Multiaward-winning poet Nelson (A Wreath for Emmett Till, illustrated by Philippe Lardy, 2005, etc.) tells how growing up as a daughter of one of the first African-American career officers in the Air Force influenced her artistic development.
In its 50 unrhymed sonnets, the memoir reflects on Nelson at ages 4 through 14, as she and her family followed her father during the pivotal 1950s. Moving to 11 locations in 10 years, from Ohio to Texas, Maine to California, Nelson, her sister and parents crossed the country, repeatedly giving the speaker in these first-person poems the full-throttle experience of being not only the new kid on the block, but often the lone African-American in her class. Nelson grippingly conveys the depth of her resulting isolation, noting the strangeness of how in Kittery Point, Maine, “we’re the First Negroes of everything.” There’s also the bafflement of having meaning attached to simply being herself—for example, while standing in line to get a polio vaccine in 1955 Kansas, “Mrs. Liebel said we were Making History, / but all I did was sqwunch up my eyes and wince. / Making History takes more than standing in line / believing little white lies about pain.”
With sophisticated wordplay and poignantly spare description, this lyric bildungsroman creates as effective a portrait of race relations in 20th-century America as of formative moments in Nelson’s youth. (author’s note) (Memoir/poetry. 10 & up)