Monday, March 19, 2018

Thanhha Lai's _Inside Out and Back Again_

The Plot: Thanhha Lai's 2011 Inside Out and Back Again, a Newbery Honor book and winner of the National Book Award for Young People (along with Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming and Virginia Euwer Wolff's True Believer, one of only three verse novels to ever win the award), follows 10-year-old Hà during a period of one year in her life in which she flees Vietnam with her family after the fall of Saigon and then struggles to adjust to her new life in Alabama. As Lai explains in her author's note, "much of what happened to Hà... also happened to me" (261). Lai further notes that her goal in writing Inside Out and Back Again was to capture Hà's emotional life on the page, as well as use her own memories to provide insight into the beauties of Vietnam and the "challenges of starting over in a strange land" for first generation Vietnamese-American children (262). The narrative begins with the poem "1975: Year of the Cat" and describes how Hà's family celebrates the first day of the lunar calendar. Hà lives with her mother and three older brothers in Saigon; her father has been MIA for the past nine years. Early poems also focus on Hà's beloved papaya tree.

The Poetry: Lai's verse novel utilizes free verse, often with a short line, throughout her narrative. Because Hà is intently focused on learning a new language during a good portion of the narrative, several poems make use of sound (particularly the elongated S-sound). The poem "War and Peace" is an interesting example of Lai's use of ekphrasis and makes use of anaphora, imagery, and caesura to delve into her young protagonist's experience of her American teacher's belittling her culture. (This poem calls to mind a similar experience detailed in Marilyn Nelson's title poem in How I Discovered Poetry.) The poem begins, "MiSSS SScott / shows the class / photographs" and the four stanzas that follow go on to describe iconic images of the Vietnam War; most notably the second stanza describes Nick Ut's Pulitzer Prize winning "The Terror of War" depicting "a burned, naked girl / running, crying / down a dirt road" (194). The speaker of the poem goes on to lament this reductive description of where she is from that leaves out the things she loves most about her country.

The Page: Divided into four sections--"Saigon," "At Sea," "Alabama," and "From Now On"-- each poem ends with either a specific date or more general temporal designations such as "every day." The verse novel opens and closes with a poem on the lunar new year (1975 and 1976), emphasizing the tumultuous year in the protagonist's life and the hope she has for the future in her new home.

As a genealogical verse novel, Thanhha Lai's Inside Out and Back Again is an example of an award-winning work that explores the immigrant experience in a nuanced way that does not sugar-coat the harsh realities of racism faced by the young protagonist and her family. I give Inside Out and Back Again five stars.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Margarita Engle's _The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom_

The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom (2008) was the first verse novel by Margarita Engle that I encountered years ago. It is the first book in Engle's "loosely linked group of historical verse novels about the struggle against forced labor in nineteenth-century Cuba" (Lion Island, 160). The Surrender Tree was a 2009 Newbery Honor Book, only the third verse novel to be recognized by the Newbery committee after Marilyn Nelson's Carver: A Life in Poems (2002) and Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust (1998)Engle was the first Latinx author to receive a Newbery honor.

The Plot: In Engle's The Surrender Tree, poems alternate among the voices of five primary characters to tell a story based upon historical events as well as Engle's own great-grandparents' experiences during Cuba's fight for independence. It take place between 1850 and 1899, during which time three different wars rage in Cuba. The narrative follows Rosa, a healer and nurse; Lieutenant Death, a slavehunter; Jose, Rosa's husband; Weyler, a captain-general of Spain who instituted concentration camps in Cuba to control the rural civilian population; and Silvia, an eleven year old girl from a small farm who comes to learn from Rosa after her family starves in the concentration camps.

The Poetry: The most striking poems in this collection are told in the voices of Rosa and Silvia and meditate upon the natural world as a healing balm for war and sorrow. For instance, in an early poem, Rosa describes the burning city of Bayamo:

I watch the flames, feel the heat,
inhale the scent of torched sugar
and scorched coffee....
I listen to voices,
burning a song in the smoky sky. (28)
Imagery, language, and metaphor are at work in this poem to evoke the sense of beauty and danger brought on by the violence of war. The internal and slant rhymes in the first three lines ("watch," "torched," "scorched") emphasize the crackling sound of the flames, while the image of "voices, / burning a song" links the lives of the people to the fire that engulfs the city. Later in the verse novel, the poems told from Silvia's view point evoke the same lyricism and imagery. In one poem, the speaker describes how the driver of an oxcart helps her steal away from the concentration camp: "He points to a hole int he fence, / puts his finger to his lips, / then draws a map in the sky--" (103). Again, the sky figures heavily into the narrative, and silence lingers at the end of each line of poetry.

