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Cover image for A wreath for Emmett Till
A wreath for Emmett Till
Publication Information:
Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 2005.
Physical Description:
[34] p. : col. ill. ; 20 x 22 cm.
Reading Level:
NP L Lexile
Added Author:


Material Type
Call Number
Item Available
Book 811.6 NEL 1 1
Book 811.6 NEL 1 1
Book 811.6 NEL 1 1
Book 811.6 NEL 1 1

On Order



2006 Coretta Scott King Honor Book

In 1955, people all over the United States knew that Emmett Louis Till was a fourteen-year-old African American boy lynched for supposedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi. The brutality of his murder, the open-casket funeral, and the acquittal of the men tried for the crime drew wide media attention.

Award-winning poet Marilyn Nelson reminds us of the boy whose fate helped spark the civil rights movement. This martyr's wreath, woven from a little-known but sophisticated form of poetry, challenges us to speak out against modern-day injustices, to "speak what we see."

Author Notes

Philippe Tardy is an award winning illustrator whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, and the Boston Globe. Marilyn Nelson is the author of Carver: A Life in Poems and Fields of Praise. She has won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, the Flora Stieglitz Straus Award, a Newbery Honor, and a Coretta Scott King Honor. Marilyn lives in Storrs, Connecticut, where she is a professor of English at the University of Connecticut.

Reviews 5

Publisher's Weekly Review

Nelson's (The Fields of Praise) brilliant heroic crown of sonnets serves not only as an elegy for Emmett Till, the African-American boy from Chicago brutally killed at age 14 while he was visiting Southern relatives in 1955, but also as a compelling invitation to bear witness. As the poet explains in a foreword, a heroic crown of sonnets is comprised of a sequence of 15 interlinked sonnets; each takes the last line of the previous sonnet as its first line, and the form results here in a eulogy both stately and poignant. One especially effective example of this transition occurs when the word "tears" moves from verb to noun: "A mob/ heartless and heedless, answering to no god,/ tears through the patchwork drapery of our dreams" ends one sonnet, which leads into the next, "Tears, through the patchwork drapery of dream,/ for the hanging bodies, the men on flaming pyres,/ the crowds standing around like devil choirs." Both the book's heartrending topic of murderous racism and the linguistically complex form require a sophisticated reader. Nelson's text suggests that readers must acknowledge their inhumanity so that they can make different choices: "If I could forget, believe me, I would," says the narrator. "Emmett Till's name still catches in my throat." For his first book for children, Lardy's remarkable paintings capture the rising emotion and denouement of the historical event, and both text and art weave together the repeated phrases and colors that create a powerful, graceful whole. On a stark blood-red page, the five murderers appear as black crows, while Emmett's face looks directly at readers through a circle of barbed wire thorns. The image is later echoed with the ring of wildflowers that compose a brightly-colored funereal wreath. As if anticipating questions about the book's startling literary allusions and visual symbolism, author and artist both provide explanations. While the book does not flinch from depicting atrocity, in the end, it offers readers hope: "In my house," the narrator says, "there is still something called grace,/ which melts ice shards of hate and makes hearts whole." For those readers who are ready to confront the evil and goodness of which human beings are capable, this wise book is both haunting and memorable. Ages 12-up. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Horn Book Review

