Every Atom | No. 82

Barbara Kerley

Introduction to Every Atom by project curator Brian Clements

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In early 2002, not long after the U.S. declared war against al-Qaeda and Taliban forces in Afghanistan, I asked my daughter if they ever talked about the war during school.


She was in 6th grade at the time.


She shrugged and said, “Not much.”


Then she added, “Kids scribble out Afghanistan in all the Social Studies book with their pencils.”


And, “Sometimes out on the playground, the boys say they hope the war is still going when they’re older, so they can kick some butt.”


For the prior six months, I’d been researching to write a children’s biography of Walt Whitman, focusing on his Civil War experience. My daughter’s comments stayed with me as I wrote and revised.


For three years, Walt was a volunteer in Washington, DC, making daily rounds in the Civil War hospitals to visit wounded and ill soldiers.


He kept a small notebook in his pocket to jot down each man’s name, where they were from, and a small gift he could bring on his next visit to cheer them.


David S. Giles—Company F 28 th New Jersey Volunteers – wants an apple

Janus Mafield—7 th Virginia Volunteers – 2 oranges

Henry D. Boardman – Company B 27 th Connecticut Volunteers – wants a rice pudding, not very sweet


He read newspapers to them, wrote letters home for them. Sometimes he just sat beside them, offering comfort through his quiet, steady presence.


Walt soon saw that his good cheer helped some patients even more than medicine—writing home to his family in New York, “…many of them have come to depend on seeing me, and having me sit by them a few minutes, as if for their lives.”


These visits took a deep emotional toll on Walt, but he also called this time “the greatest privilege and satisfaction” of his life.


During war, Walt found a way to bring healing and peace—simply giving himself.

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Barbara Kerley is the author of numerous books for children, including Walt Whitman: Words for America, a Sibert Honor book; Tigers & Tea with Toppy, an NPR Best Book of 2018; and Following Baxter, a Bank Street Best Children’s Book of 2019.


Cover art by J. D. Schraffenberger