Monday, April 28, 2008

Poetry in the Classroom - Who Was the Woman Who Wore the Hat?

While in middle school, I discovered war ration books in a box in our attic that belonged to my father's family. I also found pictures of fighter planes, my father alongside them, taken while he was stationed at Pearl Harbor during the later years of the war. Finding these bits of family history ignited a lifelong interest in WWII and particularly the Holocaust. I have a large collection of books on this subject, many of them children's books, though I don't use of any of them with students younger than middle-school age. One book I find particularly moving is actually a poetic meditation on a woman's hat once on display in a museum.
Who Was the Woman Who Wore the Hat?, written and illustrated by Nancy Patz, was the winner of the Association of Jewish Libraries Sydney Taylor Award in 2003. On a visit to the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, Nancy Patz saw a hat in a glass case. In the author's note she writes, "That's all there was--no label, no explanation, just a woman's hat on a stand. As I looked at it, I realized that this remnant, this quite ordinary hat, was all that remained of a woman's life."

After drawing the hat in her sketchbook, Patz drew a self-portrait of herself in the hat, and then wrote several poems. When she realized that the poems could become the text of a book, she focused on the illustrations. She crumpled her drawing papers, stained them with watercolor, and tore the edges. She taped copies of photographs to the sketches, which she later integrated into her pencil drawings. As a result of this work, readers find themselves faced with a mix of pencil drawings, watercolors, and photographs that bring this woman and the horrible reality of the time to life.

Here is an excerpt from the middle of the poem.
When did she buy it?
      I wonder.
And where did she wear it?
      Downtown, shopping with her
      Laughing with her little girl
      as they hurried along to Grandma's house?
      Happily walking home
      with her husband
      in the chill of evening?

I wonder
if she wore it
the day she left home the last time,
that cold, cold day in Amsterdam--
      that cold, cruel day in Amsterdam
      when the Jews were herded together
      and arrested in the Square.
The poem ends with an extensive author's note and a chronology of the Holocaust. This is a haunting poem that helps to put a human face on the atrocities of war.

Here are some additional resources for teaching this topic in the classroom.


  1. Tricia,

    I'd like to add one more book to your list. Maybe you already know this one, but I just recently discovered it. Yellow Star, written in verse, tells the story through the eyes of a young child who survived the war. It is based on the memories of the author's aunt, Sivia. The author's note and timeline add information about the war.

    I teach Anne Frank so your list of resources are great! A few new ones I can use next year. Thanks!

  2. Thanks, Linda. I do have this one on my shelf as well. I have been so focused on "short" selections and anthologies that I forgot about it. Thanks for the reminder.

  3. Tricia,
    What a wonderful resource. Thank you!