Saturday, December 31, 2016

VNR's Fav. Five of 2016

Happy end of 2016! This year I reviewed 45 verse novels published in the past four years; I would categorize nineteen of the verse novels I reviewed this year as excellent (four and five stars). To celebrate the end of the year, I have chosen my five favorite verse novels that were published in 2016. Each of the verse novels below skillfully combine poetic form and technique with a compelling narrative and add something new to the body of poetry for young readers. You can find my original reviews of each verse novel linked below. Looking forward to a new year filled with even more fantastic verse novels for young readers!

Kwame Alexander's Booked

Jeannine Atkins's Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science

Margarita Engle's Lion Island: Cuba's Warrior of Words

Nikki Grimes's Garvey's Choice

Marilyn Nelson's American Ace

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Ann E. Burg's _Unbound: A Novel in Verse_

The Plot: Ann E. Burg's 2016 Unbound: A Novel in Verse follows nine-year-old Grace, a light-skinned enslaved girl, as she moves from her mother's cabin to the "Big House" where she will work in the kitchen. Within the first pages of the narrative, Grace's mother appeals to her: "Promise you'll keep / your eyes down," "Promise you'll keep / your mouth closed," and "Promise you won't / talk back" (4). Similarly, Grace's Aunt Sara echoes her mother's warning: "Grace, stay out of trouble" (23). Aunt Tempie takes Grace under her wing, and begins to teach her how to cook, clean, and work in the kitchen. Almost immediately upon entering the Big House, Grace begins to break her promises to her family by questioning and speaking out against the various injustices that occur at the hands of the Missus. Grace meets other house slaves, including Jordon (a server who Aunt Tempie refers to as "a runner" who never smiles and has a wife and daughter that he will never see again) and Anna (a young girl who is the Missus's personal slave and who receives some of the worst treatment). Because Grace has such a hard time following her mother and Aunt Sara's warnings, the Missus begins to punish her. One night Grace overhears the Missus and Master Allen planning to sell her mother and two younger brothers at auction to teach her a lesson. Grace decides to take action and implores her family to flee. The rest of the narrative tells the story of Grace's family and their escape to the Great Dismal Swamp.

The Poetry: Burg's novel in verse is told primarily in short lines of lyric, free verse. Throughout the verse novel, Burg makes use of a dialect that drops Gs and uses "what" in place of "that," and while she does note in the end pages of her novel that she used research from "narratives of the formerly enslaved... prepared by the Federal Writers' Project" (348) and consulted the work of anthropologist Dr. Daniel O. Sayers and historian of the African diaspora Dr. Sylviane A. Diouf to assist her in writing her novel, I was hoping for a bit more discussion in her Author's Note and Acknowledgement sections relating to her use of dialect and her linguistic choices. In terms of poetic devices, Burg makes use of some lovely imagery, simile, and lyricism throughout her narrative. For instance, in the first section of the verse novel, Grace feels her resolve begin to crumble:
like a clap of thunder
in a sweet blue sky,
all my promisin
starts feelin like
a fistful of thorns
is scratchin my brain. (4-5)
and in the lines that end the second section of the narrative as Grace's family moves closer to freedom:
Moonlight glistens
on a dark lake
what's set before us
like a shimmerin
piece of fallen sky. (282)
Although these lines evoke some engaging images, they do not make up for the overall sense that something in this project is missing in terms of language and poetic technique. I am wary of the use of dialect in this verse novel, particularly by a white writer, without citation of any source material or discussion of these linguistic choices in her end pages.

