Something Permanent. 1994. Photographs by Walker Evans. Poetry by Cynthia Rylant. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company.

  • ALA Best Book for Young Adults
  • ALA Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Readers
  • Booklist Editors’ Choice
  • New York Library Book for the Teen Age

Ages: Middle school and up


 In the 1930s, photographer Walker Evans traveled the country, using his skills in photography to document the Great Depression for the Farm Security Administration under Franklin D. Roosevelt. Evans had a knack for driving to the heart and soul of American life, love, and suffering, seeming to capture the very image–a child’s grave, the face of a mule, newspapers pasted on a wall, a single pair of worn boots, tableware dangling from a rack–that could help us imagine life in that most difficult of hard times. Many of his photographs have, understandably, become famous. You can return to them again and again, seeing more each time. The stark black and white, the simplicity, belies the complexity of the stories they tell. Someone, after all, buried the child, drove the mule through dusty fields, wore the boots, ate from the tarnished forks and spoons. Enter writer Cynthia Rylant, who uses her insight and imagination to “interpret” the photographs through poetry, making each image as vivid and real as if it came right out of a personal family album. Rylant’s poetry is a haunting free verse that captures the voices of the time. Each poem reflects a personal perspective, revealing the achingly real blend of despair and hope that marks the period. You can readily skim through and pick out favorites to read first, but you’ll be back to visit every one–the “stories of ordinary people . . . living in the extraordinary time of the Great Depression” (book jacket).

In the Classroom

1. Create some background by talking about the Great Depression. What was it? When did it occur? How did it affect the people living during the time–and how was it connected to the related phenomenon known as the Dust Bowl?

2. Do any of your students have great grandparents or other relatives who lived through the 1930s in the U.S.? Have they heard stories about the Great Depression–or seen films that depicted life during this time? What images live in their minds connected to this period?

3. Before sharing the book, introduce the photographer and the poet. Who among your students has heard of either? Likely, some students will be familiar with Cynthia Rylant from earlier reading (The Scarecrow, The Relatives Came, Appalachia: The Voices of Sleeping Birds, Missing May and many others).  They may or may not know the work of Walker Evans, so let them know that he was a professional photographer commissioned by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s to travel the country, capturing the impact of the Great Depression upon American life. Take a few minutes to talk about this. If someone were commissioned to embark on a similar photographic journey right now, what might he or she photograph?

4. Share the photos and poems from the book. You might share just a handful–or more. Use a document camera if you have one available so you can zero in on some of the tiny details within many of the photos. Talk about the “voice” relayed by the stark black and white imagery. You may wish to discuss what each photo reveals about the life of the time first–then share the poem that accompanies that photo. In some cases, the poem may echo your students’ very thoughts– in other cases, Rylant’s interpretation may come as a startling surprise. On the inside panel of the book jacket, Rylant’s voice is described as “reverent and clear, celebrating the stark beauty of lives lived in extreme circumstances.” Do your writers agree with this description? On what basis?

5. Also consider having students read some of the poems aloud. You can project the photograph as the student reads. Having multiple voices perform the poems can create the sense of a documentary.

6. You may also wish to talk about the nature of this “collaboration.” After all, photographer Walker Evans was born (in St. Louis) in 1903 and died in 1975. Cynthia Rylant is a contemporary writer. In other words, they did not set out to work together. Rylant is responding to photos taken in another time. Do you think it was helpful to Rylant as a writer to come on the scene years after the photos were first published–or did this make her task harder? How might it have been if she had worked side by side with Evans?

7. Create photo-poetry collections of your own. You might begin by collecting photos that represent life in a given period. Students could work as a class or writing circles (or individuals) might choose their own subjects for this. For each photo (or small collage of photos), create a piece of writing. (Hint: Vintage post cards, available in many bookstores, make an excellent source for this.) Their writing might take the form of free verse (like Rylant’s), paragraphs, journal entries, letters, news articles–or any form writers choose. Groups who collaborate may decide to write in multiple genres. Consider downloading the photos and presenting them as a slideshow.

8. As an alternative to 7, consider taking your own photos to represent life in our time. Have students think carefully about what images would be most representative. What people-free images can capture the essence of life as we know it? Have students assemble a proposal of what they plan to photograph, and submit it to you prior to completing the actual project. (Note: Publicly shared photos of people require permission from the subjects being photographed, so remind students to be cautious and courteous about this.)

9. Many people have compared life in the present time (because of the current economic recession) to life during the Great Depression–if only in terms of economic hardship. Based on what they know, what similarities and differences do your students see? Write some short comparison pieces about this.

10. Imagine the photos from this book on display as an art exhibit (which, of course, many have been). What would be the summary impression a visitor would take away from such an exhibit? Have students write a brief review from the perspective of an art critic, historian, or everyday visitor touring the gallery.

Note: Consider sharing this book in conjunction with Albert Marrin’s Years of Dust (2009, Penguin), reviewed earlier.