A Place Inside of Me: A Poem to Heal the Heart by Zetta Elliott, illustrated by Noa Denmon

2021 Caldecott Honor Book 

A Place Inside of Me: A Poem to Heal the Heart 
illustrated by Noa Denmon
Review Copy from Macmillan Kids

In a Meet-the-Author recording for TeachingBooks, Zetta Elliott shares the backstory for A Place Inside of Me: A Poem to Heal the Heart, which is about an African-American boy who experiences a range of emotions after a girl from his community is shot by the police. She dedicates her book to Zion, the nephew of Atatiana Jefferson, a Black woman in Dallas, Texas, who was shot inside her home while playing video games with Zion. Elliott dedicated her book to Zion because she felt that he, "really needs to know that it's okay to honor your emotions, and to feel angry, and sad, and scared sometimes, but also to know that when we turn to our family and our friends and our community, that's when we feel compassion, and hope, and we know that there are people who will help us. And then we'll heal."

With powerful, affirming language, Elliott shows her narrator talking about his emotions, locating them in a "space deep down inside of me / where all my feelings hide," while Denmon's fluid illustrations show him moving through his neighborhood, at first alone on a skateboard, then engaging with members of his community. At each stop, from the basketball courts where the narrator experiences joy, "a happiness deep down inside of me / that glows bright & warm as the sun / & shines delight on everything I see," to the barbershop where he feels sorrow, surrounded by those giving and getting haircuts, watch the news reporting the shooting of a girl, he is feeling, experiencing, understanding and being surrounded, and supported by his community, be they family and friends or the people from his wider community that he talks about in a school report. For this four page spread, the narrator feels pride, saying he knows, "how long and hard we have struggled / & against all odds my people have emerged / strong / triumphant / & beautiful." For these spreads, which Elliott shares are her favorite in the book, Denmon creates a collage of important people who have overcome the odds, from Hank Aaron, Malcolm X, Mae Jemison, Maya Angelou and Beyoncé, to name a few. A page turn, and the people important to the narrator continue, this time community members, children and adults, "triumphant & beautiful," arms resting on shoulders, reassuring smiles and kind eyes looking at readers. 

Peace, compassion, hope and love are the feelings Elliott and Denmon bring to the page as the book draws to a close. A classroom meditation where "a calm deep down inside of me / that flows through my soul like a tranquil stream / & hushes my whispering doubts," becomes friends on the front steps, one comforting the other, compassion touching on a "tenderness deep down," that wants to heal the wounds of the past, "& to forgive / in spite of the lingering pain." The penultimate page shows a candlelight vigil, flowers, teddy bears and Black Lives Matter posters. The narrator tells readers that "there is still hope inside of me / a promise deep down inside of me / that I will use my life to help others / & they will help me in return." Hope leads to love that "falls like a blessing from above," reminding the narrator to "love myself most of all."

Motivated by a event, one of the many acts of violence inflicted upon Black communities in America, Elliott's poem delivers affirmation and healing in language and images that will resonate with young readers. An important book, both a gift and a meaningful conversation starter about why Black Lives Matter.

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