The Page: Unlike most other verse novels for young readers, Burg does not separate her narrative into individual poems. Instead the verse novel is divided into three parts: part one is around 170 pages, part two around 100 pages, and part three around 75 pages. Each poem is untitled, but is a few pages long and its ending is denoted with a grey dot. As previously noted, Unbound does include an Author's Note and an Acknowledgements section, but Burg could have included much more information about her research, her sources, and her use of dialect throughout her narrative. I give Unbound three stars.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Sharon Creech's _Moo: A Novel_

The Plot: Sharon Creech's (2016) verse novel Moo: A Novel tells the story of twelve-year-old Reena. Reena moves with her younger brother, Luke, and her parents from the big city to Maine, where they encounter an old woman named Mrs. Falala. Mrs. Falala owns a farm and a stubborn cow named Zora. After a few strange meetings with Mrs. Falala, Reena and Luke's parents volunteer them to work on the farm helping Mrs. Falala clean and care for Zora the cow and her other farm animals. While Reena and Luke are at first skeptical and even scared of the old woman and her cow, they eventually grow quite fond of her. Luke, an avid drawer, spends time teaching Mrs. Falala to draw, while Reena works diligently to train Zora. With the help of a young man named Zep, Reena begins to train to show Zora at the county fair. The novel ends with Reena and Zora's first time showing at the fair, and an unexpected twist involving Mrs. Falala.

The Poetry: Creech's verse novel follows her previous work in this form, Love That Dog (2001), Hate That Cat (2008), and Heartbeat (2004), in that it uses free verse  throughout the narrative, in addition to concrete poetry and varied typography in several poems. Despite the fact that in Moo the emphasis is most often placed upon the narrative arc, instead of poetic devices and techniques, Creech does use the broken line, white space, and typographical variances in order to emphasize the significance of particular moments in the narrative and to encourage the reader to spend more time on the page. For example, in the poem "Back to Twitch Street," Creech uses imagery and typography to create a distinct picture in the reader's mind of life on the farm:
with the open attic window
and the
           f  l  u  t  e     m  u  s  i  c
                                     n (61)
In this excerpt from "Back to Twitch Street," Reena and Luke return to the farm after riding their bikes through pastures and past views of the ocean. They are truly captivated by the scenes of the country after growing up in the city. Throughout the narrative, Reena and Luke are captivated the the flute music they hear Mrs. Falala playing from her attic window. They never seen her play, but they come to learn that her flute music and attic space help her practice "remembering."

The Page: The 74 poems that make up Creech's verse novel Moo trace the experiences of pre-teen Reena as she moves from the city to the country and transforms from an indoor girl to an outdoor girl. Creech's Moo was a fine verse novel that represents a growing trend in the blend of free verse, prose sections, and concrete poetry in the verse novel for middle grade readers. I give Moo three stars.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Skila Brown's _To Stay Alive: Mary Ann Graves and the Tragic Journey of the Donner Party_

The Plot: Skila Brown's 2016 To Stay Alive: Mary Ann Graves and the Tragic Journey of the Donner Party is a historical verse novel that explores the life and experiences of nineteen-year-old Mary Ann Graves, a real-life settler who traveled with her family, the Donner family, and several other families across the country to reach California in the 1840s. Brown bases her narrative on historical records and research to tell a particularly compelling story of a young woman's survival in a time of hardship, chaos, and ultimately horror. The nearly 300-page verse novel takes place over the course of one year, beginning in the spring of 1846 and ending in the spring of 1847. Mary Ann travels from Lacon, Illinois with her family which includes her mother, father, older married sister, three younger brothers, four younger sisters, and a hired teamster named John. Mary Ann is a quilter and a strong young woman who likes to speak her mind.

The Poetry: Brown's To Stay Alive is primarily comprised of free verse poems that make use of rich imagery, lyricism, and the space on the page, but the verse novel also includes a few concrete poems that take the shape of what they describe or allude to in the poem. For instance, the poem on page 3, "Father" is shaped like a sphere on the page and describes Mary Ann's father as "burning like the sun" and "itching" to leave on their journey. Likewise, the poem "Inside the Wagon" spreads single words across the space of the page drawing attention to the fact that riding inside the wagon is bumpy: "never still never / smooth / always bump shake rattle" (41). While these poems were interesting in terms of form and content, the poem that I found most moving and rhythmic was the final poem in the collection, "A New Quilt." This nine-page poem shows Brown's skill in the long lyric poem, something that I have yet to see many verse novelists for young readers do well. In "A New Quilt" Brown uses anaphora, lyricism, imagery, and a rhythmic line that mimics the work of quilting to tell the last bits of Mary Ann's narrative. The repeated refrains "I'm stitching / a new quilt" at the beginning of stanzas and "I stitch" justified to the right side of the page at the end of many lines become a place of meditation for the reader as she considers the ways that Mary Ann copes with her loss of many of her family members.

