Cover of My Uncle Emily by Jane Yolen

My Uncle Emily

Illustrated by Nancy Carpenter
Philomel 2009
ISBN# 0399240055

I have loved Emily Dickinson’s poetry (and her life story) for as long as I can remember. My husband and I moved to the Connecticut River Valley near Amherst where Dickinson had lived all her life, first to Conway in the mid ’60s where we our first two children were born, and later on to Hatfield where the (now three) children grew up. Meanwhile, the Emily Dickinson house, and later Dickinson’s brother’s house next door, were refurbished and open for viewing and research, etc. I always knew there was at least one or more picture books to be written about her, but it wasn’t until well after the turn of the century (20th into 21st) that I began this book. A friend–a Dickinson scholar–had put me onto the story of Gib and the bee,. It seemed perfect for what I wanted to tell. To my great delight, I got to preview and read the book at the Dickinson house, though I did wonder what the ghost of Emily would think about it! My granddaughter Maddison got to dance in the Amherst Ballet’s production of an Emily Dickinson ballet and Maddison got to dance the poem (my favorite, and important to this book) “Tell all the Truth/but tell it slant…”


  • Both Come to the Fairie’s Ball and My Uncle Emily were chosen for the year’s best books by the Bank Street College of Education, saying: ” Come to the Fairies’ Ball: A joyful rhyming story tells of a fairies’ ball. Amusing, imaginative illustrations. My Uncle Emily: This moving picture book with expressive period-style illustrations explores the relationship between Emily Dickinson and her nephew, Gib. Biographical information.”
  • A Jr. Library Guild Selection

What reviewers have said:

  • “Yolen is a master of word craft and the story is beautifully told in short, rhythmic lines that read like free verse.. . . Carpenter’s watercolor and ink illustrations are full of light and done with crosshatching that suggests the printing technique found in late-19th-century children’s books. The effect helps place the story in a historical setting.” –*starred review School Library Journal“Caldecott Medalist Yolen (Owl Moon) turns her attention to the poet Emily Dickinson and her young nephew, Thomas Gilbert (“Gib”), expanding on some real-life interactions between them to explore the role of poetry in human life. Gib feels obliged to defend his reclusive aunt’s honor when a classmate makes fun of her, then can’t bring himself to tell his family about the fight. Uncle Emily (their private nickname for her) can tell he’s holding back and gives him a poem that explains how he can preserve his integrity-once he understands her poetic language. ” ‘Tell all the Truth,’ it began, ‘but tell it slant-/ Success in Circuit lies.’ ” Carpenter’s crisp tableaus evoke the period with restraint: adults poised with teacups, girls in lace collars, boys in short pants. In one striking image, Gib kneels by his bed, studying a dead bee and a poem his aunt has written about it, “as if she wants me to see the world/ one small bee/ and one small poem/ at a time”-a description that might also apply to Yolen.”—Publisher’s Weekly* starred review
  • “Gib’s first-person voice, Yolen artfully incorporates elements from Dickinson’s poetry and life to give readers an inside look at the enigmatic poet from her nephew’s fresh and loving perspective. Carpenter’s nostalgic, pastel-hued pen, ink and digital-media illustrations capture the atmosphere of late-19th-century Amherst as well as Gil’s special relationship with his famous aunt in this poetic vignette.”–Kirkus
  • “This picture book in free verse centers around Emily Dickinson’s famous poem, “Tell all the Truth, but tell it slant.” Yolen bases her story on true events in the life of the reclusive poet, who doted on her nephews next door in Amherst, Massachusetts, and joked that they should call her “Uncle.” Gilbert, six, describes how Uncle Emily gives him a dead bee and a poem to take to his teacher. After the teacher reads the poem to the class, no one understands it, and in the schoolyard, Gil fights a bully for calling Uncle a name. At home, the wounded Gil doesn’t fully explain why he is limping, but Uncle Emily helps him find a way to tell the tale, “so it comes around to the truth at last.” Carpenter’s clear, digitally touched pen-and-ink pictures show the classroom and playground drama, and then the warm, close family, all in period detail. After listening to the story, kids may want to hear the poem, printed in full at the back, and to talk about what it means.”—BookList
  • “. . . the book’s greatest charm may be the way its outcome arises from Emily’s oblique yet penetrating wisdom, the loving family dynamics and pacific defusing of the contretemps with the bully add still more appeal.”—Horn Book
  • “Yolen has based her narrator on Gib, the real six-year-old nephew of poet Emily Dickinson, whom he calls his Uncle Emily. She gives him a poem for his teacher, and he gives her a flower, as they enjoy time together. He puzzles over the poem, which he hesitates to take to his teacher. In class, the other students do not understand it. He is punished because he has a fight when Jonathan makes fun of his aunt. His family is told about it and is sympathetic, but he does not want to hurt his Uncle Emily by repeating what Jonathan said. She wants him to, “Tell all the Truth, but tell it slant—” as in a poem she shows him, and so he does, “with a certain care,” which makes her smile. Full-page scenes evoke the architecture, clothing, and carriages of late 19th century New England. Carpenter uses an active black pen and ink line plus digital colors like watercolors to create appealing characters, adding a human quality to the famous poet. A note adds what is true about the story, including the complete text of the poem, which has what may be a difficult lesson in it.”—Children’s Literature
  • “This picture book should be included in reader’s advisories for anyone studying Emily Dickinson; it provides warm insight that is not often depicted. It’s also a terrific example of Yolen’s immense gift for weaving wonderfully rhythmic stories in verse that carry the reader into another world. Leave it to Jane Yolen to craft the perfect book about my favorite poet.”—KidsReads
  • I love My Uncle Emily! The illustrations are reminiscent of turn of the century children’s literature in color, tone, and texture, and much to the overall charm of the book. The writing is easy and unhurried, as if inviting a reader to sit back and relax while reading this tale of family and loyalty, right and wrong, truth and untruth. . .It’s a beautiful tale of a boy struggling with big issues, and how the love of his family brings him along to a good place. Timeless and well-done.”– Just a Kid at Heart Children’s Book Review blog
  • “I became a fan of Emily Dickinson’s poetry a very long time ago and she is firmly established in the firmament of great American poets. Her fame came after her death when her poems were published. Her inner life was incandescent. She is the subject of a truly wonderful children’s story, My Uncle Emily . . .is told from the perspective of her nephew and centers around an incident that ultimately leads to one of Dickinson’s actual poems about the way to tell the truth. Younger readers from around age 7 to 12 would enjoy this delightful, touching, and inspiring story.”—BookViews, Prescott, AZ
  • “The spirit of poetry past comes shining through in My Uncle Emily, a 2009 release from Jane Yolen. We can always depend on Ms. Yolen to deliver a wonderfully crafted story. This one is stellar in its use of lyrical prose to capture the tone of Emily Dickinson’s poetry and time period. . .was especially enthalled by Ms. Carpenter’s use of negative space which frames the illustrations and focuses the reader’s attention to particular details. Her lovely muted palette, the patterning and texture, and her gestural line capture the costume, light and formality of the period.”–Creative Chaos II