The Page: Engle's verse novel is divided into five parts: "The Names of Flowers, 1850-51," "The Ten Years' War, 1868-78," "The Little War, 1878-80," "The War of Independence, 1895-98," and "The Surrender Tree, 1898-99." The novel begins with a dedication and explanation of the historical roots for the narrative, as well as a quote from a poem by Jose Marti. It concludes with an author's note, a historical note, a chronology, selected references, and acknowledgements.

I give The Surrender Tree four stars.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Margarita Engle's _Hurricane Dancers: The First Caribbean Pirate Shipwreck_

The Plot: In Hurricane Dancers: The First Caribbean Pirate Shipwreck (2011), a 2012 Pura Belpre Honor Book, Margarita Engle tells a story alternating five characters' perspectives: Quebrado, a young slave of Taino Indian and Spanish ancestry; Bernardino de Talavera, a real-life conquistador who became the first pirate of the Caribbean Sea in the 1500s when he stole a boat to avoid debtors' prison; Alonso de Ojeda, a brutal European slave trader and conquistador who was taken prisoner by Talavera; and two young islanders who are secretly in love -- Caucubu, the daughter of a Ciboney chieftain, and Narido, a fisherman. Engle invented the character Quebrado, but the remaining characters are all historical figures-- two European and two Cuban. Engle reveals in her author's note that she "became fascinated by the first Caribbean pirate shipwreck while researching [her] own family history" as one of her ancestors "was a Cuban pirate who used his treasure to buy the cattle each where many generations of [her] mother's family were born" (135). She notes further that she became the subject of the Cuban DNA project and discovered that she carries a genetic marker verifying tens of thousands of years of maternal Ameindian ancestry; Engle is "a descendant of countless generations of women like Caucubu. Indigenous Cubans do survive in body, as well as spirit" (135).

The Poetry: The majority of Hurricane Dancers meditates upon the enslaved life of Quebrado, who is referred to as "broken boy," "spirit-boy," "storm-boy," and "born-of-wind friend" by various characters throughout the narrative. While the experiences of the other characters in the narrative are interesting, the poems told from Quebrado's perspective are the most lyrical and lively on the page. For instance, the first poem in the collection "Quebrado," begins:
I listen
to the song
of creaking planks,
the roll and sway
of clouds in sky,
wild music
and thunder,
the groans
of wood,
a mourning moan (3).
The poem ends as the speaker links the old ship's sounds with the materials used to create it, explaining that the sounds echo the ship's memory of "her true self / her tree self / ... alive" (3). Poems like this one, steeped in metaphor reflecting the natural world and ringing with sound and rhythm, are characteristic of those told from the point of view of Quebrado.

The Page: Hurricane Dancers is divided into six parts: "Wild Sea," "Brave Earth," "Hidden," "The Sphere Court," "The Sky Horse," and "Far Light." Engle begins her verse novel with a quote uttered by Caliban in William Shakespeare's The Tempest and a description of Talavera from Bartolome de las Casas's History de las Indias; a note on her historical setting; and a list and description of the cast of characters. The verse novel ends with an author's note; a historical note detailing her narrative's connection to historical characters and events, culture and language, and literature; and a list of references.

I found Hurricane Dancers to be extremely engaging, and I thoroughly enjoyed Engle's characteristic use of free verse, lyricism, and imagery within her historical narrative. I give Hurricane Dancers four stars and highly recommend it.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Margarita Engle's _The Wild Book_

The Plot: The Wild Book (2012) by Margarita Engle is verse novel inspired by the stories and experiences Engle's maternal grandmother told her about her childhood growing up in Cuba in the early 1900s. As she explains in her author's note, the verse novel follows Fefa (Josefa de la Caridad Uria Pena) who lives on a small farm in the countryside during a time of "chaos following Cuba's war for independence from Spain and the subsequent US occupation of the island. It was a time of lawlessness, when bandits terrorized the countryside, kidnapping children unless their families agreed to deliver ransom money" (123). From the first poem in the collection, readers learn that Fefa has "word-blindness" (3)-- "a medical term used in the early twentieth century for what we now call dyslexia" (125). The narrative focuses on Fefa's struggle with dyslexia and learning to read and write through poetic exploration, as well as Fefa's encounter with Fausto, her family's old farm manager, who writes a sloppy "ugly" poem in her honor (42); Fefa is mortified by Fausto's attention.

