A River of Words
by Jen Bryant, illus. by Melissa Sweet
William Carlos Williams has to be one of the best examples of what you can be when you grow up. This outstanding picture-book biography (with the subtitle "The Story of William Carlos Williams") lays the groundwork for a man who was both a practicing doctor and poet his whole life long. "Like the other boys in Rutherford, New Jersey, Willie Williams loved to play baseball and to race his friends up and down the street," it begins. "But when the other boys went inside, Willie stayed outside. . . . In those days, just beyond town, there were still many wild places for Willie to explore." The book suggests how essential these unstructured afternoons by the Passaic River would become in the shaping of Williams' close observations and ideas. When Willie grows older and "there [is] less time to wander through the woods and fields or to nap by the river," the poetry Mr. Abbott reads in English class provides a refuge for him ("The gentle sounds and shifting rhythms of the poems were like the music of the river"). The passion of both the author and artist for their subject shines through on every page—in the pacing, in the layering of the compositions and, fittingly, in the carefully chosen details.
Here is a story of a poet to pore over, just as poetry demands us to pore over each line, each rhyme (or nonrhyme). Williams' poems appear on the endpapers and sprinkled into the narrative. Through Willie's notebook entries and sketches in her collage illustrations (which earned the book a 2009 Caldecott Honor), Sweet hints at his scientific leanings. It seems perfectly natural that Willie would decide to become a doctor. Williams' life becomes a model for children about just how much depends on that "red wheel/ barrow/ glazed with rain/ water beside the white/ chickens." While he was busy delivering babies and saving lives, this concise biography suggests, William Carlos Williams was also taking time out to make meaning of his own life.