“The Undefeated” – Book Review

The Undefeated. By Kwame Alexander; Illustrated by Kadir Nelson. 2019. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

We may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated. It may even be necessary to encounter the defeat, so that we can know who we are. So that we can see, oh, that happened, and I rose. I did get knocked down flat in front of the whole world, and I rose. – Maya Angelou

Photo of Don Owen reading The Undefeated.

The Undefeated (2019), is a powerful poem that samples words, ideas, and imagery from across American History. The poem is inspiring and lyrical, powerful and profound. It relates a history that has been ignored, forgotten, or diminished in the curriculum of American schools. The history of people, ideas, and movements that have shaped and continue to shape this country. This is an outstanding book to generate questions, because the featured historical figures are not described or discussed directly in the poem, but rather presented in the powerful artwork of Kadir Nelson. Dozens of people, from Phillis Wheatley to Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland are featured heroes who represent the fighters and martyrs of justice in this country. At the back of the book, there are very short bios/explanations for the people and events featured in the illustrations and poem; however, each bio only sets the stage for more investigation.

Kadir Nelson’s artwork is as powerful and direct as Alexander’s poem. His paintings and drawings are recognizable to anyone who is a fan of Caldecott Medal books. The images in The Undefeated, demonstrate the strength of heroic images of individuals with the symbolism of monarch butterflies and great white egrets (both symbols of perseverance, strength, and rebirth) flying across the pages, barely noticeable, while at the same time, carrying the poem forward on their wings.

As, Kwame Alexander, writes in his Afterword, this book transcends the stories represented by the people in the book, but it serves as a reminder “to never give up. An outstanding picture book for readers of all ages.