A Wreath for Emmett Till
by Marilyn Nelson and Philippe Lardy

Overview - Newbery Honor-winning poet Nelson offers an evocative tribute to a 14-year-old boy whose lynching in 1955 helps spark the civil rights movement. Full color.   Read more...

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More About A Wreath for Emmett Till by Marilyn Nelson; Philippe Lardy

Newbery Honor-winning poet Nelson offers an evocative tribute to a 14-year-old boy whose lynching in 1955 helps spark the civil rights movement. Full color.

  • ISBN-13: 0618397523
  • ISBN-10: 0618397523
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH)
  • Publish Date: April 2005
  • Page Count: 48
  • Reading Level: Ages 12-UP

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Publishers Weekly Reviews

Publishers Weekly® Reviews

  • Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 54.
  • Review Date: 0000-00-00
  • Reviewer: Staff

Nelson's (The Fields of Praise) brilliant heroic crown of sonnets serves not only as an elegy for Emmett Till, the African-American boy from Chicago brutally killed at age 14 while he was visiting Southern relatives in 1955, but also as a compelling invitation to bear witness.As the poet explains in a foreword, a heroic crown of sonnets is comprised of a sequence of 15 interlinked sonnets; each takes the last line of the previous sonnet as its first line, and the form results here in a eulogy both stately and poignant. One especially effective example of this transition occurs when the word "tears" moves from verb to noun: "A mob/ heartless and heedless, answering to no god,/ tears through the patchwork drapery of our dreams" ends one sonnet, which leads into the next, "Tears, through the patchwork drapery of dream,/ for the hanging bodies, the men on flaming pyres,/ the crowds standing around like devil choirs." Both the book's heartrending topic of murderous racism and the linguistically complex form require a sophisticated reader. Nelson's text suggests that readers must acknowledge their inhumanity so that they can make different choices: "If I could forget, believe me, I would," says the narrator. "Emmett Till's name still catches in my throat."For his first book for children, Lardy's remarkable paintings capture the rising emotion and denouement of the historical event, and both text and art weave together the repeated phrases and colors that create a powerful, graceful whole. On a stark blood-red page, the five murderers appear as black crows, while Emmett's face looks directly at readers through a circle of barbed wire thorns. The image is later echoed with the ring of wildflowers that compose a brightly-colored funereal wreath. As if anticipating questions about the book's startling literary allusions and visual symbolism, author and artist both provide explanations. While the book does not flinch from depicting atrocity, in the end, it offers readers hope: "In my house," the narrator says, "there is still something called grace,/ which melts ice shards of hate and makes hearts whole." For those readers who are ready to confront the evil and goodness of which human beings are capable, this wise book is both haunting and memorable. Ages 12-up. (Apr.)

BookPage Reviews

Sonnets to honor a young martyr

Emmett Till was a 14-year-old African-American boy from Chicago visiting cousins in Money, Mississippi, in 1955. Upon leaving a country store, Emmett allegedly said "Bye, baby" to the white store clerk and whistled on his way out. Five white men, angered by Emmett's boldness, murdered Till and threw his mangled body into the Tallahatchie River. When Emmett's mother demanded an open casket, photos were published in papers nationwide, and the Emmett Till case galvanized the civil rights movement.

Poet Marilyn Nelson, whose previous remarkable works include Fortune's Bones: The Manumission Requiem and the Newbery Honor-winning Carver: A Life in Poems, offers a memorial of enormous power and beauty in A Wreath for Emmett Till. Nelson chooses to write in an unusual form—a heroic crown of sonnets—as a strict and demanding structure that might insulate her from the pain of her subject. A heroic crown of sonnets consists of 15 interlinked sonnets, the final line of each one becoming the starting line of the next. The 15th sonnet is made up of first lines from the preceding 14 poems.

If the form is complicated, the poems themselves are rich and allusive. Appropriately, the first poem begins, "Rosemary for Remembrance, Shakespeare wrote," remembrance being the spirit behind this volume. Allusions to nature, parallel universes and wormholes, to Rwanda, Nazi gas chambers, the World Trade Towers, and to such writers as Shakespeare, Whitman, Dunbar and Frost make this a superb choice for reader's theater with older students.

The art complements and expands the meanings of the poetry, having its own layers of meaning. Sprigs of rosemary, wreaths of spring flowers, trees bearing strange fruit, and a "full moon that smiled calmly on his death" counterpoise the innocence of nature with the nature of mankind, the fruited plain with the "undergrowth of mandrake."

Of particular poignancy are the sonnets that imagine a better fate for Emmett Till, or at least an obituary for a life lived well. Through Nelson's extraordinary poetry, we remember Emmett Till—bearing witness and believing in grace.

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