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When Thunder Comes: Poems for Civil Rights Leaders Hardcover – December 26, 2012
From School Library Journal
Gr 7 Up-Lewis once again stretches his own poetic boundaries with this moving and informative collection of poems that introduce 17 courageous leaders of civil rights causes in America, Bangladesh, Burma, India, and South Africa. Some of the names will be unfamiliar to teens, but their concerns should be clearly understood. A technically perfect Shakespearean sonnet prefaces the collection, promising to draw from the poet's "thin bag of verse" some "tales of thunder" ... "For history was mute witness when such crimes/Discolored and discredited our times." The poems, written in various styles-rhymed couplets, free verse, quatrain, prose-evoke sadness, but never hopelessness; speak of bigotry and hatred replaced by acceptance and equality; and describe inhumane mistreatment that has resulted in positive change and wrongful punishment that has brought about freedom. To young Sylvia Mendez, every door at the public school "was locked with a secret combination of frowns," but she found the key. To Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi banker who gave small loans to the country's poor, money for fishing gear allowed some beggars "to catch eel and carp-and profits." Other subjects include Harvey Milk, Coretta Scott King, Josh Gibson, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Nelson Mandela. A note about each person, with a resource, is appended. Five illustrators each contributed three of the full-page paintings that range from softly detailed portraits in lush oils to colorful caricatures, acrylic folk art, and bright watercolors contrasted with shadowy gray. This thoughtfully written, carefully and cleverly worded collection demonstrates Lewis's poetic versatility and his ability to capture the essence of each subject and situation.-Susan Scheps, formerly at Shaker Heights Public Library, OHα(c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
*Starred Review* Seventeen civil rights leaders from around the world leap off the page, animated in pulsing verse and vibrant imagery. Lewis gives voice to a variety of fighters, including well-known activists like Mohandas Gandhi and Coretta Scott King, and less familiar heroes such as Dennis James Banks and Sylvia Mendez, illuminating each with poetic form, style, rhythm, and tone as individual as the subjects themselves. Mamie Carthan Till’s elegy for her murdered son, Emmett, heaves with languid despair, while Aung San Suu Kyi’s proclamation against Burmese tyranny crackles with ironic outrage. The diversity of images is similarly stunning, with some unlikely pairings of artist to activist resulting in extraordinarily moving depictions. John Parra’s gentle portrait of Bangladeshi banker Muhammad Yunus glows with warmth and virtue, while Meilo So’s smudgy likeness of slain politician Harvey Milk captures his determination and foreshadows his demise. Exquisite book design—with hand-lettered titles and stanzas carefully off-kilter—knits everything together with cohesive polish. While the individual portraits are impressive on their own, their juxtapositions express unmistakable equality, offering readers a profound understanding of both what it takes to stand up and what happens when we stand together. Grades 4-7, --Thom Barthelmess
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Seventeen people. That doesn't sound like a lot of folks. Seventeen people turning the tide of history and oppression. Seventeen individuals who made a difference and continue to make a difference every day. And to accompany them, seventeen poems by a former Children's Poet Laureate. In "When Thunder Comes", J. Patrick Lewis highlights heroes of every stripe. And, in doing so, lets young readers know what a hero truly is.
Lewis isn't phoning this one in. These poems are straight up honest-to-god works of poetry. Though the book is a mere 44 pages or so, its picture book size is misleading indeed. Consider this poem about Aung San Suu Kyi containing the following lines: "When a cyclone flicked off the roof of my prison / like the Queen of Hearts, turning my life to shame / and candle, the General had a mole removed. / When they added four words to the constitution - / my name - to bar me from ever running for office, / the General signed it with his fingernail made of / diamonds and disgust." We're on beyond nursery rhymes and patter here. There are also individual lines you just can't help but admire. I like this one about Nelson Mandela in particular: "It is as if he's landed on the moon / Five years before the actual event."
The content is noticeably more mature as well. Kids have plenty of books to choose between when it comes to the Freedom Riders and Walkers, but the deaths of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner are dark as dark can be. That poem is told, not in broken up sections, but as a single long, square paragraph. Other ideas, like Muhammad Yunus and his microcredit system or Harvey Milk and his fight for gay rights require a bit more worldly knowledge on the part of readers.
