by Matthew Burgess
illustrated by Kris di Giacomo
2015. Enchanted Lion.
E.E. Cummings (1894-1962) was an American poet known for his experimentation with punctuation and format.
This book begins in New York City, then flashes back to Cummings's childhood in Cambridge, Massachusetts, then ends with him as an old man reflecting on his youth. It mentions, but only briefly, Cummings's experiences during World War I, which included being mistaken for a spy and spending time in jail. Also documented are the influences of his mother, who kept a diary of his childhood poems, a particular teacher who inspired him to pursue his poetry, and Marion Moorehouse, the model and photographer who was the love of Cummings's life. (Moorehouse's role in the story is virtually non-existent, however, and it is unclear why she is mentioned.)
About the Illustrations
The illustrations suit the subject matter, but perhaps not the audience. Kids in elementary school are unlikely to encounter much Cummings, except for maybe "maggie and milly and mollie and may", so this book will probably be of more interest to middle school kids. The problem, though, is that many of the illustrations look like they are trying to reach a very young audience. The page showing the Cummings family, for example, labels everyone in a handwriting font, and Uncle George is shown standing on his head. The animals shown on various pages, including the seagull on the page where Cummings sails across the ocean to fight in World War I, also look very cutesy in a way that might come across as condescending to an older reader. The way the pictures portray Cummings's experimentation with words work well, however, and they help convey his style even to a reader who has only read one or two of his poems.
The author's note mainly focuses on the author's reasons for telling the story. It seems to be a note geared more toward adults than child readers. More useful are the Chronology and Poems sections, which give a timeline and selections of Cummings's poetry, respectively.
Books like this are what make the picture book biography genre so frustrating. While the picture book format can appeal to anyone, it only does so when the pictures and text are both on a level that younger and older readers can both appreciate. I nearly stopped reading on page one because of the silly, condescending opening lines: "Inside an enormous city / in a house on a very small street / there once lived a poet / I would like you to meet." It is stated in the author's note that Burgess was inspired to write the book after visiting Cummings's former apartment, so I'm sure it made sense, on an emotional level, for him to begin the book there. But it doesn't work. Obviously he wants us to meet this poet - he's written a book introducing him! And there is no way a twelve year old wants to read cutesy rhyming text like that, especially if he is a fan of Cummings already. Similarly, I think it was a mistake for the author to imitate Cummings's style. The occasional omission of punctuation and the weird forms of the text on some of the pages are distracting and they do nothing to highlight what Cummings actually did in his own work. I wanted to like this book because of how much I enjoy the poet's work, but I truly don't know how I would even begin to sell it to a child. Overall, a big disappointment.