Jump Back Paul; The Life and Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar by Sally Derby Reviewed by Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge

Jump Back Paul Book CoverJump Back, Paul; The Life and Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar by Sally Derby; illustrated by Sean Qualls; Candlewick Press, 2015.  128 pages;  $16.99 (hardcover); reading level: grades 5-9.

From the first sentence of this concise, lyrical biography a grandmotherly narrator takes the reader firmly by the hand:  “You never heard of the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar?  Child, where’ve you been?  I got to have a word with you.”  The “word” flows into the spellbinding story of a black poet, born in Dayton, Ohio in 1872, the son of two former slaves.  He impressed his teachers and his all-white classmates by getting two poems published at the age of 16 only to hit the color wall upon high school graduation:  the same newspaper that had accepted his poems refused to hire a negro.  So the talented Paul Laurence Dunbar took a job that was open to a colored man of his day:  he became an elevator operator.  “I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,” he later wrote in one of his poems.  Those two pieces of himself – the singing piece and the caged piece – battled inside him throughout his brief 33-year life.  Teachers will find a historical goldmine here – from the post-Civil-War shadow of slavery to the shame of Jim Crow to the various ways blacks have found, through the years, of living and speaking their blackness in a hostile world.  Dunbar’s poems, some in dialect, some in formal English, are perfectly placed throughout the story to illuminate and be illuminated by the events of his life.  They beg to be “performed,” read aloud at full throat for their sheer sound and sadness and celebration.  Folksy acrylic and pencil illustrations are icing on the cake.  This is nonfiction storytelling at its very best.  Any reader who follows Derby’s “grandmother” through Dunbar’s life and poems will be richer for the journey.

Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge, Author

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