Books CORL (Check Off your Reading List) Challenge 2014 GB Challenges Non-fiction Wednesday Nonfiction Picture Books Poetry Reading Themes War, Poetry, Refuge, Peace

[Nonfiction Wednesday] Poetically Altered Points of View in Picturebook Biographies: “Emily” and “My Uncle Emily” #nfpb2014

Myra here.


Super special thanks to Iphigene for creating this visually-arresting widget!
Super special thanks to Iphigene for creating this visually-arresting widget!

We are excited to join Kidlit Frenzy’s Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge. We would also be linking our nonfiction choices with our reading themes throughout the year. From July-August, our reading theme is about “Scarred Souls and Bloodstained Memories: Tales of War & Poetry, Refuge & Peace.” As such, we are featuring picturebook biographies on poets as well. And I am glad to find these two beautifully-written stories about Emily Dickinson.



Written by: Michael Bedard Illustrated by: Barbara Cooney
Published by: A Doubleday Book for Young Readers, 1992
Borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.

I love reading picturebook biographies that are told from altered perspectives. Rather than an omniscient narrator providing a dry account of Emily Dickinson’s life story, this book is told from the lens of a very young girl who lives across the street from Emily, known apparently as the Myth in the neighborhood. It is a snapshot of spring, with glimpses of delicate and wilted bluebells, and the promise of lily bulbs in bloom.

In the story, Emily sent a letter to their new neighbor, with a special request:

“Dear neighbor,” she read, “I am feeling like these flowers. Revive me with your music. It would be spring to me.”


The young girl overhears her parents talking about the “Myth” and it was interesting to me how despite her being reclusive and perceived as ‘strange’ by the neighborhood folks, Emily also seems to be held in high esteem. When the little girl found out from her father that the lady who wears white in the yellow house writes poetry, she asked her father what poetry is. And his response made me hold my hand to my heart:

“Listen to Mother play. She practices and practices a piece, and sometimes a magic happens and it seems the music starts to breathe. It sends a shiver through you. You can’t explain it, really; it’s a mystery. Well, when words do that, we call it poetry.”


The young girl went with her mother to visit the Myth, and how the encounter went, I shall leave for you to discover. All I can tell you is that it involves an exchange of gifts and “bluebells on the windowsill.” When the young one timidly approached Emily, who was hiding from the same guests she has invited to come over, she noticed Emily writing something on a piece of paper. The conversation between them brought unbidden tears to my eyes:

“Is that poetry?” I asked.

“No, you are poetry. This only tries to be.”


Those who are familiar with Barbara Cooney’s artwork would see how the soft shades and the pastel colours provide just the right subtle artwork needed in the sharing of this narrative.

It was not clear to me after reading the Author’s Afterword whether this child-narrator is fictional and whether the events mentioned here actually took place in real life. Yet I find myself not really caring as it was told with such delicacy and melancholic beauty. What seemed real to me is that Emily loved children and gardening and words scribbled on paper painting the Heavens and the Angels. I took a photo of Emily’s poem included in this book and edited it using an iPhone app. Hope you enjoy it.


My Uncle EmilyIMG_4989

Written byJane Yolen Illustrated by: Nancy Carpenter
Published by: Philomel Books, 2009
Borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.

Written from the perspective of Emily’s nephew named Gib, the story began with Uncle Emily handing Gib a dead bee and a poem for his teacher. It is unclear why Emily is called Uncle except that it is “a joke in our family.” As Gib reads the words scrawled in pencil when he got home, he could not understand a word from The Bumble Bee’s Religion. In fact, he had more questions than answers. Yet he is also certain that his Uncle Emily is serious about the poem. While they joke and laugh together about frogs, flowers, and flutter-bys, Uncle Emily is dead-serious about poetry or poets “who she says light lamps.”


Gib is justifiably anxious about how his classmates would react to Uncle Emily’s poem. If he is unable to understand what it means, how could they? What if they laugh at him? Worse, what if they laugh at Uncle Emily and her poem? True enough, one of his classmates named Jonathan, way bigger than Gib, started calling Uncle Emily names which predictably ended in a scuffle with one boy twisting his ankle and another boy getting “a big red rose blossoming on his nose.” This naturally merited a punishment from the teacher involving the wearing of a “dunce’s cap” and standing in the corner:


When the entire family gathered together for dinner, with Uncle Emily serving her famous black cake, she noticed that something was definitely amiss with Gib. She asked him to explain what happened, and he did. Except that he omitted a few pertinent details where he ended up being a hero. Uncle Emily sensed that there is something more to the story. This prompted Uncle Emily to share her poem to Gib about what truth is, allowing him to speak

“with a certain care,

so that the tale comes around to the truth at last.”

The biographical note found at the end of Jane Yolen’s story shows that while Emily did not socialize much, she has a special fondness for very young children, especially her nephews and nieces and the neighborhood kids. What I particularly liked about the Author’s Note is how Yolen shared what is true and what is fictional in the narrative.

There are many things to ponder here in both picturebooks. Emily Dickinson is famous for being a recluse. It was interesting how this sense of isolation was portrayed from the eyes of children who knew her and loved her. And most importantly, after reading both books, I get the feeling that Emily Dickinson is a woman I would have been privileged to know as a child.

For teachers who wish to make use of both books in the classroom, here is the official page for the Emily Dickinson Museum which includes a lis of picture books written about Emily’s life, the most frequently asked questions by kids about the poet, and other links and resources that may be of interest to educators.

Here is the poem cited in Yolen’s book entitled “Tell all the Truth.” Like I shared above, I took a picture of the page and edited it using an iPhone app.




Reading Challenge Update: 142, 143 (25)


Nonfiction PictureBook Challenge: 16, 17 of 25

7 comments on “[Nonfiction Wednesday] Poetically Altered Points of View in Picturebook Biographies: “Emily” and “My Uncle Emily” #nfpb2014

  1. I have both books, and they are wonderfully written and illustrated, I agree, Myra. Still another one you might enjoy is Miss Emily, a verse novel by Burleigh Muten, another sweet one about those nieces and nephews and a big ‘night’ adventure. Thank you for sharing your ideas about perspective. It does make it more interesting, doesn’t it?


  2. These look great. Such a nice way to tell about her life.


  3. I love that between you and Carrie I usually find some books that are nowhere near being on my radar. Thank you so much for sharing. I need to go look for these.


  4. You always manage to find such great books to share with everyone and these are no different. Emily Dickenson seems to be very popular in books for young readers these days. I wonder why.


  5. This makes me want to not only read these books but poetry from Dickinson herself. Thanks for sharing!


  6. Pingback: [Nonfiction Wednesday] Mark Twain’s Frank Biographer | Gathering Books

  7. Pingback: [Nonfiction Wednesday] Two PictureBook Biographies of the Fearless Eleanor Roosevelt – Gathering Books

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