Friday, May 13, 2011

The Great Migration, by Eloise Greenfield (ages 9 - 14)

Middle school students often avoid picture books, and yet these visually rich stories have so much to offer us all: a chance to be moved by pictures and not just words, a chance to connect with different characters, a chance to react immediately to what we see. A wonderful new picture book, The Great Migration: Journey to the North, is a perfect example of a picture book meant for older children: tweens and even teens. In this stirring book, illustrations and poetry blend to create a powerful impression of an important movement in our history.
by Eloise Greenfield
illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist
NY: Amistad, 2011
ages 9 - 14
available on Amazon and at your local library
The Great Migration is a beautiful blend of poetry, history and illustration. Eloise Greenfield shares a very personal perspective on the mass movement of African Americans from the southern part of the U.S. to the North between 1915 and 1930, intertwining both historical perspective and a personal experience. Greenfield begins with a short explanation of the meaning of “the Great Migration”, what it was, and how it affected her family. In August 1929, she was three months old when her father took the train from their home in North Carolina to find work in Washington, D.C. A month later, he sent for his family: “I was too little to know it then, but I had become a part of the Great Migration.”

The poems in this book follow a number of characters as they set out to move North, hoping to find a better life for themselves and their families. Each character is unnamed, but the poetry speaks from that person’s heart. Through this free verse poetry, the reader is pulled right into what it would be like to contemplate leaving your home. Here is the poem “Man” from the section Goodbyes:
"Saying goodbye to the land
puts a pain on my heart.
I stand here looking at the green
growing all around me,
and I am sad.
But I keep hearing about this
better life waiting for me,
hundreds of miles away,
and I know I’ve got to go.
Hope my old car can make it
that far.”
© Eloise Greenfield, 2011
This is a wonderful way into history for students, helping them imagine what it would be like to stand in a person’s shoes. The poems in this book are arranged in a chronological way, following a family’s move North. As the Horn Book review says, “Many of the poems give voice to unnamed travelers' thoughts; Greenfield explores the heart of each person, from the young woman going North alone, who sees her mother secretly packing her teddy bear in her bag, to the angry woman who says, 'I can't wait to get away. . .I hear that train whistling / my name. Don't worry, train, / I'm ready. When you pull / into the station, my bags and I / will be there.'“ I found this approach very moving, perfect for making me want to learn more.

Gilchrist's illustrations blend watercolor and collage to create landscapes and personal portraits that are as powerful as the poems. I was particularly struck by the way she incorporates faces from actual photographs into her artwork, reinforcing the feeling that these poems speak for actual people’s experiences.

Miss Crandall's School for Young Ladies & Little Misses of ColorThis is truly a moving book, one that I would love to share with 8th graders studying U.S. history. I loved reading Ernest Gaines’ novel The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman with 8th graders; this would complement it wonderfully, providing a great launch into writing poetic responses to that historic novel. If you would like to explore other poetry that shares a sense of history, I'd love to recommend Miss Crandall's School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color, by Elizabeth Alexander and Marilyn Nelson.

The review copy was kindly sent by Harper Collins. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion will go to Great Kid Books (at no cost to you). Thank you for your support.

Review ©2011 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, Mary Ann--

    Thank you for highlighting these books and the need for visual storytelling (or poetrytelling) in the upper grades. It's books like these that make me wish I was better suited to teaching older kids!

    I have a question for you that's better asked offline--would you mind emailing me at Thanks.