June 14th, 2010


Nonfiction Monday: Emma’s Poem: The Voice of the Statue of Liberty

Emma’s Poem: The Voice of the Statue of Liberty by Linda Glaser with paintings by Claire A. Nivola, whose work I most recently loved in Planting the Trees of Kenya, offers a fascinating introduction to a way to write poetry, and in particular, to the genesis of “The New Colossus” which is engraved on a plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty. The cover of the slightly taller-than-usual book shows a diverse group of people being welcomed by the statue, and the text suggests how this poem came to represent Liberty’s voice. The writer Emma Lazurus, born in 1849, is shown growing up in a wealthy Jewish family in New York City, then becoming involved in humanitarian causes and learning about poverty beyond her own neighborhood. Her compassion is shown as the inspiration for the famous poem, which is reprinted at the back of the book.

I like the way the plot moves into the creation of the poem, then shows the poem skimming out into the world. It’s first read at a celebration to raise money for the pedestal in 1883, then, skipping ahead through the decades, memorized and recited by schoolchildren. Somewhere in between we see how the words beautifully find their way into a large statue with an un-moving mouth.

Of course I love to see attention to a nineteenth century woman writer, but I wish this book didn’t introduce the poetry and journalism of Emma Lazarus with the line, “In those days, women kept their thoughts quiet.” A “many” before “women” would have helped. I can’t help but conjure Louisa May Alcott, Emily Dickinson, Anne Bradstreet, Sarah Josepha Hale, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, and many others raising eloquent eyebrows at the blanket statement. Of course the intention is to show that writing wasn’t easy for women, but it creates a solitariness that doesn’t feel quite historically correct to me, and is emphasized in a picture of a social gathering in which Emma Lazarus, hands empty, smiles at a man with a book open on his lap. Other men in the room are writers: one wielding a pen, another wearing a violet cravat, while three women seem to coo over a lap dog.

Feminist quibble aside, it's a wonderful book. The watercolor and gouache illustrations are gorgeous, and emphasize blue, green, and purple, the colors of the Statue of Liberty and the surrounding sea. The clothing is stunning and the settings are ones I can imagine any reader, young or old, wanting to pore over.

I think this book would go well with other excellent picture books about a fascinating subject: Lady Liberty: A Biography by Doreen Rapaport and illustrated by Matt Tavares or Naming Liberty by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Jim Burke.

For more Nonfiction Monday posts, please visit: http://bookstogether.squarespace.com/blog/2010/6/14/look-out-nonfiction-monday-is-here.html