The Poetry: Like many other of Engle's verse novels, The Wild Book employs free verse, lyricism, and imagery to tell the story of a young girl's experiences. The Wild Book in many ways shows a young girl developing a love for reading poetry and writing in her own wild book, which her mother gives to her upon her diagnosis with word-blindness: "Think of this little book / as a garden, / Mama suggests" (5-6). Her mother advises her to view her writing as a path to maturation and self-acceptance:
Throw wildflower seeds
all over each page, she advises.
Let the words sprout
like seedlings,
then relax and watch
as your wild diary
grows. (6) 
And eventually, a love of language emerges within Fefa. She exclaims later in the collection in a poem entitled "Fly to the Truth of Dreams" that she "love[s] the way poetry / turns ordinary words / into winged things" (68). In addition to the imagery and lyricism Engle relies upon, she also utilizes repetition and the space on the page to emphasize the ways in which Fefa's struggle with dyslexia manifests itself, as well as how she begins to find ways to allow herself to experience more comfort and pleasure in language.

The Page: Engle's verse novel begins with a dedication "for young readers who dread reading and for those who love blank books" which answers one of the chargers that the verse novel form is ideal for reluctant readers. This dedication is followed by a quote in Spanish with a translation from the poet Ruben Dario, who is referred to throughout the narrative as the Fefa's mother's favorite poet. The quote reads: "In the hour of daydreams my eyes watched / the blank page // And there came a parade of dreams and shadows" (from "La Pagina Blanca" or "The Blank Page"). This epigraph complicates Engle's dedication in that it demonstrates the complexity and intertextual, cross-cultural references made throughout the collection. The book ends with an author's note that includes a family photograph of Fefa from 1914 and an acknowledgements section.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Wild Book; I give it four stars and highly recommend it.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Margarita Engle's _The Firefly Letters_

On May 11, 2017 Margarita Engle was named the Young People's Poet Laureate by the Poetry Foundation. Engle follows Jacqueline Woodson, who was the previous honoree in 2015. As I've noted in previous reviews of Engle's work on this blog, Engle is a prolific verse novelist; she has published eleven verse novels to date (four of which I have reviewed here)-- one every year since 2008. Over the next year, as part of this blog's focus on the geneology of the verse novel, I will review the remaining six verse novels written by Engle, which date back to 2006.

The Plot: Engle's 2010 verse novel The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette's Journey to Cuba is the second book in her "loosely linked group of historical verse novels about the struggle against forced labor in nineteenth-century Cuba" (Lion Island, 160). Winner of a Pura Belpré Honor for narrative, The Firefly Letters is a polyvocal verse novel that tells the story of real-life historical figure Fredrika Bremer (1801-65) who traveled to Cuba in 1951 for three months and interacted with a fifteen-year-old African-born enslaved translator named Celia. Engle's narrative follows these two women and her invented twelve-year-old character Elena. Bremer, as Engle explains in her historical note, was Sweden's first female novelist and one of the world's earliest advocates of equal rights for women (146). The Firefly Letters combines the voices of Fredrika, Celia, and Elena to explore the struggles facing women from different backgrounds, of different ages, and of different races toward equality.

The Poetry: While I found Engle's verse novel rich in terms of narrative, The Firefly Letters lacked some of the more arresting lyricism and imagery evident in many of Engle's more recent verse novels. The elements of poetic form that The Firefly Letters employs include the use of free verse and the space on the page, the blending of voices (each poem is titled by the character speaking's name), and the occasional bit of imagery or use of metaphor. One such passage appears in the poem told from Elena's point of view where she describes the folds in cloth as stirring "in the sea breeze, / moving with a sigh / like wings" (139). In this poem, Elena is meditating upon a secret plan she has to help better Celia's life that involves her smuggling expensive fabrics from her house. The "e" sounds in the first quoted line enact the "sigh" mentioned in the second line, while the final line that describes the movement of cloth as that of wings alludes to a possible freedom or movement toward hope.

The Page: Within the 144 pages of the verse novel, poems alternate between the three characters' points of view. The narrative is book-ended with a quote from a letter from Bremer to the Queen of Denmark describing her visit to Cuba and a historical note, an author's note, acknowledgements, and references. Engle cites Bremer's New Sketches of Every-Day Life (1850) as comprising the "most complete known record of rural daily life on the island [of Cuba] at that time" (146).

