I Lay My Stitches Down: Poems of American Slavery – Cynthia Grady and Michele Wood

I Lay My Stitches Down: Poems of American Slavery by Cynthia Grady, Michele Wood
Published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers on August 8, 2023
Genres: Children's, Children's Educational
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This rich and intricate collection of poems chronicles the various experiences of American slaves. Drawn together through imagery drawn from quilting and fiber arts, each poem is spoken from a different perspective: a house slave, a mother losing her daughter to the auction block, a blacksmith, a slave fleeing on the Underground Railroad. This moving and eloquent set of poems, brought to life by vivid and colorful artwork from Michele Wood, offers a timeless witness to the hardship endured by America?'s slaves. Each poem is supplemented by a historical note.

I Lay My Stitches Down: Poems of American Slavery is a unique amalgamation of poetry, history, quilting, and spirituality. In the book’s preface, author Cynthia Grady explains her process: “The poems are written in blank verse, ten lines each with ten syllables of unrhymed iambic pentameter, to mimic the square shape of a quilt block. To reflect the three layers of a quilt, I’ve engaged three references in each poem: a biblical or spiritual reference, a musical reference, and a sewing or fiber arts reference in addition to the imagery the poem calls for.” After each poem is a paragraph of historical exposition related to the theme of the poem, which is then followed by an illustration done by Michele Wood.

The poetry is fine. It’s technically precise. Because Grady explains her process and keeps to the same format throughout the book, I Lay My Stitches Down is an excellent educational tool for teaching kids about analyzing and writing poetry. The author has said that there are three references in each poem: 1) biblical reference, 2) musical reference, and 3) quilting reference. Go forth and find them. It offers students a template for writing their own poetry. It enables students to talk about the role of poetry in preserving and memorializing history. And I think those elements, probably more so than the actual content of the poetry, is what has led this book to have won so many awards.

Michele Wood’s illustrations evoke a quilted background with figures that seemed reminiscent to me of religious iconography. Again, the clear themes and symbolism are excellent tools to teach students how to analyze and interpret art. The expositional paragraphs are informative, reading very much like a placard in a museum or something of that nature. They don’t reference the poem or the art directly, but instead succinctly discuss the themes of the art. While no references are included in-text, I Lay My Stitches Down ends with a one-page bibliography for further reading.

One concern that I had about I Lay My Stitches Down—one that I could not find in any other reviews or critiques of the book—is that the author does not appear to have African ancestry. Grady writes that she began writing the poems when preparing to teach a quilting class: “As I worked, the first three poems, all concerning slavery, came as a gift, all at once.” She continues writing about how this inspired her to research American slavery and quilt history—particularly the legend that enslaved people used quilts to escape to freedom. I have some difficulty with a white woman writing poems about the enslaved Black experience in the voice of those who were enslaved. We’ve got a lot of excellent Black poets whose poetry is based real, generational and culture experience. It seems rather appropriative to me to have another white person step into that role. Obviously, not everyone thinks this way. The illustrator, Michele Wood, is Black and had not problem with it. No other review I’ve seen has mentioned this in any way. But I think it’s something worth discussion. Just as the poetry and illustrations can be used for educational and discussion purposes, I think this element of the book could spark any number of excellent discussions as well.