The Page: In addition to being divided into five sections that reflect the seasonal changes, Brown's verse novel also contains a variety of paratextual documents to aid the reader in understanding the historical time period and Brown's research process. The front papers include an article from The Lacon Home Journal announcing that a local family is headed to the west, as well as a two-page map spread that provides the path that Mary Ann's family followed. The end papers include an epilogue, an author's note, a photograph of the real Mary Ann Graves, a list of individuals who were part of the Donner party divided into families with their ages and survival status listed, and an acknowledgments section. Her website also includes an educational guide to pair with the verse novel and a variety of blog posts with more details about the Donner party.

I found Brown's To Stay Alive to be a surprisingly engaging narrative. While the subject matter (cannibalism) initially made me wary of the author's ability to tackle such a topic in a new way, Brown was able to skillfully and successfully weave Mary Ann's story together through her use of lyric poetry. To Say Alive was a page-turner. I give it four stars and highly recommend it.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Jeannine Atkins's _Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science_

The Plot: Jeannine Atkins's Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science (2016) is a three-part novel in free verse that explores the lives of three real women: Maria Sibylla Merian, Mary Anning, and Maria Mitchell. Each narrative is roughly 60 pages in length, and explores the life of these young women from pre-teens through middle-age. Maria Merian's story begins when she is 13-years-old living in Frankfurt, Germany in 1660. Maria is the daughter of an artist, and she practices painting, but she is extremely fascinated by caterpillars and their metapmorphosis. Maria travels the country, painting these animals and learning about different types of caterpillars. Mary Anning's story begins when she is 11-years-old living in Lyme Regis, England in 1809. She works together with her father and then her older brother excavating stones on the seashore; unlike her father and brother, who simple chisel the fossils from the earth to sell, Mary is mesmerized by the patterns in the stones and the creatures from the past they discover. Maria Mitchell's story begins when she is 12-years-old living in Nantucket, Massachusetts in 1831. Maria's father is a mapmaker, who teaches her how to make star charts, use telescopes, and repair chronometers for sailors. Maria's family gives her a room of her own to do her work, and she eventually becomes the first female astronomy professor at one of the first colleges open to women, Vassar. Each of these narratives pushes forward into the next, demonstrating the ways in which women in science have advanced despite some of the restraints placed on them by their families, religious beliefs, and communities.

The Poetry: Finding Wonders utilizes lyrical free verse throughout, and the poems are rich with image, sound, and metaphor. For example, the poem "Metapmorphosis" in the first section of the book begins, "In a quiet revolution, Maria paints / on one piece of paper / first how a small egg breaks" (39), continues, "At last the cocoon breaks. / Pushing past sticky strands, / a fragile self unfurls," and finishes "Soft, moist, a moth fumbles / then unfolds four wings that flutter, / making her own faint applause" (40). In this poem, Atkins employs alliteration and the rhythm of soft vowel and consonant sounds. She also uses the caterpillars metamorphsis as a metaphor for Maria's own narrative of development as a young woman of science, pushing back against the suspicion her religious family has toward studying the natural world. Likewise, Mary's story uses metaphors of scientific and self discovery. In the poem "A Face in the Cliffs," Mary and her brother discover a huge fossil of a strange animal in the side of a cliff after their father and younger sibling's funerals. "After the rain, Mary walks by the sea, / which seems wide and empty. Pebbles clatter. / A gull drags its broken wing" (95); in these lines, Mary's feelings of loss and hopelessness are made manifest in the landscape by the speaker of the poem. Once they discover the creature, Mary's desire for knowledge is reignited: "She squeezes her hand, tastes salt on her tongue. / She'll scrape away stone. / Wonder doesn't have walls" (97).

