A Review of
I Lay My Stitches Down: Poems of American Slavery,
By Cynthia Grady
Illustrated by Michele Wood
Hardback: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2012
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Reviewed by Susan R. Adams.
In early February, the Butler University community was privileged to meet and hear local Indianapolis artist and author, Michele Wood, speak about her collaboration with writer, Cynthia Grady, in the beautiful poetry book, I Lay My Stitches Down. Michele Wood’s earlier publications have earned prestigious awards, including the American Book Award for Going Back Home and the Coretta Scott King Award for I See the Rhythm. (To learn more about Michele Wood and to see examples of her work, please visit her website.) I feel so fortunate to have the privilege of hearing Michele Wood speak and watching her move through the book page by page, generously explaining her approach as the illustrator for each of Cynthia Grady’s poems.
Although I am a life-long reader and a frequent user of great children’s picture books, many of my assumptions about the process of creating and producing book illustrations proved mostly false. I had always visualized an author and illustrator bent together over their pages, deciding together on artwork that would amplify the author’s text, but no, apparently that is not at all how it happens in most cases. Most of the time, the publisher contracts and makes all artistic decisions with an artist who never even speaks to the author. This revelation is pretty disappointing, isn’t it, but it does explain why sometimes in a book the text and the illustrations just do not seem to mesh. Michele says she has followed this practice on other projects, but when she read Cynthia Grady’s poetry, she insisted on speaking with Cynthia and thankfully, Eerdmans allowed the two to speak. The contact permitted Michele access to probe Cynthia’s underlying thoughts, feelings, and mental images. The result is a powerful communication feast for the mind, the heart and the eyes.
The book is a patchwork quilt of facets of American slavery carefully constructed so that every quilt block presents its own window into the lives of African American slaves, yet is also bound through connecting threads of texture, color, and repeating themes and metaphors to all the other blocks. Although the topic of the book is slavery, the illustrations are vibrant, lively, and powerful, joyfully proclaiming the inherent wisdom and strength of a people whose life and confidence are shaped by the hand of a merciful, ever-present, and faithful God. Each poem is simple and accessible enough for young children, but also offers rich, underlying concepts for older readers to explore. Whether you are a teacher, a parent, or a grandparent, if you are in relationship with children, this book provides a beautiful provocation for discussions. The teacher in me is eager to use the book as a mentor text to inspire young writers and authors to try their hand at creating their own texts and illustrations. If you are simply searching for a book that moves beyond the ubiquitous “famous black Americans” theme into a thoughtful, textured, and sophisticated treatment of American slavery, I Lay My Stitches Down is a must-have for your collection.