LS 5663 Biographical Poetry

Hopkins, Lee Bennett, comp. Lives: Poems About Famous Americans. Illustrated by Leslie Staub. HarperCollins Publishers. 1999. ISBN 0060277688  

Lives is a collection of fourteen poems.  Each poem is about a different notable figure in American history.  These poems are supplemented not only by Staub’s illustrations, but also by a glossary at the end of the collection (titled “notes on the lives” by Hopkins).

Many of the poems have similar forms.  They are each short enough to fit on one page, the opposite page features an illustration of the person the poem features, and several are in traditional stanzas.  That being said, the variety in these seemingly similar poems is refreshing.  “A Song for Sacagawea” and “JFK: Perseverance Furthers”easily the two longest in the collection, are not the first and last, but the second and next to last.  “Till,” the poem about Helen Keller, is the one in the collection that seems to take advantage of it’s limited space by using space to create the feeling of Helen waiting for Ann.

This collection would be good for elementary aged children, though an explanation of who exactly Walt Whitman is may be required.  Not only is the format easy to follow, there will be a poem opposite a picture every time, the words are just hard enough to encourage an aspiring reader, but not so hard that they will become frustrated.

Staub’s illustrations are clear and precise with bright colors.  Each person is surrounded by something that helps define who they are, or by something that is described in the poem.  That being said, I found them slightly disconcerting.  For those familiar with art, I would put the illustrations in the “uncanny valley,” which is a place where you know something is fake (and it appears fake) but it is realistic enough to be off putting.

Spotlight Poem

American Wizard by Lawrence Schimel

A shout

rang out

in Menlow Park

one New Year’s Eve


as people

stepped down

from the train

into dark


and he pulled

the switch–


a flood of light

lit up the night!


What marvelous lamps

without gas

or flame!


The people cheered

Thomas Edison’s name

and his marvel

that turned dusk




Depending on the age of the audience, several things can be done with this poem.  For example, if all you show them is the title, “American Wizard” and ask them who and what they think it is about, you would likely get a variety of answers.  If all of those were written down, with emphasis on the “what” and then read the poem, you could ask if it was about what they thought.  If the answers supplied were along the lines of magic, ask what is magic?  Is it the impossible happening?  If so, then wouldn’t Edison’s illumination of Menlow Park be considered magic?  If the kids didn’t know who Thomas Edison was, this is a fun introduction (though to be fair, his spectacular failures should be discussed as well).



H.W. Wilson’s Children’s Collection (2006)


Booklist–” Each poem appears on a left-hand page facing a bordered portrait painted in a flat, naive style and centering subjects against backgrounds that reflect something significant in their lives. Ending the book, two pages of notes feature a paragraph of information about each person featured in the verse.”


Phelan, Carolyn. Booklist. March 1999. Vol. 95, No. 14.

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