Walt Whitman: Words for America

Scholastic Press editor Tracy Mack talks about working with Barbara Kerley and Brian Selznick on the outstanding new title, Walt Whitman: Words for America.

At a bookstore some years ago, I came across a new edition of Walt Whitmans Leaves of Grass. It had been so long since I'd read the poems, and I didn't remember most of them, save for the most famous.

But somehow, I was drawn to this volume. Perhaps I was subconsciously inspired by the medallion of Walt Whitman that Brian Selznick had once sent me that hung above my desk. Whatever it was, I felt compelled to reacquaint myself with Walt's poetry.

As I read the poems, I was immediately taken with their heartfelt simplicity, their thoughtfulness and joy. Walt's passion for humankind is palpable, so too his love of travel and nature. My heart flooded with feelings of affection and transcendence.

So when Barbara Kerley's manuscript, Walt Whitman: Words for America, turned up on my desk, it felt propitious. I already knew how much I loved the poet Walt Whitman. Of course I'd want to publish a book about him for young readers. Of course they should know about this great writer who celebrated America and her people in the most genuine and accessible way. Still, until I read Barbara's powerful and tender portrait, I had no idea how much I loved Walt Whitman the man or how much working on this book would influence and inspire me. Neither did I know that Brian's medallion, which hangs above Barb's desk as well, was the impetus for her journey into Walt's life. And until I spoke to Brian and offered him the project to illustrate, I had no idea how much Walt had been lurking in the corners of his mind, too. Brian has been collecting editions of Leaves of Grass for years without ever knowing why or even having read them. Propitious indeed. Maybe it was Walt beckoning to all of us:

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search for another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

Did you know that in addition to writing soulful poetry, Walt was also a Civil War nurse? In fact, Walt's work in the war was the most defining experience of his life and was the single greatest influence on his writing. Reading Barbara's manuscript, I was so moved by Walt's big-hearted compassion, his selfless devotion to the soldiers — black and white, Union and Confederate — whom he nursed day and night, often sacrificing his own health. He brought them gifts, which he jotted down in the little handmade notebooks he carried with him at all times:

"David S. Giles — Company F 28th New Jersey Volunteers —wants an apple … Henry D. Boardman — Company B 27th Connecticut Volunteers — wants a rice pudding, not very sweet."

He also wrote home to the soldier's families:

"Dear Mr. and Mrs. Haskell,

I write to you this letter, because I would do something at least in [Erastus's] memory …. He is one of the thousands of our unknown American young men in the ranks about whom there is no record or fame, no fuss made about their dying so unknown, but I find in them the real precious & royal ones of this land …."

Walt knew so well the importance of serving one's country. That may well have been the driving force of his life. And yet he did so in his own way, through nursing and writing. Getting to know Walt so intimately during the three and a half years it took to put this book together showed me that there are many ways to love and honor one's country, and that it is important for all of us to give something back, each in our own way. Of course, we had no idea when we began work on this book back in the spring of 2001 just how timely it would be.

One of the things that makes working with Barbara and Brian so exciting for David Saylor (our Creative Director) and me is the spirit of adventure and collaboration that accompanies each project. (We previously collaborated on The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins.) That means all ideas are welcomed and considered. In addition to our traditional roles — Barbara as writer, Brian as illustrator, David as designer, and me as editor — Brian and David also contribute editorial ideas, and Barbara and I contribute art and design ideas in order to create the most thoughtful, innovative, and inspiring book possible. For example, in Walt Whitman: Words for America, Barbara double-checked Brian's research to make sure that the army tents were accurately depicted, and it was Brian's idea to incorporate lines of Walt's poetry into the art.

Barbara and Brian researched and traveled exhaustively in order to use primary sources, visiting Walt's birth home, holding his handmade notebooks, and learning to use a 19th century printing press, among other adventures. That effort brings a freshness, vigor, and authenticity to this book that is rare. Here, as she did in The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins, Barbara takes on a big subject and presents it in an accessible, meaningful way for young readers with clear, economical, and beautiful prose that is worthy of her subject. And Brian — never satisfied with simply creating lush, expressive paintings — has challenged himself yet again with a new technique, innovative page layouts, dramatic juxtapositions, and an underlying visual symmetry that subtly, viscerally enhances our reading experience. All of this combines to create, in Walt's words,

"A book I have made for your dear sake, O soldiers,
And for you, O soul of man, and you, love of comrades
A book separate, not linkd with the rest, nor felt by the intellect;
But you will feel every word."