Diversity Celebrated

 
Hopkins, Lee Bennett, ed. I Remember: Poems and Pictures of Heritage. New York: Lee & Low Books, 2019. 
 
The population of the United States has never been so diverse as it today, and yet common bonds among its citizens have also never been so great. The onset of the current COVID-19 pandemic has accentuated the shared lives of all Americans to an even greater degree. I Remember: Poems and Pictures of Heritage handsomely emphasizes both the diversity and the commonalities in the lives of children in America. 
 
Lee Bennett Hopkins (1938-2019) was recognized in the 2011 edition of the Guinness Book of Records as “the world’s most prolific anthologist of poetry for children.” At the time, his count in verse compilations had equaled 120 volumes. I Remember: Poems and Pictures of Heritage, his final anthology, was published posthumously. It may well be his most creatively and completely fulfilled compilation. I Remember is a perfect collection of memoir, poetry, art, and culture. Fourteen award-winning poets recall childhood experiences that reflect their diversity. Their odes to unique childhood memories are then paired with artistic interpretations created by highly gifted illustrators who represent similar backgrounds. The varied heritages of the contributors include racial, ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity. While the author-artist pairing represents particular examples of diversity, there is also a remarkable cohesion of common childhood experiences of school, family, travel, and worship that bind people together. 
 
In the shared childhood memories and matching artistic impressions, the poets and artists also contribute a brief explanation of the sources for their inspiration on the pages where their poems and images appear. These brief notations will help children more fully understand and appreciate both the words and pictures. Translations, definitions, and pronunciations of words found in italics are noted with the primary works of verse and art. Multiple pages of back matter titled “About The Poets and Artists” present both childhood and adult photographs of all the contributors plus brief profiles relating their accomplishments and current lives. The inclusion of childhood photographs of all the contributors perfectly complements the sharing of unique yet also universal childhood memories. Website addresses for all the contributors are also shared. 
 
One example begins with poet Douglas Florian’s beautifully textured definition of poetry that precedes his poem, “Grandpa.” Florian’s childhood memory is of his grandfather as a sofer, a specifically trained Jewish person who copies Torah scrolls. In his loving verse tribute, Florian notes that while his Grandpa no longer lives, his rolls and rolls of parchment scrolls memorialize him. They serve as reminders of the holy man that his grandfather was. Neil Waldman’s full page illustration of a sofer engaged in his sacred work is accompanied by his own beliefs about art. “From my earliest years, I sensed that somehow, taking a piece of white paper, and filling it with glorious colors was an act of magic.” In the end matter, Florian is pictured both as a child of four years and presently. A brief verbal portrait reveals a childhood moment of personal discovery. He decided to become a poet when he discovered a book of poems at a flea market while still very young. Neil Waldman is pictured as a child of seven years and in a contemporary photograph. Florian was also born and raised in New York City. He began his life in art as a young child and he continues today as both a fine artist and an illustrator of more than fifty books for young readers many of which he also wrote.  
 
“Grandpa” illustrates Hopkins’ theme of both diversity and commonalities. Florian’s grandfather had a special role unique to Jewish worship and practices, but his poem equally underscores the intertwining of family and faith that exists across so many American cultures.
 
Margarita Engle’s “La vista” (the visit) poetically explores one of the most common of all relationship ties honored in American culture, the bonds between grandchildren and grandparents. Her particular experience is unique because the visits between the generations spanned two nations. The poet’s Abuelita (Grandma) is a cubana (female person from Cuba). When they are together, the young girl’s Abuelita passes on the family art and tradition of embroidery, a glimpse of which the artist Paula Barragan chooses to portray in her painting that complements “La vista.” Children learn that the poet Margarita Engle’s father traveled from Los Angeles to Cuba where he met and married her mother. Her childhood summers were spent visiting Cuba where family traditions were greatly honored. The life of artist Paula Barragan also spans two nations. She was born and raised in Quito, Ecuador, but she studied art at the Pratt Institute in New York City. Her family stories have been published in both the United States and Ecuador. 
 
