A river of words

My Perfect Picture Book pick this week is not a new book; it came out in 2008. But it is new to me and I hope this post will introduce some of you to this beauty, which was named a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book.

After reading the brilliantly written and illustrated ROGET AND HIS THESAURUS, I thought of Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet as a kidlit “dream team.” I didn’t realize they’d collaborated earlier on A RIVER OF WORDS: The Story of William Carlos Williams. (A Google search tells me they also collaborated on A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin. If you haven’t checked out their other collaborations, do!)

Title: A RIVER OF WORDS: The Story of William Carlos Williams

Written by: Jen Bryant

Illustrated by: Melissa Sweet

Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2008, Nonfiction

For Ages: 5 and UP

Themes/Topics: William Carlos Williams, poetry, nature, writing process, poetry in the everyday

First spread:

“Like the other boys in Rutherford, New Jersey,

Willie Williams loved to play baseball

and to race his friends up and down the street.

But when the other boys went inside,


Willie stayed outside. Climbing over the fence

in his backyard, he wandered alone

through the woods and fields.”


Summary (from publisher):

This picture book biography of William Carlos Williams traces childhood events that lead him to become a doctor and a poet.


Why I Like This Book: Poetry can seem inaccessible and irrelevant to kids – and to adults. Several of my friends have told me that they don’t “get” poetry and they don’t feel that it has anything to offer them. But as Jen Bryant points out, William Carlos Williams wanted “to write about ordinary things—plums, wheelbarrows, and weeds, fire engines, children, and trees—things I see when I walk down my street or look out my window.” Poetry doesn’t have to be inscrutable. It can be about everyday things and, as Williams discovered, each poem can “find its own special shape on the page.”

The book also points out that “no one paid much money for poetry.” William Carlos Williams needed to earn a living so he became a doctor. He worked full time caring for people in his community but continued to write poems. He jotted down notes on prescription pads, and in the evenings, he collected his notes and “shaped them into poems.” I think it’s important that books model the many ways there are of creating art and being an artist. Being an artist is, in part, a way of viewing the world. William Carlos Williams went through his days seeing the world through poet’s eyes—he saw the beautiful and the transcendent in the everyday and, when he was inspired, he jotted down notes.

Something of an aside: For many years, I believed that “real writers” had to have a consecrated time and space set aside to write. But I’ve belatedly realized through experience that some of my best observations and ideas occur when it’s not “writing time.” When I’m in the shower, watching swim lessons, walking the dog, baking bread, falling asleep at night, ideas and solutions sometimes seem to just “pop” into my head. I’ve become vigilant about keeping a tiny notebook on hand to capture those fleeting inspirations. And, I’m happy to report, my 7-year-old daughter has taken to carrying her own tiny notebook as well. While her notebook has more drawings and fewer notes, I see her using it as an artist’s notebook and I’m proud to have modeled that habit for her!


I also LOVE Melissa Sweet’s multi-layered pencil and watercolor collages which depict some of Williams’ inspirations, especially scenes from nature, along with samples of some of his scribbled his notes. The end papers include some of the Williams poems.

Ideas for Teachers: After reading this book and several of Williams’ poems aloud, teachers might ask students to write poems “in the style of” Williams. Teachers might also read Sharon Creech’s fabulous Love That Dog with students. Love That Dog is written in free verse and follows the diary entries of a boy who initially resists his teacher’s poetry assignments.


(For a giant list of links to picture book reviews, along with resources, please visit Susanna Leonard Hill’s site: http://susannahill.com/for-teachers-and-parents/perfect-picture-books/.)


7 thoughts on “Perfect Picture Book Friday: A RIVER OF WORDS

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