Sharing stories of Emily Dickinson with my children

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Reading about Emily Dickinson seemed like the natural progression after reading about Christina Rossetti. Both poets were born around the same time, though Emily died earlier than Christina. Emily probably read some of Christina’s writings, and we know that after Emily died Christina read a book of her poetry. Yet the two women were in different countries, with Christina living in England and Emily in the USA.

Two children's books about Emily Dickinson

My library had two children’s books about Emily Dickinson, both talking about a child’s view of Emily, so I started with those. Those weren’t nearly enough for me, so I dug around through some other books on Emily, and from those I could share with my kids bits of information related to parts of the children’s book. For example, one of the book talks about Emily’s brother’s family. Her brother was Austin. He married Susan, a friend of Emily’s, whom Emily used to write passionate love letters to in the style of adolescents of her day. They had three children, and the youngest, Ned, would die two years after parts of this story took place. Emily’s grandfather had founded a college in the community, but kept the tuition really, really low in order to try to spread their Puritian beliefs as far as possible and consequently ran into financial trouble.

Emily, by Michael Bedard with pictures by Barbara Cooney, tells of Emily from the point of view of a child living across the street. The girl, her parents, and Emily’s sister Lavinia go unnamed. This absense is strangely suitable, as a young child probably wouldn’t include those details in her description. She says that people call Emily the Myth, and that she hides when people come over. She asks her father what poetry is, and is told

“Listen to Mother play [piano]. She practices and practice a piece, and sometimes a magic happens and it seems the music starts to breathe. It sends a shiver through you. You can’t explain it really; it’s a mystery. Well, when words do that, we call it poetry.”

The theme of the book really is mystery. Emily is a mystery of sorts. The lily bulbs the girl has lined up on her windowsill are a mystery. Poetry and spring are both a mystery. The book ends with one of Emily’s own verses about a mystery in life.

The other children’s book is called My Uncle Emily, written by Jane Yolen and illustrated by Nancy Carpenter, but done from the point of view of Ned, Emily’s young nephew. His aunt gives him a letter and a bee to share with his class, but after he doing so there’s a kerffufl during recess and Ned hurts another boy in defense of his aunt. Should the boy tell his parents and his aunt what happened? Telling part of the story they think him brave and strong, but if he tells it all what will they think? His aunt Emily shares part of her poem “Tell all the Truth” to help him.

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
In this age of propaganda when we talk about an article being slanted we talk about it leaning one way or another, not balanced. Dickinson was probably talking about telling something slant like a ramp, where you build up slowly to the truth rather than run headlong into a wall and try to jump it.
The books are wonderful, and a great source for discussion.
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3 thoughts on “Sharing stories of Emily Dickinson with my children

  1. Thanks for sharing this. It is fun to find resources of writers typically taught in middle/high school to share with younger kids. I must confess, even as an English teacher, that Emily has never been one of my favorite poets. Thanks for sharing on the Kid Lit Blog Hop. I may have to take another look at her!

    • I don’t consider Emily one of my favorite poets either, actually! I find her interesting more for her life and time period (as dull as her life as a reclusive spinster is, in some ways). And there’s interesting questions within her poetry, but it certainly isn’t the easy flowing poetry like, for example, The Highwayman.

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