I Lay My Stitches Down cover
Cover illustration
See permission.
The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

I Lay My Stitches Down: Poems of American Slavery

by Cynthia Grady; illus. by Michele Wood

There are many different books, from biographies to historical narratives, from folklore to picture books, that share stories of African-American slavery with young people. Here’s one that takes a new approach: using the art of quiltmaking as both a structural and thematic motif, Grady has penned a series of fourteen poems to describe “the metaphorical patchwork of circumstances encountered by enslaved people in America.” The result is a rich and eloquent exploration of isolated moments in the lives of slaves, resonant with specific details rooted in the African-American experience.

Like quiltmaking itself, the poems are carefully structured. Each poem is named for a traditional quilt pattern; the form is unrhymed but tightly metered lines of ten syllables apiece (“to mimic the square shape of a quilt block”), and each includes three references (because a quilt has three layers): a spiritual reference, a musical reference, and a sewing reference. The rhythm is deftly executed, echoing the cadences of speech much as its blank verse kin does, and the device actually functions to draw the reader into the poems and make this a work that only gets more rewarding as readers pore over the many facets of meaning in text and art.

The verses aren’t merely cleverly formed, either: each poem speaks in a voice full of clarity and conviction. Several poems shine on moments of joy, such as “Traditional Fish,” about a boy who spends his summer days canoeing with the master’s son, or “Schoolhouse,” wherein a compassionate white teacher delivers her lessons a little bit louder for the sake of the two girls thirsty for forbidden learning who listen outside her window (“she twitch the curtain at the window, teach/ her lessons loud and clear—her voice, a prayer/ with wings. It give us hope; it sing us home”). Others recount the enduring of fear and suffering, as in “Tree of Life,” where a man, tied to a tree and raw from lashes, conjures up the memory of a preacher’s words of strength and solace, or “Wagon Wheel” where a girl is taken from her family (“Her mama moaning low, long burying/ songs: greedy wheels groaning, drag my heart clean/ out of my chest, leaving only the grief”). Together, they provide readers with minute, focused glimpses of the historical experience, singular moments in the lifetimes of individuals who stand for a multitude.

Visually, the book is an elegant work, with a tall portrait-oriented shape that enhances the album feeling and a repeated use of creams and browns in background and font. Wood, recipient of a King Award for her illustrations of Igus’ I See the Rhythm (BCCB 7/98), provides a single acrylic painting opposite each poem. The paintings are strikingly vibrant, with human figures in eloquent silent portraiture, careful symmetry and near-symmetry adding grandeur to many scenes, and exquisite modeling often makng the surfaces seem three-dimensional. Extensive patterning, including the quilt patterns titling the verses, drives the energy of the art, but compositions escape overbusyness with a skillful balance of elements and colors. The palette favors jewel-toned blues, greens, yellows, and reds in combination with the deep browns of faces and hands, but the compositions vary enough to give each painting fresh impact.

In addition to the poems and paintings, brief historical commentaries are included with each pairing, which touch upon the intended symbolism as well as delivering additional information to the reader. This is truly a work in which the sum is greater than the parts, and, like the pieces of a patchwork quilt, the individual elements of verse, art, and background information come together to tell a much greater story.

--Hope Morrison, Reviewer

I Lay My Stitches Down cover

Cover image from I Lay My Stitches Down: Poems of American Slavery ©2012 by Michele Wood.  Used by permission of Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.

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This page was last updated on February 1, 2012.