This is a 2006 honor book for the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award:
Nelson, Marilyn. 2005. A Wreath for Emmett Till. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Here is a digital trailer for A WREATH FOR EMMETT TILL created by graduate student Jennifer Belcher.
Here's a Readers' Guide for A WREATH FOR EMMETT TILL created by graduate student Megan LaCase.
Nelson, Marilyn. 2005. A Wreath for Emmett Till. Ill. by Phillippe Lardy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0618397523
Recommended age levels 12+ (Suggested grade levels 8-12)
1. Summary of book
A Wreath for Emmett Till is a crown of sonnets about a painfully, well-known time in America’s history, the lynching of Emmett Till. Emmett was fourteen-years-old when he was murdered by white, adult males in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman. A sonnet is a style of poetry written in iambic pentameter, and a crown of sonnets is a group of other related sonnets where the last line of one becomes the first line of another. Marilyn Nelson then uses the first line from each sonnet to craft a final acrostic poem spelling out “RIP Emmett Till”. With these sonnets, the poet not only tells the story of Emmett Till, but shares the feelings of sadness and outrage felt by so many after his death. The lynching of Emmett Till and the subsequent acquittal of his accusers are generally believed to be what triggered the start of The Civil Rights Movement.
2. Review excerpts/awards
• Michael Printz Honor Book for Excellence in Young Adult Literature, 2006
• Corretta Scott King Award Author Honor Book, 2006
• Boston Globe-Horn Book Honors
“Award-winning poet Marilyn Nelson reminds us of the boy whose fate helped spark the civil rights movement. This martyr’s wreath, woven from a little-known but sophisticated form of poetry, challenges us to speak out against modern-day injustices, to ‘speak what we see.’” – Powell’s Books
"A moving elegy," -- The Bulletin
“Only Marilyn Nelson can take one of the most hideous events of the 20th century and make of it something glorious: An intricate cycle of 15 sonnets—an Heroic Crown, in which the last sonnet is made up of the first lines of the previous 14. As she considers the lynching of Emmett Till, she uses the traditional “language of flowers,” plaiting rosemary for remembrance, heliotrope for justice, daisies for innocence through her wreath. Individual poems speak in the voices of a witnessing tree and of Mamie Till Mobley, and broaden the mourning to include all victims of violence. It’s a towering achievement, one whose power and anger and love will make breath catch in the throat and bring tears to the eyes. Children’s book newcomer Lardy’s illustrations are bold and powerful, appropriately choosing disturbing imagery over depictions that are more realistic. The poem is followed by a brief account of Till’s lynching, glosses on the individual poems and an essay from the artist explaining his choices of imagery. The latter two are rather unfortunate additions, as the words, purified in the crucible of the form, speak eloquently enough on their own.” – Kirkus Review
“Landy’s remarkable paintings capture the rising emotion and denouement of the historical event…” -- Publishers Weekly
“…these poems are a powerful achievement that teens and adults will want to discuss together.” – Booklist
“This memorial to the lynched teen is in the Homeric tradition of poet-as-historian. It is a heroic crown of sonnets in Petrarchan rhyme scheme and, as such, is quite formal not only in form but in language. There are 15 poems in the cycle, the last line of one being the first line of the next, and each of the first lines makes up the entirety of the 15th. This chosen formality brings distance and reflection to readers, but also calls attention to the horrifically ugly events.” – School Library Journal
3. Questions to ask before reading
Invite the students to discuss what he/she knows about:
• The Civil Rights Movement
• Jim Crow laws
• Martin Luther King
Ask the students if they are familiar with any of the following words:
• Martyr or martyrdom
Before starting the sonnets, ask the students to read:
“How I Came to Write this Poem” at the front of the book
“Who was Emmett Till?” at the back of the book
4. Suggestions for reading aloud:
*Divide the students into pairs and assign one sonnet to each pair to read aloud. Ask the class to read the final, heroic sonnet in unison.
*Ask the class to read the first line of every sonnet together, then divide the students into pairs and assign one sonnet to each pair to read loud.
5. Follow up activities (writing, art, science, etc.)
Ask the pairs who read each sonnet to discuss how they feel reading it and what they think it is trying to say to the readers. After each pair has done this, ask the pairs to share with the class. Then ask the class to read the author’s sonnet notes at the back. Discuss if the notes changed their minds about a meaning or shed any light on something they didn’t understand before.
Ask the students to read the Artist’s notes at the back of the book. Discuss if he/she agrees with the way the artist chose to illustrate each sonnet. Ask the students to choose a sonnet to illustrate themselves and create an artist note for why he/she chose the particular illustration.
Ask the class to chose a topic and write a crown of sonnets together.
*History or ELA writing follow-up
Ask students to research another event in American history and write a sonnet describing how he/she feels about the event.
6. Related web sites/blogs
*Houghton Mifflin: A Teacher’s Guide
[Go here for the publisher’s notes on suggested activities for the book.]
*Melinda Webb: Young Adult Book Reviews
[Look at this blog for a review about the book.]
*NPR: A poem of sorrow and hope
[Visit this site to hear Marilyn Nelson read the poem.]
*Dallas Public Library: Booked Solid
[Go here for a book review from the Dallas Public Library.]
7. Related publications:
*Other books by Marilyn Nelson:
Nelson, Marilyn. 2001. Carver: A Life in Poems. Pennsylvania: Front Street.
Nelson, Marilyn. 2004. Fortune's Bones: The Manumission Requiem. Pennsylvania: Front Street.
Nelson, Marilyn. 1997. The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press.
Nelson, Marilyn. 1990. The Homeplace: Poems. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press.
*Other publications about the Emmett Till story:
Hudson-Weems, Clenora. 2006. Emmett Till: The Sacrificial Lamb of the Civil Rights Movement. Columbia, MO: AuthorHouse.
Klopfer, Susan. 2005. The Emmett Till Book. London: Lulu.com.
Klopfer, Susan. 2010. Who Killed Emmett Till?. Mount Pleasant, IA: Susan Klopfer.
Metress, Christopher. 2002. The Lynching of Emmett Till: A Documentary Narrative. Virginia: University of Virginia.
*Other books for children or young adults about the Civil Rights Movement:
Bridges, Ruby. 1999. Through My Eyes. New York: Scholastic Press
Bullard, Sara. 1994. Free At Last: A History of the Civil Rights Movement and Those Who Died in the Struggle. New York: Oxford University Press, USA
Parks, Rosa. 1992. Rosa Parks: My Story. New York: Dial Press.
Rappaport, Doreen. 2001. Martin's Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Hyperion Book CH
Rochelle, Belinda. 1997. Witnesses to Freedom: Young People Who Fought for Civil Rights. London: Puffin.