(Middle School) Emmett Till's murder by white racists in 1955 was so brutal that his mother let his tortured body testify to the ugly facts in an open-casket funeral. Attempting to capture the immediacy of such an unspeakable act in the format of young adult picture-book poetry and from the distance of a half-century dares much. Nelson represents the story in a complex heroic crown of sonnets, a sequence of fifteen interlinked sonnets in which the last line of one becomes the first line, sometimes slightly altered, of the next, and the last sonnet is made up of the first lines of the preceding fourteen. The elegant formality of the text, with its subtle power of tone and diction, is accentuated by Lardy's stylized, symbolically abstracted illustrations. These move deliberately through dominant shades of blood red, earth brown, and sunny yellow, varying their compositional emphases from elliptical wreath shapes to rectangular coffin shapes and back again, closing with a goldfinch perched amidst lush summer fruit and flowers. Four notes thoughtfully explain the poet's childhood awareness of the event, the historical context, the poetic allusions, and the graphic rationale. The question is, does all this bury the subject or resurrect him? Is beauty the appropriate commemoration of atrocity, or might it -- and should it -- dull its emotional impact? Nelson's final lines read: ""Trillium, apple blossoms, Queen Anne's lace, / Indian pipe, bloodroot, white as moonbeams, / Like the full moon, which smiled calmly on his death, / Like his gouged eye, which watched boots kick his face."" Nelson seems to be challenging us not to smile calmly at this death, but Lardy's circular visual reassurance may contradict her warning. Despite that reservation, such a rare book is worth offering to readers so they may consider Nelson's challenge for themselves. (c) Copyright 2010. The Horn Book, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted. All rights reserved.

Booklist Review

Gr. 9-12. I was nine years old when Emmett Till was lynched in 1955. His name and history have been a part of most of my life, writes the creator of award-winning Carver (2001) in the introduction to this offering--a searing poetry collection about Till's brutal, racially motivated murder. The poems form a heroic crown of sonnets--a sequence in which the last line of one poem becomes the first line of the next. The strict form became a kind of insulation, a way of protecting myself from the intense pain of the subject matter, writes Nelson. The rigid form distills the words' overwhelming emotion into potent, heart-stopping lines that speak from changing perspectives, including that of a tree. Closing notes offer context to the sophisticated allusions to literature and history, but the raw power of many lines needs no translation. Nelson speaks of human history's deep contradictions: My country, 'tis both / thy nightmare history and thy grand dream. But there's also the hope that comes from facing the past and moving forward: In my house, there is still something called grace, / which melts ice shards of hate and makes hearts whole. When matched with Lardy's gripping, spare, symbolic paintings of tree trunks, blood-red roots, and wreaths of thorns, these poems are a powerful achievement that teens and adults will want to discuss together. --Gillian Engberg Copyright 2005 Booklist

School Library Journal Review

Gr 9 Up-This memorial to the lynched teen is in the Homeric tradition of poet-as-historian. It is a heroic crown of sonnets in Petrarchan rhyme scheme and, as such, is quite formal not only in form but in language. There are 15 poems in the cycle, the last line of one being the first line of the next, and each of the first lines makes up the entirety of the 15th. This chosen formality brings distance and reflection to readers, but also calls attention to the horrifically ugly events. The language is highly figurative in one sonnet, cruelly graphic in the next. The illustrations echo the representative nature of the poetry, using images from nature and taking advantage of the emotional quality of color. There is an introduction by the author, a page about Emmett Till, and literary and poetical footnotes to the sonnets. The artist also gives detailed reasoning behind his choices. This underpinning information makes this a full experience, eminently teachable from several aspects, including historical and literary.-Cris Riedel, Ellis B. Hyde Elementary School, Dansville, NY (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Library Journal Review

In 1955 an African American teenager from Chicago was visiting his cousins in Mississippi. He supposedly wolf-whistled at a white woman and was lynched. An all-white jury let his murderers go free. Here, poet Marilyn Nelson crafts a Petrarchan sonnet "crown" commemorating Emmett Till-his life, death, and legacy. Something You (Probably) Didn't Know: Participants in late 19th and early 20th century lynch mobs often took pictures of their victims. They sent the photos to friends and relatives as postcards. Why It Is for Us: Marilyn Nelson is known for highfalutin' poetry of the first water, dense with imagery and meaning. What is a Petrarchan sonnet crown? It is a series of 15 poems in which the first lines of the first 14 make up the last poem. All are composed in classic, Petrarchan sonnet form and are paired with gorgeous art by Lardy.-Angelina Benedetti, King Cty. Lib. Syst., WA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

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