Nick Bruel’s poem “Pick One” explores a childhood phenomenon that faces a growing number of children in our multicultural nation. He was born in New York City to a Chinese mother and a Belgian father. His poem, “Pick One” emphasizes racial identity. On official school forms he is increasingly asked to pick one box to check. But, which box should he check? Is he Chinese, Asian, Belgian, or Caucasian? Artist Janine Macbeth has an even more diverse background. Born and raised in Oakland, California, she has Asian, Black, white, and Native American ancestry. Both poet and artist share one common attribute. They are Americans! But, when the school census was taken during their childhoods they were only allowed to check one box to define their racial or ethnic identity. Macbeth’s illustration of a girl of one race looking into a mirror and seeing the image of herself as the same girl but of a different race makes a dramatic visual statement. Her commentary underscores the power of art. “Art is a superpower, a storyteller that can shed light on characters in new ways. For me, art has always been a way to honor people who are undervalued and made invisible – a way to shout our dignity and beauty.” 
 
I Remember: Poems and Pictures of Heritage features poets and artists of a wide array of racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds. Every poem is a dramatic statement of growing up in the United States as a unique experience, yet also a life passage that underscores the commonality of childhood in a nation that celebrates multicultural values. In words and pictures I Remember shines a beacon upon the things that are good about life in the USA, but also recognizes wrongs that need to be made right if the USA is to experience the dream of a more perfect Union. 
 
 
Home Activities
 
Ask children to read any single poem about the unique childhood experience of one of the poets represented in I Remember. Ask children to then convert the verse autobiography into a prose entry for their journals. Encourage companion illustrations to be paired with the prose entries. 
 
The poets and artists represented in I Remember: Poems and Pictures of Heritage are now adults looking back upon their childhood memories for inspiration. Which poem or its accompanying illustration most closely reflects the young life experiences of contemporary children? Encourage today’s children to write and illustrate letters about similar experiences they have shared. The anthology’s end matter, “About the Poets and Artists,” include websites or email addresses that may be used to send children’s contemporary creations to the professional poets and artists. 
 
The experiences recalled in I Remember: Poems and Pictures of Heritage represent unique but also common happenings that may resonate with today’s children. Have they ever needed to improvise when they did not have money to purchase a Mother’s Day gift? Have they been stereotyped because of racial, ethnic, or religious identity? Have they had to go on long family road trips to a new home in a new state (leaving their friends behind)? What memorable family adventures have they experienced? Ask children to use any simple poetic form such as haiku, cinquain, or newspaper verse to create an ode to one of the poets or artists featured in I Remember. Newspaper verse is easy to compose. The poet simply uses the newspaper reporter’s five W’s to compose a short poetic tribute. Each line answers one of these five questions: Who? What? When? Where? and Why? One child might use newspaper verse to reflect highlights from the childhood of Native American poet Joseph Bruchac who grew up spellbound while listening to his grandfather’s Adirondack tall tales before the time of “Rez Road.”  (Rez is a short form of Native American reservation.) 
 
Who?      Grandpa Bigtree
What?     Abenaki storyteller
Where?   In the country store
When?   Before the intrusion of Rez Highway 
Why?      Keeping native traditions alive.
 
Use the Internet to search for and read about the life of Lee Bennett Hopkins. He had a difficult childhood, especially when his parents divorced. His college degrees required a singular vision about his future and great dedication. His first occupation was that of an elementary school teacher. Using data from online articles about his life, ask students to write a new description about the compiler for the “author space” on the back flap of the dust jacket for a brand new edition of I Remember: Poems and Pictures of Heritage. A new visual portrait is also desired.
 
Encourage children to make a new trip through I Remember? What is the job of a “compiler”? Ask children to think imaginatively. How are the activities of an editor or a compiler of a book of poetry similar to the job requirements of an architect? What other professions might be similar to that of an anthologist?
 
Today, in the age of COVID-19, children may not be able to share the summer with beloved grandparents, meet cousins at family reunions, or share in a family road trip, but they can leave historical fingerprints on this unique time in world history by sharing memories in both words and visual images.  I Remember: Poems and Pictures of Heritage is a beautiful book that should become a part of family libraries and visited often. Its contents may serve as models for contemporary children’s words and pictures.