Guest Post by Padma Venkatraman
Illus. Dav Pilkey
Little, Brown and Company
As with some of my previous reviews for this site, I feel obliged to begin by confessing my deep and abiding regard for Richard Blanco. We met before his work catapulted into fame, before he read the inaugural poem at President Barack Obama’s second swearing-in ceremony. I had the great good fortune of his welcoming me to sit in on a poetry workshop he conducted for the University of Rhode Island’s Ocean State Summer Writing Conference. His encouragement and contact have meant so much that he is one of the poets thanked in the acknowledgements section of A TIME TO DANCE. Yet, I feel sure that I’d admire his work anyway, even if I’d never met him.
ONE TODAY is an illustrated version of the very poem Blanco shared with the nation and the world on January 21st, 2013. It is a paen of personal triumph, but it is also a universal immigrant story – a poem that speaks to the United States as the poet sees it in the present day.
While the words have not been edited (and the vocabulary is thus beyond the reach of a young child), Caldecott Honor winning artist Dav Pilkey’s bold and colorful strokes expand the poem’s accessibility to include a young audience. And, given that I loved reading and listening to the music of language as a young child, even if I could not fully grasp each word, I feel strongly that this picture book rendition of Blanco’s poem belongs on every classroom shelf. Children will surely respond to the rhythm of his lines and the many familiar sounds and sights Blanco captures: “squeaky playground swings, trains whistling” and “buses launching down avenues, the symphony/ of footsteps, guitars and screeching subways,/ the unexpected song bird on your clothes line.” Surely they will delight in the surprise of that last image, as any grown up might!
In a nation that, these days, seems so deeply divided, this poem’s message of unity seems more valuable than ever. A celebration of all that brings America together, whether we “…clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives – “, this poem resonates all the more deeply because it does not only sing the of the “one light we move through” but also reminds us of “the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain/ the empty desks of twenty children marked absent/ today, and forever.”
To me, as an immigrant, as an immigrant who has grown used to a certain underlying lack of acceptance that results in my treatment as a second class citizen (more often than I care to remember); as an immigrant who, like all immigrants, has given up and sacrificed, but whose feelings for this nation are constantly questioned; as an immigrant who is of a minority religion is not always respected (and still less understood), certain lines in this poem are especially meaningful. But not meaningful to me alone.
Children, whether immigrants themselves or many generations removed, will sense Blanco’s tender love for his mother who toiled at a monotonous job every day “for twenty years, so I could write this poem” and for his father who cut sugarcane “so my brother and I could have books and shoes.” And, as he rejoices “- in every language/ spoken into one wind carrying our lives/ without prejudice…” and respects “Many prayers, but one light…”, young readers will recognize and remember the diversity that strengthens our country.
Walt Whitman sang of our country with the same jubilance as Blanco; but Blanco’s message of oneness (which may be extended to include the entire world if one so wishes), when rendered together with Pilkey’s illustrations, become beautifully accessible – not just to teachers and parents – but also to our children.