The Page: Atkins's verse novel is divided into three distinct parts, "Mud, Moths, and Mystery," "Secrets in Stones," and "Many Stars, One Comet," and each section begins with an illustration of the young women its narrative charts and a prose paragraph titled "The ____'s Daughter" that locates the narrative in history and place. Interestingly, while each section begins by defining the young women by their father's professions, each of the narrative then turns this idea on its head by demonstrating the ways in which each young woman uses and moves forward from the knowledge she gains from her father. For example, in the last section, Maria's father is depicted as boasting about her accomplishment of locating a new comet, and the speaker notes "He enjoys introducing himself as Miss Mitchell's father" (178). The verse novel contains an author's note, a "reading past these pages" section, and a bibliography of sources.

Atkins's Finding Wonders is a beautifully written verse novel and the narrative is compelling. Atkins's purpose behind her narrative is to encourage young women's interest in the STEM fields and to bring recognition to female historical figures who helped to pave the way. Atkins's essay "Scrap by Scrap: Turning History into Poems" in which she explains her process would be a great pairing for this verse novel. I give her verse novel five stars, and I highly recommend it.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Nikki Grimes's _Garvey's Choice_

The Plot: Nikki Grimes's 2016 verse novel Garvey's Choice is a slim collection of poems, each of which uses the tanka form, to tell the story of a middle school boy named Garvey. Garvey desperately wants his father to see him. He is constantly teased because he is overweight, and his father laments the fact that he is more interested in books and music than in sports. He eats to fill the gap of loneliness, sadness, and longing to be seen as valuable just as he is by his father, his family, and his friends. Throughout the book, Garvey comes into contact with friends who encourage him and help him cope, including Manny, a boy who is passionate about cooking although his father thinks "that cooking is for girls" (62). Manny also has albinism and is picked on just like Garvey. Half-way through the collection, Garvey joins the chorus and finds his voice and a way to connect with his father through singing.

The Poetry: Grimes's verse novel is told entirely in the tank form. Tanka, as she explains in a section at the close of the book, is "an ancient poetry form, originally from Japan" (107). The tanka is five lines long, with each line adhering to a syllable count of 5-7-5-7-7. Grimes goes on to say that "traditional tanka poems focus on mood" and are "often poems about love, the four seasons, the shortness of life, and nature" (107). In addition to the use of the tanka form, Grimes also employs imagery, metaphor, and lyricism throughout her collection, and each of these poetic devices provides for greater emotional resonance for her narrative. For example, the poem "Phone Call" begins:
All evening long, I
try tucking in my sadness,
but it keeps getting
snagged on my voice when I speak (19).
In the poem, Garvey explains to his friend Joe about his desire to be seen by his father and to connect with him, but Joe response dismissively by saying, "I get it. Seriously. / But you've got a dad. / Mine skipped out long time ago" (19). In other poems, such as "Unique" Grimes uses Garvey's sadness and feelings of loneliness to bring up issues of the lack of diversity in literature for young people: "I search stories for someone / who resembles me" and "If it weren't for books and Joe, / "different" would just be lonely" (10).

The Page: Garvey's Choice is a short, but extremely impactful verse novel that utilizes poetic form and devices to tell a much needed story that addresses body image, cultural constructions of masculinity, bullying, and the black experience. I highly recommend Grimes's Garvey's Choice, and I give it five stars. If you are interested in the "story behind the story," you can read more about that from Grimes HERE.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Laura Shovan's _The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary_

The Plot: Laura Shovan's 2016 debut The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary is a polyvocal verse novel that includes the voices of the eighteen students in Ms. Hill's fifth grade class during a transformative school year. At the end of the year, the crumbling school will be closed and bulldozed to make way for a shopping center. The verse novel explores this event through the eyes of each individual student. Ms Hill tasks the students in her class with keeping a poetry journal; their poems will go into a time capsule at the end of the year.

