Monday, July 20, 2015

2016 Contenders: Poet, by Don Tate

George Moses Horton was the first African-American poet to have a book published in the South (The Hope of Liberty, 1829). Amazingly, this occurred while he was still a slave. Though Horton's hope was that the money from the book would enable the purchase of his freedom, his master refused to sell him, and Horton's slavery continued until the end of the Civil War, some three and a half decades later. Through it all, Horton continued to write, producing another volume of poetry, many uncollected poems, and a brief autobiography.

Although Horton is still in print, and he retains a strong following in his home state of North Carolina, he remains much less known than other early African-American authors such as Phillis Wheatley and Jupiter Hammon. I completed an English degree at a southern university, and still never came across any of his work. I'm glad to say that Poet does an excellent job of discussing the man, his unusual life, and his writing, which may well make him a more familiar name to a younger generation.

The writing is spare, but clear. Tate made his name as an illustrator, but in his previous foray into writing (It Jes' Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw, 2012), he certainly displayed a facility with words, and he continues to exhibit that talent in Poet. I really felt Horton's determination, his crushing defeat, and his indomitable will while turning the pages.

As good as the text is, it's not going to win the Newbery -- no picture book is going to break through and take the prize, not in a year with Circus Mirandus and Echo and Moonpenny Island and The Jumbies. Some of the other committees may appreciate it, however, and I do hope there's room for it on the Notables list.

Publication in September by Peachtree.

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