Friday, April 30, 2010

35. A Wreath for Emmett Till

Nelson, Marilyn. A Wreath for Emmett Till. ISBN: 978-0-618-39752-5. Houghton Mifflin. First Edition, 2005.

Plot Summary
Marilyn Nelson's A Wreath For Emmett Till is a poetic journey that explores the tragic lynching of a 14 year old African American boy named Emmett Till. Till was lynched for supposedly whistling at a white woman in the state of Mississippi. Emmett was brutally murdered and mutilated by a group of white men, and his body later turned up in a nearby river. Emmett's mother held an open casket funeral for her son in Chicago to show the world what racism had done to her child. Emmett's funeral drew national media attention with photos that would appear in both magazines and newspapers. An all male white jury found those accused innocent on all accounts. This horrible event would become one the sparks to fuel the fire for the civil rights movement in America.

Critical Evaluation

A wreath is formed from poetic lilacs, mandrakes, and forget-me-nots to pay respect to a memory that is hard for Poet Marilyn Nelson to forget. In her natural rhythmic landscape of the sonnet, a tree is slowly dieing from the spilled blood of an innocent child. The memory of Emmett Till, a 14 year old boy who's life was cut short by the hands of racist men, is remembered and reflected upon with grief and respect. Nelson celebrates the boys life as well as commemorates his death, through 15 interlinking sonnets, whose first lines form a final and memorable sonnet at the conclusion of her tribute. Nelson also discusses the feelings of Emmett's mother, and compares her pain to the pain of Mary, Jesus' mother. She also reflects on the viciousness and cruelty of the men who took Emmett's life away, and on how things might have happened differently in a parallel universe. The composition of this hero's crown of sonnets is remarkable. Nelson takes this poetic form and uses it to pay tribute to an unsung soldier of the civil rights movement. Through the wreath she scribes in each of her 14 lines, she evokes emotion, thought, and understanding upon her readers.

Nelson also evokes images of nature throughout this compilation of sonnets, that is accentuated by the artwork of artist Phillipe Lardy. Lardy separates his artwork into three sections, known as "The Crime," "The Mourning," and "The Lesson." His color pallet begins with dark shades of blacks, browns, and reds, and proceeds to become softer and more vibrant, with lighter and more natural shades of blues, greens, and oranges. This changing color pallet helps to move from feelings of hopelessness and despair to a more positive outlook. Lardy contrasts stark imagery throughout the poem with natural elements like flowers, birds, and trees in his artwork. These beautiful natural elements help to symbolize that life goes on, and that the world is a better place because of a boy who sacrificed everything to give America the courage it needed to change what was wrong with our country.

Reader's Annotation
Emmit Till's lynching in 1955 was an unforgivable act of violence and racism. His story has inspired a hero's crown of sonnets to commemorate his unnecessary death in Marilyn Nelson's A Wreath for Emmit Till.

Author Information
Poet Marilyn Nelson has been writing from the time she was a small child. Growing up the daughter of a U.S. airforce officer, she was constantly on the move during childhood, and used this time in her life to develop her passion for writing. Nelson has gone on to write several poetry collections for adults and children, including: The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems, The Homeplace, The Cat Walked through the Casserole and Other Poems for Children, and Hundreds of Hens and Other Poems for Children. Her work has won several pushcart prizes and she has been honored with several prestigious writing fellowships. Currently, Marilyn Nelson works as a professor of English at Connecticut University, where she has worked since 1978.


Curriculum Ties
poetry, civil rights movement

Reading Level
Grades 9+

Book Talking Ideas
Discuss causes of civil rights movement.
Discuss the sonnet form.

Challenge Issues

violence, racism

Challenge defense ideas:

1. Make sure you are familiar with your library collection and the book in question.
2. Be familiar with your library collection policy.
3. If possible, speak with the person challenging the material and make sure they feel comfortable. Ask the customer what they disliked or disapproved of in the resource. If they still insist on challenging the material give them instructions on how to file a formal complaint.
4. Research professional reviews that speak to the material's merit, and get input from teen readers on why they found the book important.

Reason For Selection
I was looking over books of poetry in the young adult section of the library and A Wreath for Emmett Till really caught my attention. There was something about the heroic crown of sonnets used by poet Marilyn Nelson that had me intrigued. She combines fifteen sonnets together, with the last sonnet comprising the first lines of each of the previous fourteen. I felt a poetic feat like this, and the tragic death of a teenager, would be something that would interest teenage readers.

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