The Poetry: Each poem in the collection includes the date, the name and illustrated head shot of the student writing the poem,  and a title. The eighteen diverse characters within the verse novel who write poems include: Sydney, Rennie, Tyler, Norah, Rachel, Sloane, Mark, Ben, Katie, Gaby, Brianna, Edgar, Newt, George, Jason, Hannah, Shoshanna, and Rajesh. Their concerns run the gamut from having a mother deployed in the armed forces, to having a crush on a classmate, to a death in the family. The poetry within The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary strives to represent many forms and a multitude of content, but ultimately much of it is uninteresting and the eighteen viewpoints make it difficult for the author to flesh out characters. One interesting move the author makes involves her inclusion of Spanish poems writeen by Gaby and their translation by another student in the class, Mark, on the facing page. This use of translation in Shovan's verse novel is lost though in the multitude of perspectives and thematic concerns.

The Page: The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary is divided into four sections, each named for a different quarter of the school year. The poems within the collection allow for one poem per day during the school year. Shovan includes a lengthly section at the end of her verse novel that includes "A Closer Look at the Poems in This Book," which explains how the persona poems work throughout the collection; "Favorite Forms From Room 5-H," which includes a list and definitions of each of the forms used in the verse novel from acrostics, concrete poems, and haiku to free verse poems, found poems, and odes; "Form the Fifth-Grade Poetry Prompt Jar," that lists several ideas for beginning writing poetry; and a glossary. Much of the work of this verse novel is pedagogical, and I can see Shovan and/or her publishers envisioning this work being used in the classroom. Ultimately, though, this work falls short in both poetry and plot. I give Shovan's The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary two stars.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Ellen Hopkins's _Traffick_

The Plot: Traffick (2015) is the sequel to Ellen Hopkins's Tricks, and in it Hopkins presents the intertwining narratives of five teenagers from across the country who are living in Vegas and have been victimized by sex trafficking. As a sequel narrative, Traffick focuses on each characters' attempt to become a survivor of trafficking and their individual, rocky roads to recovery. The first character introduced is Cody, who wakes up in the hospital after being show to find that he is paralyzed from the waist down. Cody's struggles with gambling led him to sex work. Next, the story shifts to Ginger, who runs away from home with her girlfriend Alex after years of her mother selling her to men for drugs, but is eventually arrested for soliciting an undercover cop. Ginger is living in House of Hope, a Christian center for young sex workers looking to become survivors. Ginger practices writing her story through poetry while at House of Hope. Next, the narrative moves to Seth, a farm boy from Indiana whose father kicked him out after he came out to him. After a string of boyfriends, Seth finds the only way to survive is to begin working for an escort service. He also volunteers part-time at the YouCenter serving LGBTQ youth. After Seth, readers are introduced to Whitney, a girl from a wealthy family whose boyfriend/pimp Bryn facilitated her trafficking and heroin addiction. After the police find her, she is placed by her family in a five-star rehab facility called Clean Slate. Finally, the narrative turns to Eden, a preacher's daughter who after escaping from an abusive, religious facility called Tears of Zion, turns to prostitution to survive. After wandering into a Catholic church, Eden is directed to Walk Straight, a rescue for teen prostitutes intent on a better life. The narratives alternate every 10 pages or so for 500 pages.

The Poetry: Hopkin's Traffick is told through a series of alternating narratives. Each time a new character is introduced, a poem "written by" that character or someone close to them leads off the section. The poems are told in free verse and are typically one to three pages in length. Often, Hopkins will include a poem that manipulates the space on the page in order to isolate a specific phrase that can be read inside the poem, but also vertically as its own entity. For example, the first page of the verse novel is a poem written by Cody Bennett; it contains four stanzas with four lines justified left and four single lines appearing after each stanza justified right. The lines justified right form the phrase: "the abyss,... / would be... / preferable to... / this living hell" (1). Each right justified line can also be read as part of the larger poem, as in the first five lines:
The courage to leap
the brink, free-fall
beyond the precipice,
hurtle toward
                                                     the abyss, (1).

