Nonfiction Picture Book Wednesday: Enormous Smallness #nfpb2015

nonfiction picture book challenge 2015

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

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.





6 responses to “Nonfiction Picture Book Wednesday: Enormous Smallness #nfpb2015”

  1. Kellee Moye (@kelleemoye) Avatar

    How interesting!!! I do not know much about cummings, but his choice of formatting always interested me. This one has been added to my TBR.

  2. Earl @ The Chronicles Of A Children's Book Writer Avatar

    This one is beautiful so thanks for sharing. I hope everyone reads this book.

  3. carriegelson Avatar

    I share your rhyme aversion. Hmm . . I haven’t read this title yet. Have it on hold at the library. I love cummings and am very curious about this title!

  4. Michele Knott Avatar

    I’ve heard good things about this book. I appreciate your comment about the rhyming. I feel like you have to be really careful when writing in rhyme. It makes me more curious to read this book, though 🙂

  5. […] review of the new picture book biography of e.e. […]

  6. Cheriee Weichel Avatar

    Hi Elisabeth, I have been halfway in love with e.e cumings since I was 16. It has been a very long long time. I waited to read this book before reading your review. I can deal with the poetry. What sticks in my craw is the use of capital letters for his name throughout the book and elsewhere on the internet. (I wrote college assignments without capital letters for a number of years because of my infatuation with his work.) It just irritates the heck out of me. How can you write about someone, and negate one of the most profound aspects of his work???

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