Emma’s Poem: The Voice of Liberty
By Linda Glaser
Illustrated by Claire A. Nivola
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010, Paperback Edition 2013, Boston, $6.99)
“Give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” proclaims “The New Colossus,” a poem written to raise money for the construction of the State of Liberty in 1883. Poet Emma Lazarus was not among the huddled masses; she grew up in a wealthy New York family. However, she felt great sympathy for the immigrants pouring into the city in the late nineteenth century, many of whom had escaped oppression in Europe and hoped for a better life in the United States.
In Emma’s Poem, Linda Glaser and Claire A. Nivola tell the story of Lazarus, her poem, and the Statue herself. In simple, straightforward prose, Glaser contrasts the writer’s comfortable life with that of many immigrants and describes Lazarus’s efforts to illuminate their plight. She does not shy away from the ugliness that led many to immigrate, matter-of-factly describing the anti-Semitism and persecution Jews faced in Eastern Europe. Fittingly, Glaser concludes the narrative with the poem’s most famous lines, allowing Lazarus to address the reader – and presumably, new Americans – through the Statue. Nivola’s watercolors capture both the warm elegance of the poet’s life and the immigrants’ desperation. In one spread, two families pass each other on the sidewalk outside the Lazarus’s family home; one is affluent, the other destitute, and, in an upstairs window, the poet, with her foot in two worlds, writes at her desk. Particularly striking are Nivola’s dignified paintings of the new immigrants. In one illustration, people of different ages wait on a dock. Some walk, others hold their children very close, and one man reads. A woman, who may be sleeping, wears an eye-catching beige shawl with tan stripes and black dots. These people may be impoverished, anxious, and exhausted, but they are individuals with distinct faces.
Emma’s Poem does more than celebrate Lazarus’s life, her poem, the Statue of Liberty, or even America’s history of welcoming the oppressed. The picture-book biography encourages young readers, like Lazarus herself, to use their talents and privileges to help others.
-Dorothy A. Dahm