Lewis makes some interesting choices along the way. He's careful to include familiar names (Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Jackie Robinson, etc.) alongside lesser-known figures (Aung San Suu Kyi, Helen Zia, Ellison Onizuka, etc.). Some are living, some long dead. Each person has a title ("activist", "auntie", etc.). For "the innocent" he names Mamie Carthan Till but not her son, Emmett. At first I was confused by the choice, but the end matter made it clear that it was Mrs. Till that insisted that her son's funeral be an open casket affair. An act of rebellion in and of itself. And this is undoubtedly the first book for children I've read that made special note of Harvey Milk. I know that some smaller presses have highlighted him in the past, but it's particularly satisfying in this day and age to see him properly named and credited. A sign of the times, if you will.
Another thing I like about the book is its ability to highlight individuals that should be, and are not, household names. If Sylvia Mendez truly paved the way for Brown v. Board of Education, why isn't Mendez v. Westminster better known? Certainly the book is ideal for writing assignments. The poems vary in terms of style, and I can see teachers everywhere assigning even more too little lauded heroes to their students, asking them to cultivate poems of their own. It would have been nice if somewhere in the book it said what the types of poems featured were (villanelles don't come along in children's books every day, after all). Teachers hoping to make connections between some of the subjects then and now might also point out things like how Emmett Till bought candy prior to his death, not unlike a more contemporary hoodied young man.
Of the various objections I've heard leveled against this book, there is the problem that each piece of art is not directly credited to its artist. Meilo So's style is recognizable enough. Ditto R. Gregory Christie. But who did that image of Josh Gibson? Or Dennis James Banks for that matter? Now, the artists ARE listed on the publication page with references to their images, but since the book itself isn't paginated this isn't as useful as it might be. And some of the images work better than others, of course. While I wasn't as taken with the images of Coretta Scott King, Mamie Carthan Till, or Dennis James Banks, I really liked Josh Gibson wearing his "Grays" garb, standing against a sky full of clouds. A different librarian objected to the fact that the three men murdered by the Klan in 1964 are featured with very similar, dark skin tones. I see the point, but since the shot is taken at night and the whole of the image is itself dark, this didn't worry me as much.
In many ways the book most similar to this is Marilyn Singer's recent "Rutherford B., Who Was He?: Poems About Our Presidents" Like Singer's book, Lewis presents the poems and people first and then provides an explanation of who they were at the end. Both give new slants on old names. But for all that, Lewis's book is unique. Maybe not 100% perfect, but chock full of better poetry than you'll find in a lot of children's rooms, highlighting folks that deserve a little additional attention. Certainly bound to be of use to teachers, parents, and kids with an eye towards honest-to-goodness heroism. A lovely addition, no matter where you might be.
For ages 10 and up.
Lewis uses a variety of poetic forms that I'll admit I can't identify at a glance--I did see a couple of sonnets, a villanelle, and a few free verse poems. Like the poetic forms, the artwork varies in that there are five different illustrators: Jim Burke, R. Gregory Christie, Tonoya Engel, John Parra, and Meilo So. This creates a rich feel to the series of page spreads. I especially like Meilo So's illustration for "The Auntie," Jim Burke's illustration for "The Slugger," Tonya Engel's illustration for "The Innocent," John Parra's illustration for "The Captive," and R. Gregory Christie's illustration for "The First."
The following is a list of the people in the book: Coretta Scott King, Aung San Suu Kyi, Josh Gibson, Mamie Carthan Till, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Mitsuye Endo, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Helen Zia, Ellison Onizuka, Dennis James Banks, Harvey Milk, Muhammad Yunus, Nelson Mandela, Jackie Robinson, and Sylvia Mendez. These are amazing stories, and the poems have to be powerful to tell them. J. Patrick Lewis has done justice to this list of heroes--and make no mistake, these are heroes. For example, Lewis's poem about Gandhi focuses on his work in behalf of the outcast "untouchables." The poem concludes majestically:
For we are not the ones to say
What will erode and what endure,
Where the iron, where the clay,
Who the foul and who the pure.
And here are the last few stanzas of Lewis's poem, "The Child":
Aunt Sally took her there once.
Eyes sharp as icepicks pierced
the windowpanes as if seeing
a Mexican for the first time.
Every door was locked with a
secret combination of frowns.
How can anyone ever get in?
Sylvia asked. Someone must know
who has the right key...
She looked up at her mother.
The poems in When Thunder Comes will help young readers find the key to becoming people who really can change the world. They will show them what true heroes are like.