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  • Time for Childhoods: Young Poets and Questions of Agency by Rachel Conrad
  • Lesley Peterson (bio)
Time for Childhoods: Young Poets and Questions of Agency. By Rachel Conrad. University of Massachusetts Press, 2020.

In Time for Childhoods, Rachel Conrad draws both on her academic training as “a childhood studies scholar trained in developmental psychology” and on the expertise acquired in her “‘other life’ as a poet and reader of poetry” (ix). The transdisciplinary result is a masterful, sometimes exhilarating, series of close readings of “poetry written by people under the age of eighteen in the United States from the mid-twentieth to early twenty-first century,” many of them African American. Conrad’s readings focus on evidence of what she terms temporal agency, “a form of agency . . . available to young people in their ideas and daily lives” that involves “their working awareness of time, temporal order, and temporal valuation” (12). This approach is grounded primarily in “scholarship on agency conceptualizing it in terms of human lives experienced in and across time” but also in the work of literary scholars who “continue to engage with time and temporality as central elements in lyric poetry” (11, 37). [End Page 415]

The poetry, and Conrad’s approach to it, both deserve illustration. Consider “Trapped,” written by Aurelia Davidson at twelve years old:

I am trappedBecause I am Black.Let me out, I say,But the white man say NO.I turn, I turn,But who am I?I walk, I walk,But who am I?I am a little Black girl TRAPPED.But will I get out?Yes, I say.I look,I learnAnd I sing,And I dance.And OUT I COME—From the past.


Never published, this lyric poem was “a 1980 prizewinner in a contest” that Gwendolyn Brooks “had initiated as Illinois poet laurate” (48–49). Brooks preserved it among her papers and honored it with public readings. Conrad notes that, “While grounded in the present (‘I am trapped’), the speaker calls on the future (‘will I get out?’) and refers to ‘the past’ of racial oppression from which she will emerge” (51). Moreover, Conrad writes:

Davidson’s control over temporality helps construct the conditions of her speaker’s escape. The line at the exact center of the poem in which Davidson names her speaker’s intersectional identity—“I am a little Black girl TRAPPED”— leverages shifts in temporality. Before that point, the poem’s tense adheres to a drawn-out present . . . . After that central line, which in breaking free of the poem’s short-line structure prefigures the poem’s conclusion, Davidson has her speaker question the future, engage in varied activity, and emerge “From the past.”


This reading more than justifies Brooks’s respect for Davidson’s craft.

Analyses such as these are the book’s beating heart, but equally important is the care Conrad takes to explain the theoretical underpinnings of her methodology, particularly in chapters 1 and 4. The result is a thought-provoking and original work that offers insights and challenges to literary scholars (particularly those working in the fields of lyric poetry and literary juvenilia) and childhood studies scholars (particularly those interested in critical developmental psychology, child agency, and children’s rights). Although pedagogy is not a central consideration, Conrad also offers a number of observations about adult mediation that will interest teachers, parents, and writers who desire to foster and support youth writing.

In choosing to attend to obscure young poets—and to those adults who supported them them—Conrad restores to public view some important neglected works, including two books of advice for young poets by Brooks, Young Poet’s Primer (1980) and Very Young Poets (1983), both now out of print; and The Voice of the Children (1970), an anthology edited by Teri Bush and June Jordan, also out of print “despite having received . . . a Coretta Scott King Book Award . . . and a Nancy Block Award for best children’s book” (141). Literary scholars will appreciate this valuable service. [End Page 416]

They may also, however, question Conrad’s decision to focus her attention on poems that in some cases were never published, that in all cases...


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pp. 415-417
Launched on MUSE
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