The Page: In addition to the manipulation of space on the page, Hopkins also makes use of varied font to depict when characters write poetry or letters. Hopkins includes a detailed author's note in which she explains the research she did for Tricks and Traffick, relates the significance of the project to her, and provides a list of resources for young people. Overall though, I found Hopkins's writing in Traffick to be lacking. One of the biggest issues with the narrative is that it tried to develop the stories of too many characters, which became confusing as a reader and almost trivialized the horrific experiences of child sex trafficking being related. In addition to the five primary characters, readers are also introduced to a myriad of other characters who also share their unique stories of victimization. Ultimately, Hopkins verse novels are more successful when they focus on fewer characters. The inclusion of poems "written by" characters in addition to their narratives was interesting, but got lost in the chaos of narrative. I give Hopkins's Traffick two stars.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Stefanie Lyon's _Dating Down_

The Plot: Stefanie Lyon's 2015 verse novel Dating Down tells the story of high school junior and daughter of a politician Samantha Henderson and her experience of falling in love with a "bad boy," who is referred to throughout the narrative as "X." Readers learn in the first pages of the narrative why Sam's love interest is referred to in this way:
I will call him X.
for the reasons I crossed him out of my life.
for the number of times I plunged into self-destruction.
because his name would only give him a place in your mind
that he does not deserve (1).
The narrative follows Sam through the first time she sees X at a coffee shop where he works, through her first sexual experience with him, her discovery of his drug use and infidelity, her own participation in drug and alcohol abuse, and finally her decision to separate from X and move on with her life. Dating Down follows in the pattern of many verse novels for young readers in that it is part of the problem novel tradition.

The Poetry: Lyon's narrative primarily utilizes free verse poetry throughout while making use of end rhyme and concrete poetry occasionally. Lyon also employs the format of dramatic verse in order to demonstrate conversations between Sam and other young characters in the narrative. Ultimately much of the poetry lacked lyricism or innovation. For example, in the poem "Sex," which details Sam's first time having sex with X, the poem relies on short, choppy lines and sporadic end rhyme to move the reader more quickly through the moment: "my bra / my shirt / the late-May air" and "His hands / my body / the canvas of me" (121). Ultimately, this approach is not effective in drawing the reader into the narrative or allowing the reader to linger in the emotion or intensity of Sam's experience.

The Page: Throughout the narrative, Lyon often makes use of the space across the entire page, presumably in order to allow the reader to linger in the white space or to slow down the eye in the reading process. But overall, this approach was not successful. The poetry in Dating Down fell flat and the narrative didn't succeed in pulling me in as a reader. In an over-300-page narrative, the lack of a compelling narrative made getting through Dating Down particularly difficult. I give Lyon's Dating Down two stars.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Madeleine Kuderick's _Kiss of Broken Glass_

The Plot: Madeleine Kuderick's 2014 YA verse novel, Kiss of Broken Glass, follows fifteen-year-old Kenna Keagan during her 72 hour stay at Adler Boyce Pediatric Stabilization Facility after she is "Baker Acted" (1) when a classmate catches her cutting in the bathroom at school. The poems in the narrative are told in second person (you) point of view, and over the course of three days,the reader steps into the shoes of Kenna as she makes friends at Adler, attends group therapy, and prepares for her family to attend a group session before she is released. Kuderick's work is most certainly a traditional YA problem novel, and much like Ellen Hopkins's Crank Series, the reader discovers in the author's note that the author was inspired to write the book after her own daughter's struggle with cutting and experience of being "involuntarily committed under Florida's Baker Act" (203).

The Poetry: While the author strives to utilize memorable imagery and crisp language that hold the reader in the narrative, ultimately most of it falls flat and reads as cliche or inauthentic. At times the imagery and lyricism work well; for example in the poem "By the Time My Mother Leaves," the speaker describes her urge to cut using simile, alliteration, and anaphora: "The way the blood pools warm at first / then cools like morning dew on slivered skin" and "The way the crimson dances 'round the bowl / then trickles tiny teardrops down the drain" (100-101). Beyond the poetry used to describe Kenna's experiences, one of the characters that she befriends, Skylar (who is also a cutter and is struggling with anorexia) also writes poetry which she passes to Kenna.