I give Engle's The Firefly Letters four stars. Look forward to my reviews of Engle's verse novels from published between 2006 and 2012, as well as her newest 2017 verse novel in the coming months.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Pamela L. Laskin's _Ronit and Jamil_

The Plot: Pamela L. Laskin's Ronit and Jamil (2017) is a contemporary retelling of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet set in the Middle East. The protagonists, Ronit (an Israeli girl) and Jamil (a Palestinian boy), are teenagers living in the present-day on either side of the barrier fence that divides Israel and Gaza. Ronit and Jamil first meet when they go to work with their fathers. Ronit's father is a pharmacist and Jamil's father is a doctor; the two men know and respect each other. Once Jamil and Ronit fall desperately in love, though, their families do not support them and become hostile toward each other. The verse novel is told primarily from the alternating viewpoints of the titular characters, but also includes the voices of their fathers in act IV. As Laskin notes in her afterword, the voices of the two teenagers sound very similar and that was a conscious decision on her part (180). Although this technique makes it difficult to tell who is who at the beginning of the narrative, it allows the reader to not quite become fully immersed in the story.

The Poetry: Although the majority of the poems in the collection are told in free verse, with a mirrored version of the poem spoken by the opposite character, Laskin also employs a variety of other poetic forms throughout Ronit and Jamil including a series of ghazals (a Middle-Eastern lyric poem with a fixed number of verses and repeated rhyme, typically on the theme of love and often set to music) and a crown of sonnets (a series of multiple 14-line poems, where each new sonnet begins with the last line of the previous sonnet). Laskin utilizes lyricism, rhyme, repetition, and imagery in order to convey the sense of longing shared by Ronit and Jamil. For example in the ghazals that appear together in one spread, "Built of Bones: Jamil's Ghazal" and "Water: Ronit's Ghazal," the speakers of the poems meditate on embodiment and their connection:
There is nothing but the body
built of bones,

when I find myself beside you
I rise like bones;

from the dead and my desire
it grows like bones. (124)
In Ronit's counterpoint, she laments, "my body withers in brutal summer / so what I need is water" and "if your body's mine / I'll need no water" (125). Additionally, multiple poems reference lines from Romeo and Juliet, as well as work by other poet such as Mahmoud Darwish.

The Page: Ronit and Jamil is divided into five acts: "Naming Things," "Complications" (which includes the series of ghazals), "Dreaming an Escape: Overlapping Voices," "A Father's Lament" (which is made up of a crown of sonnets), and "Onward." The verse novel is also bookended by an introduction, reader's note, and epigraph, as well as an afterword and acknowledgement section. I found Ronit and Jamil to be an interesting and lively read. I give it four stars.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Skila Brown's _Slickety Quick: Poems About Sharks_

The Plot: Slickety Quick: Poems About Sharks written by Skila Brown and illustrated by Bob Kolar is a picture book that contains 14 spreads, each dedicated to a poem and informational blurb about a different shark. Brown's picture book is not a verse narrative, as it doesn't contain any sort of plot; instead the thread that links each poem is simply the fact that they all address sharks. It may fall into the informational books category (because of its inclusion of informational blurbs), but it does not include a bibliography of sources or peritextual matter that would lead to further resources.

The Poetry: Slickety Quick includes 14 short poems that employ a variety of poetic techniques and forms. In terms of poetic devices, Brown uses rhyme and repetition pretty consistently throughout the collection. The form that Slickety Quick uses most frequently is the concrete poem; for example, the poems, "Great White Shark," "Frilled Shark," "Cookie-Cutter Shark," "Nurse Shark," "Megamouth Shark," and "Whale Shark" all use the space on the page and the visual arrangement of the words of the poem to evoke the shape of a sharks body or mouth. The poem "Hammerhead Shark (a poem for two voices" is a contrapuntal poem, as its title suggests.

The Page: Kolar uses an interesting illustration style: each spread includes an image of the shark described, as well as a background made up of layers of monochromatic shapes depicting the ocean floor and landscape. This technique gives the reader a blurred effect and a feeling of viewing each illustration through goggles or a swim mask.

I found Slickety Quick an interesting approach, but none of the poems really stuck with me. I also found the informational blurbs to be a missed opportunity to expand the purview of the picture book as an information/educative text. I give it three stars.