History in Poems: Jeannine Atkins

Jeannine Atkins’ poems that recreate the lives of people in history are a part of “Braiding the Verse Novel.”  These are a series of interviews I did with writers of novels –  and this biography  – in verse.  I’ve written articles about verse novels that draw on these conversations in different ways.

Jeannine Atkins  teaches children’s literature at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  Among her award-winning books is  Borrowed Names, Poems About Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madam C.J. Walker, Marie Curie, and Their Daughters and Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science. She is skilled at crafting poems and stories based the facts of the lives of people in history.   I invited Jeannine to select a passage from her poems about Laura Ingalls Widler and her daughter and describe her process in creating those lines. Here is what she wrote:

“Remember one thing — the price of wheat,

the scents of violets, vinegar pie —

and memories jammed behind may unroll like thread off a spool.

The section in Borrowed Names about Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter, Rose, chronicles tension between a very capable mother and a daughter who rarely felt she could live up to her mother’s expectations. This is somewhat resolved when Laura is about sixty, and Rose about forty, and they work together on the series of Little House books. Laura provides the history, while Rose did much of the shaping and editing, a collaboration that made me think of quilting and sewing, crafts important to both women, and is suggested by the thread here. The line reinforces the theme of the way memories can separate, heal, and change, and is spoken by a voice that’s neither Laura’s nor Rose’s, suggesting how they bond as they write, becoming more than mother and daughter.”

Jeannine Atkins