The life of Emily Dickinson is a riddle, one that generations of the poet’s admirers have tried to unlock. A 19th-century recluse who barely left her family home, who conducted most of her meaningful relationships by correspondence, whose view of the world was the one from her bedroom window, Dickinson wrote poetry of such beauty, ferocity, and sadness that she’s still read by millions today.

Two authors have just published new books about Dickinson, and while they are very different works, both seek to explain the true story behind the evanescent magic of Dickinson’s poetry. The first, These Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson by Martha Ackmann (W.W. Norton, Feb. 25), is a journalist/scholar’s affectionate look at the life of a poet she has taught and studied for decades. On Wings of Words: The Extraordinary Life of Emily Dickinson by Jennifer Berne, illustrated by Becca Stadtlander (Chronicle, Feb. 18), looks at Dickinson’s genius through a child’s perspective.

Ackmann says she first encountered Dickinson in a high school literature class.

“We were assigned to read ‘After great pain, a formal feeling comes–’ ” she remembers. “I couldn’t get a single line—I couldn’t untangle them. Like any kid, I just hoped I wouldn’t be called upon, but then something happened….Though I couldn’t explicate a single line of that poem, on some level I understood it. That’s a large part of Dickinson’s genius. She creates a very visceral response before you have an intellectual response.”

After college, Ackmann became a high school teacher in St. Louis, but eventually she moved to Massachusetts and joined the Gender Studies Department at Mount Holyoke College, where she worked for 30 years. She taught seminars on Dickinson in the poet’s nearby Amherst home, now the Emily Dickinson Museum.

She noticed that her students’ understanding of Dickinson seemed to deepen when she wrapped the poem they were studying around a period in Dickinson’s life. That insight led to the “pivotal moments” structure of her new book. In one chapter, Ackmann re-creates the day Dickinson went head-to-head with the headmistress of her female seminary over whether she would convert to organized Christianity (she didn’t, choosing to be classified as a “no-hoper”). Another chronicles Dickinson’s fraught passage through the Civil War, when young Amherst men whom Dickinson knew personally enlisted, left to fight, and never came back, dying in miserable prisoner-of-war camps, hospitals, and on the battlefield. (Thirty-one Amherst men would die fighting for the Union.) Those tragic years were the most productive of Dickinson’s life: “It made her feel the edge of life more keenly. She was at the peak of her literary powers,” says Ackmann. “She always wanted to stare down life unflinchingly. She never ducked, she never turned away. “

Dickinson was a complicated mixture of shyness and ambition. Though she shunned the social scene in Amherst to the point of refusing visitors, she was ambitious and, in a strange way, eager for fame. What was at the core of that contradiction?

Ackmann points out that, unlike the Brontë sisters, who had to work for a living and who died relatively young, Dickinson had the luxury of secreting and isolating herself in a genteel environment. “She had class privilege—she could live in her parents’ home and not wash or make hats in a factory like women across the road from her. She molded her environment to support her work….I think she knew that to write with the kind of intensity she needed, she had to have quiet days. She was an introvert’s introvert,” says Ackmann. But Dickinson reached out to people who mattered, notably Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the author with whom Dickinson maintained a lifelong correspondence and with whom she shared many of her poems.

Dickinson published only a handful of poems in her lifetime, but after her death, her sister discovered hundreds and hundreds (Dickinson wrote 1,789 in all). Today she is one of the world’s best-known poets.

Children’s book author Berne came to the subject of Dickinson by a different path. A former advertising copywriter, she moved into writing picture books “because there’s such a beautiful synergy between words and pictures. And I realized if I started to write nonfiction picture books I could finally write about the subjects I love; people who explored the universe, about science, anything that interested me.”

Eventually Berne narrowed her focus to notable people in the fields she adored, and she has published acclaimed children’s biographies of Jacques Cousteau, Albert Einstein, and Neil deGrasse Tyson. At first glance, Dickinson would seem to be different, but there are key similarities with Berne’s other subjects, she says: “She isn’t a scientist, but she is an explorer. Everything she writes about she explores deeply….She does really deep dives intellectually and translates that into words, amazing words.”

Berne’s narrative transforms the difficult things Dickinson wrestled with—doubts about God, death, and the ephemerality of existence—into words that children can understand. “Her happys were happier, her sads were sadder,” she writes in On Wings of Words. Dickinson’s “extreme emotionality and her fierce intellect combined to make her hypersensitive, and she wouldn’t have been any of that if she hadn’t been so sensitive to start with,” says Berne. “She was rare and unique, and she even turned her weaknesses into strengths.” Berne’s words are greatly enhanced by Becca Stadltlander’s illustrations, which distill the essence of Dickinson’s poetry and the world the poet lived in.

The poet’s life will resonate with contemporary children, says Berne. “She was too revolutionary in her own time…her questioning of everything around her helps her deal with everything in the world.” She hopes her book will “inspire kids to take some of the issues they deal with and explore them, to write to make sense of their own world.”

Ackmann concurs. “Even very young children who read picture books have deep thoughts. They want to discover and look for answers.” Finding answers was one of Dickinson’s quests, and these two books are windows into the hows and whys of her lifelong search.

Mary Ann Gwinn is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist in Seattle who writes about books and authors for several publications.