- "For the Undefeated":The 2020 Lion and the Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Poetry
Kwame Alexander. The Undefeated. Illustrated by Kadir Nelson. Versify, 2019.
Nikki Grimes. Ordinary Hazards: A Memoir. WordSong, 2019.
Aida Salazar. The Moon Within. Scholastic, 2019.
Patrice Vecchione and Alyssa Raymond, editors. Ink Knows No Borders: Poems of the Immigrant and Refugee Experience. Seven Stories P, 2019.
Though many of the works of poetry published for young readers in 2019 were imaginative, engaging, and delightful, a few stood out as particularly excellent contributions to the larger field. Written by both veteran and debut poets, these works—picture books, memoirs in verse, verse novels, and collections of voices for all ages—by and large sought to bear witness to our unique moment in history, and to celebrate, in the words of our winner, "the undefeated." The poetry published in 2019 was part of a larger project undertaken by poets seeking to reflect upon and recover histories, cultures, traumas, and triumphs of the past. Speaking of the blurry line between poetry and politics, Major Jackson asserts in his introduction to The Best American Poetry 2019 that "poets today write in the wake of a long tradition of resistance in American poetry. They heed the ethical imperative to [End Page 317] bear witness, to speak out, to advocate for social and economic equality, to combat the forces of various '-isms,' yet not at the expense of artful language or a loyalty to self—a duality of purpose that is consistent from generation to generation" (xxviii–xxix). While Jackson's comments are focused specifically on poets writing for adults, his assessment holds true for poets writing for young readers as well, who—as is evidenced by the works published this year—are very clearly working in that same rich tradition of resistance.
Our winner this year is Kwame Alexander's The Undefeated, a powerful poem—an ode in picture book form—illustrated by Kadir Nelson in his signature figurative-style oil paintings against white backgrounds. Winner of the 2020 Caldecott Medal and a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, as well as a Newbery Honor, The Undefeated is striking not only narratively and visually, but also poetically. The poem makes use of anaphora, intertextuality, repetition, imagery, and lyricism, examining the African American experience throughout history and into the present moment. It is, as the book's dust jacket proclaims, "a love letter to America. To black America," creating a woven tapestry and celebration of Black history, resilience, and joy. This love letter, as both a poem and a picture book, aches to be read aloud–a plea which is not lost on Alexander, who includes a link to an audio version of the poem on the copyright page.
Across the book as a whole and within individual double-page spreads, Alexander's poetry and Nelson's images create a collage of the past and present. Many of Nelson's illustrations are literal collages of notable figures from Black history and culture, as when artists and writers such as Romare Bearden, Zora Neal Hurston, Phillis Wheatley, and Langston Hughes mingle across two pages. The figures are identified in The Undefeated's substantive paratextual material, which provides details about the people and events depicted in the book's pages. Alexander's poetry similarly pulls together the writings of Black figures, highlighting this intertextuality through the use of italics and capitalization. He utilizes words from Frantz Fanon made famous during the Civil Rights Movement by Malcom X as he writes that the poem is for "the ones who survived / America / by any means necessary" (emphasis original), accompanied by an image of an unnamed family. Langston Hughes's poem "Weary Blues" is juxtaposed with Nelson's illustration of a Black Union soldier during the Civil War, one of
The audacious oneswho carried the red, white, and Weary Blueson the battlefieldto save an imperfect Union.(emphasis original)
The linkage of past to present is powerfully accomplished in three separate double-page spreads that each contain the phrase, "This is for the unspeakable." [End Page 318] Each spread...