My favorite reading challenge is Kid Lit Frenzy’s Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge 2015. Be sure to visit Alyson’s blog to discover more wonderful nonfiction titles.
Enormous Smallness: A Story of E.E. Cummings is a longer (64 page) picture book biography of the poet ee cummings.
Cummings is not necessarily an obvious subject for a children’s picture book, but then in some ways, writers never are. There is an awful lot of sitting around and being quiet in a writer’s life, which is tough to dramatize, but even more, unless a writer is publishing for children, their writing probably isn’t that accessible for young readers. Ideally, a biography of an artist will include examples of the art. Biographers of painters are at a clear advantage here, because even if a child can’t really understand a painting, they can certainly process it visually and have an opinion.
The poetry of ee cummings is a different matter, though cummings’s word play and focus on the visual space of a poem make his work appealing even when you don’t understand it. Matthew Burgess selects just a handful of cummings’s poems to include, and they’re very well-chosen. Burgess also effectively explains what cummings was up to in his poetry–paying as much attention to the sound and look as the meaning of the words–which makes the poems fairly accessible for young readers.
This is a birth-to-old age look at the poet with an emphasis on cummings’s childhood. He was a poet from a young age, delivering his first poem with he was just three. In many ways, his childhood seems idyllic, with plenty of attention from family, trips to the countryside during the summer, and lots of encouragement to write, draw, and imagine. Burgess touches on cummings’s World War I experiences, which provided him with material for his first published book, and mentions those first publications, but doesn’t really convey what the last forty years of cummings’s life were like–beyond living at the same address and writing poetry. There is a useful Chronology in the back matter that provides more details.
The writing is often quite strong and extremely well-suited to a young audience. Burgess is able to take abstract concepts and make them concrete and comprehensible with a minimum of words, which is no easy feat. There were some sentences I really loved:
His poems were his way of saying YES. YES to the heart and the roundness of the moon, to birds, elephants, trees, and everything he loved.
The one problem I had with the text–and the one thing that will keep me from using this as a mentor text in my classroom–is Burgess’s decision to write portions of this biography in rhyme. The rhymes felt forced, inorganic, out of place. They are also used very inconsistently throughout the book, which is just plain confusing. Just because it’s a children’s book doesn’t mean it needs to rhyme.