I first heard about The Great Migration on School Library Journal’s Heavy Medal blog, which covers the Newbery award throughout the year. Especially since I am without my close-knit library community here in Helena, I try to pay attention to what others are reading (and liking) this year. While I have some people I “talk books” with here, I really miss having review journals to go through and my trusted group of librarian friends to talk with on a daily basis.
Anyways, back to this poetry collection. Eloise Greenfield is a famous author of poetry for children, with many awards on her shelf. Jan Spivey Gilchrist is also a noted award-winning illustrator, who has collaborated with Greenfield multiple times. But this isn’t their only shared history. The jacket copy notes that both of their families were part of the Great Migration.
The Great Migration happened between 1915 and 1930, and included more than a million African Americans, according to Greenfield’s author’s note. Many of these people were trying to escape the hopelessness, racism and poverty of their lives in the South, and had heard rumors of a better, happier life in the North.
Greenfield begins this collection of poetry with a poem entitled “The News”, which begins to build excitement and hope for a new life. It also shows African Americans encouraging each other to hope and dream. She then continues on with various people saying goodbye to their lives in the South. These poems have sorrow and pain – after all, many of these people are going on ahead of their families to find jobs and housing. But they also include words of hope as they turn towards the North. All of these poems are free verse, so it is easy for young readers to connect with the people leaving, to feel their hardships and anxiety about their new lives.
Finally as the characters we’ve met, and faceless, nameless others arrive in the North, they turn around to extend a willing, helping hand to those still in the South, worried about this move. They encourage those left behind to have hope, to move on. The last section of poems are from Eloise Greenfield’s own life – her family’s move from North Carolina to Washington DC. Although at four months old, Eloise is too young to remember the move, she describes the trip and how hard it was for her mother.
Greenfield’s poetry is relatable, strong and moving – worthy of being included in any Newbery debate. But what astonished me about this book is Gilchrist’s artwork. It is mostly collage with color washes over the illustrations. Gilchrist has used a combination of historical photographs and illustrations with her own artwork added in, and this gives the book a gripping feel of authenticity. You look into the faces of the people moving North, and really see the hope and fears Greenfield is describing. The personal story that Greenfield tells through her poems comes to life with these photographs. You see their strength and despair in their lives in the South. While there are many superb illustrations here, my favorite is on the third page of the poem “The Trip”. A train steams across the top third of the page, carrying all those people North across a gentle blue sky. At first glance, below the train is a golden wheat field, mentioned in the text. But look closer to see figures interspersed in the stalks of wheat, looking North across the page, but still left behind in the South. It is powerful, aching, and gives the poem a real sense of escape.
The book ends with a short bibliography for additional research if necessary. I think both author and illustrator have done exemplary work in this book, and I can only hope it’s recognized for its strengths. You feel the intensity of this migration from hopelessness to a hope-filled future. As Greenfield says, these families are “filling up the cities with/ their hopes and their courage./ And their dreams.”
The Great Migration: Journey to the North. Eloise Greenfield, illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist. Amistad: HarperCollins, 2011.