The photographs of Walker Evans tell stories of ordinary people living in America in the extraordinary time of the Great Depression. Cynthia Rylant’s poetry about the photographs offers a new voice in the telling, celebrating the beauty of life lived in extreme circumstances.
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Cynthia Rylant is a Newbery medalist and the author of many acclaimed books for young people. She's well known for her popular characters for early readers, including Mr. Putter & Tabby and Henry & Mudge. She lives in the Pacific Northwest. www.cynthiarylant.com.
Gr. 7-12 Here's a book concept that seems to have Bad Idea written all over it: repackage Walker Evans' photos for the juvenile market. Take a few of Evans' images of southern life during the Depression, tie them to a little poignant poetry by a big-name children's writer (How about Cynthia Rylant? She's from Appalachia, after all), and, presto, you've got Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, kid version.
Sometimes, though, the material is strong enough, and the artists talented enough, to transcend the concept. Evans' photos resist all attempts at pigeonholing. The objects he capturesa slightly sagging bed, several birdhouses, the facade of a filling station, a rocking chairpossess such physical presence, such irreducible reality, that they achieve their own dignity, beyond message. That is not to say, however, that they don't also have their own kind of resonance, suggesting the scope of the human lives lived around them. Here is where Rylant enters the picturefleshing out the intimations offered by the pictures themselves, never reducing the image to a single meaning but always widening the angle of our vision to include more, to see further. And, best of all, the angles Rylant chooses to widen are rarely the ones we expect. Her poem about the sagging bed, for example (see jacket illustration, opposite) begins, Of course it was hard to make love / with the children in the room. What follows is a tenderly erotic lyric about a couple who ease their weary minds / with sex, which makes them poorer / and richer / at the same time.
The literary critic Lionel Trilling argued that James Agee's text in Famous Men suffered from a failure of moral realism, an inability to see the people in Evans' photos as anything but emblems of a sure and simple virtue. Rylant makes no such mistake. The people she finds both in and behind Evans' images are strong and courageous, yes, but they are also weak, petty, and frustrated. The land can be a source of beauty for them, but, more often, it brings only pain: the earth never was nothing / but work.
For students in junior high and high school, the juxtaposition of Evans' photos and Rylant's poems will demonstrate how emotions can be rooted in objects and how, to dig them out, you need to use strong, sturdy words. Bill Ott
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Book Description U.S.A.: Harcourt Children's Books, 1994. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Dust Jacket Condition: New. 1st Edition. Language: eng Language: eng Language: eng. Bookseller Inventory # BU-71D
Book Description Harcourt Children's Books, 1994. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # M0152770909
Book Description Harcourt Children's Books, 1994. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. 1. Bookseller Inventory # DADAX0152770909
Book Description Harcourt Children's Books, 1994. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Never used!. Bookseller Inventory # P110152770909
Book Description Harcourt Children's Books. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. 0152770909 New Condition. Bookseller Inventory # NEW7.0033670