Walt Whitman: Words for America

Written by: Barbara Kerley Illustrated by: Brian Selznick

Before Reading

Explore Illustrations

Encourage your child to take a moment and look through the illustrations in the story before beginning the read-through. Pay close attention to the two title pages. Ask your child, “Why do you think the author put the text backwards on the left page?”

Make Predictions

{Flip to Whitman talking to African Americans} What can you tell from these people’s facial expressions? What do you think Walt Whitman is going to write about in his journal? 

{Flip to the page with the portraits of soldiers} Who do you think these people are? What makes you think that?


Historical Figure

Briefly explain that the story is about Walt Whitman, an American poet, essayist and journalist who lived in the 1800s. Say, "We are going to read about his life and how he used his talent as a writer to honor his country when it was going through a difficult period.”

As You Read

Read Together

While your child may be able to read independently, it is still beneficial for you to read together and
alternate reading pages as you go. This enables you to discuss parts of the story that your child finds interesting or confusing as you go along. It also allows you to help your child discover the meanings of words that s/he may not be familiar with. 

Vocabulary Building

Help your child discover the meanings of words that s/he may not be familiar with. Let him/her discover the meaning of a word using the illustrations and words around it, as well as by determining if any parts of the word sound familiar.

Examples of new words in Walt Whitman: Words For America include:


Make Connections

There are some difficult topics discussed in this story including death and war, so help your child understand and relate to Walt Whitman. 

When Walt Whitman visits the wounded soldiers, say, "America was once divided into the North and the South. These two sides went to war and one of the reasons was because the North wanted to end slavery and the South didn't. Slavery is when people are owned by other people and have to work against their will. Walt Whitman knew that people were getting hurt and dying in the war and he wanted to help them so he went to visit injured soldiers.

Have you ever seen someone who was injured and wanted to help them? What happened? What did you do to help? How do you think Walt Whitman will help the soldiers?

This allows your child to relate to the character while also making predictions about the story. Ensure that this is just what s/he things and that it doesn't have to be right. 

After Reading

Summarize and Interpret

Ask questions like these to allow your child to think about the story as a whole:

Walt Whitman is passionate about writing. What are you passionate about? How do you work to get better at that?

What was Walt Whitman’s first job? What did he like to write about?

Why did he travel so much? What did he see on his travels?

Why did he visit soldiers in the hospitals?

Why do you think he was called “The Good Gray Poet”? What do you think he means by “Whoever you are now I place my hand upon you that you be my poem.”

How did Walt use his talent as a writer to speak for the American people?

If your child wants to learn more about Whitman, Lincoln, or what happened after the war, look in the back of the book for more information.

Activity: Write Your Own Poem


Walt Whitman wrote about everything from people that he met to the hardships that he saw. This allowed him to express his feelings and cope with the difficult things that he experienced. Encourage your child to write a poem about a topic that is important to him/her. Give him/her the freedom to write about anything and to think about a time when s/he was happy, sad, or excited. And seeing as Whitman was the “father of the free verse”, your child’s poem doesn’t have to rhyme. It can just be a short account of an event. Refer to Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” and how Whitman wrote that poem when he was sad about the death of Abraham Lincoln. You can also suggest that s/he carry a journal everywhere s/he goes, just like Walt Whitman did and write in it whenever s/he wants.