscent of the work of Barbara McClintock, evoking a distant time with authentic detail which always seems pretty even when portraying dissent. Yolen mentions in an author's note that the poem for the teacher is factual, while the fight between Gib and a taunting classmate is fictional. In that author's note she also mentions that young Gib died at the age of eight. Such a conclusion adds an air of melancholy and mortality that Emily Dickinson would--and did--make note of. This is a lovely book which will evoke interest in a sensitive, compelling poet, who always noticed the little details that other grown-ups missed.

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