Tuesday, February 25, 2014

I Lay My Stitches Down: Poems of American Slavery by Cynthia Grady (Illustrated by Michele Wood)

Published in 2012
Poetry Collection

Cynthia Grady, who enjoys writing and quilting during the summer, is a middle school librarian at Sidwell Friends in Washington, D.C. I Lay My Stitches Down: Poems of American Slavery is her first published book. In the author's note at the beginning of her book, she explains that quilt making and poetry are similar in two ways: "In one, color and shape are organized into an overall pattern; in the other, sound and structure create the pattern." She goes on to explain that "each poem in her book is named for a traditional quilt block and reflects a metaphorical patchwork of circumstances encountered by enslaved people in America. The poems are written in unrhymed verse, ten lines of ten syllables, to mimic the square and shape of a quilt block." She includes three references in each poem: "a biblical or spiritual reference, a musical reference, and a sewing or fiber arts reference in addition to the imagery the poem calls for." Her goal in writing and designing her book this way was to mirror the structure of a quilt as well as the symbolism that quilts often express.

Grady uses a consistent structure throughout the book that makes it easy for her readers to follow. The poems are located on the left page, while the illustrations, which also look like quilt patches, are located on the right. Underneath each poem, she has a row of quilt patches that represent or symbolize some aspect of the poem. For example, the first poem is titled "Log Cabin," so she has a row of log cabin quilt patches that divide the page nearly in half. Under each row of quilt patches, she adds a note that provides additional historical information regarding the poem and the situation in which the slaves found themselves.  The poems are typeset on a white background, and the historical notes are typeset on a creme colored background. The illustration and quilt patch color combinations are coordinated throughout the book. The author suggests that her book be read by children ages 10 & up.

The titles of the poems are simple and cover a wide range of topics: log cabins, cotton balls, the Underground Railroad, broken dishes, the North Star, the Tree of Life, a basket, a rail fence, an anvil, and my favorite, a schoolhouse. Although I enjoyed reading the poems and looking at the beautiful illustrations, I enjoyed reading the historical notes the best because I learned a lot. I learned that slaves, like navigators, used the North Star to guide their way to freedom, that although in many states slaves were forbidden to read and write, there were some white people who inherited slaves and then educated them privately so that when they were freed, they could go into the world with knowledge and skills, that archaeologists have discovered artifacts resembling West African religious practices while excavating where enslaved Africans and African Americans lived, and that basket-making is one of the oldest forms of West African art still practiced in the United States today.

Cynthia Grady's collection of poems of American Slavery is not only beautifully written and illustrated but it provides valuable historical information and expresses a wide range of emotions experienced by slaves: pain, sorrow, joy, hope, weariness, and strength. I highly recommend this book for all ages.
Cynthia Grady's Website (Author)
Michele Wood's Website (Painter, Illustrator, Designer, and Writer)
Image Source

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