A River of Words by Jen Bryant is an incredibly visual experience. The collages and paintings of illustrator Melissa Sweet absolutely draw the eye. I honestly cannot figure out where the illustrations end because they seem to encompass the story and add power to it. The story and the poetry and the illustrations all work together seamlessly to create this amazingly rich reading experience.
In the illustrator information at the back of the book, Melissa Sweet mentions that her initial efforts did not match the power of the poetry and that she ultimately ended up creating her artwork on the endpapers and book covers of discarded books. I examined the illustrations and just cannot figure out how it all worked together. She has pages of text from books as backdrop for some of her paintings, but it doesn’t seem to me that she has actually painted on these pages of text. Instead, it seems there is something on top of them that she has painted upon. The complexity of the pictures is incredible. We have a couple pages from an old spelling book, one page turned sideways, with a painting on top of it. On another page, we have two pages from an atlas, both turned sideways, a picture of a shooting star, also sideways, a weekly report and then a painting. At times, I have difficulty determining which part is a painting and which is simply backdrop. Regardless of what is collage and what is painting, the end result is powerful and beautiful. The end result is definitely as powerful as the poetry William Carlos Williams created.
Like Snowflake Bentley, A River of Words tells the story of Willie’s life (another Willie!) in a narrative fashion, so that children might be drawn into his world. Unlike Snowflake Bentley, the timeline of Wille’s life is included at the end of the book. I love this timeline because it not only tells us of specific events that occur in Willie’s Life, but it separates those events into his poetry publication dates, life events, and world events so that students can truly gain an understanding of the context of Willie’s life. The inside of the front and back covers of this book include excerpts from Willie’s poetry, making good use of all available space in the book.
A River of Words was a 2008 Caldecott Honor Book, for obvious reasons. The illustrations are entirely unique and draw the reader into the story of Willie’s life and allow the reader to experience that life in a very visual and verbal way. Words are a part of the illustrations in a way that honors Willie’s love of words and poetry. Ultimately, this book is an incredible example of the possibilities inherent in non-fiction picture books.