The Page: Throughout the narrative, almost every poem title includes one word with multiple strike-throughs obscuring it; this is one of the somewhat gimmicky things that Kuderick's Kiss of Broken Glass engages in that contributes to the at times tired approach to the topic of cutting. The author does include an author's note and a list of resources for young readers who might be struggling with self-harm themselves.

Overall, I found Kuderick's Kiss of Broken Glass to be a fine verse novel. It approaches the problem novel in a way that is becoming common-place with the verse novel form and strives to employ poetic technique while doing so. I give it three stars.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Margarita Engle's _Lion Island: Cuba's Warrior of Words_

The Plot: Margarita Engle's newest verse novel, Lion Island: Cuba's Warrior of Words (2016), is the fifth and final volume in what she calls her "loosely linked group of historical verse novels about the struggle against forced labor in nineteenth-century Cuba" (160). And it is a lovely and powerful work that follows three young, culturally diverse protagonists: twelve year old Antonio, a messenger boy with Asian, African, and European ancestry who eventually becomes a translator  (based upon the historical figure Antonio Chuffat-- a champion of civil rights for the Chinese Cuban community); Wing, a fourteen year old Chinese American boy whose family barely escaped the anti-Asian riots in San Francisco; and his twin sister, Fan, a talented singer and performer. Antonio, Wing, and Fan's stories intertwine to tell the tale of how a group of young friends worked hard to tell their stories and have their voices heard in a time of violence, with injustice, war, and rebellions swirling around them. Antonio works to record, translate, and help give voice to the experiences of those enslaved Africans and near-enslaved Chinese indentured servants who were forced or coerced to sign eight-year contracts to work in the fields of Cuba, while Wing's story leads him to eventually join the rebellion and Fan runs away from home to work at el teatro chino as a singer who assists runaways in hiding on their way to escaping enslavement.

The Poetry: As previously noted, Engle is a prolific verse novelist for young readers, having published nine well-received, award winning verse novels before Lion Island. This volume contains beautiful poetry, and I found the poems which Fan is the speaker of to be particularly moving as she longs to become an artist. Engle's use of imagery, lyricism, and metaphor contribute richly to her work. The poem "That Same Evening" in which the speaker Wing describes being robbed by Spanish soldiers ends with two rhythmic stanzas describing his emotions: "Rage comes and goes in gusts, / like a hurricane's furious / wind" and "Quietly, I return to work the next day, / trapped in the eye of my own / storm" (41). The quiet rhythm and movement on the page of these two stanzas enacts the content of the poem, tracing the rise and fall of the wind as well as Wing's anger. Later in the narrative, in the poem "Mirror," Fan meditates upon her experiences of being a young woman and the twin sister of a passionate brother:
Being the twin of a boy
is like shimmering
in and out of a shiny river,
the constant burst of rushing water
never peaceful enough to see my own
reflection (52).
Toward the end of this same poem, Fan notes that her brother can go anywhere and so or say whatever he pleases, while as a young woman she must constantly guard herself and speak and dream with caution. While Fan and Wing's stories are significant to the narrative, Antonio's experiences are the underlying drive of the work. In the poem "Quiet Truths" toward the end of the verse novel, Antonio examines his place as messenger, translator, and activist,

How difficult it is to describe injustice.
No wonder Fan used a knife on wood,
or a stick in mud, before discovering
her own songs.
There's nothing a warrior of words can do
for people who have already been murdered,
nothing but offer comfort so that the living
can begin to feel peaceful in the presence
of memories (142).
This seems to be the overall drive of Engle's series of historical verse novels that examine the struggles and injustices faced by so many during this time period in Cuba. Engle's Lion Island and her series as a whole draw attention to these experiences and histories.

The Page: Lion Island includes seven sections of poems: "Running with Words: Year of the Goat 1871," "The Beast of Hope: Year of the Monkey 1872," "Free Songs: Year of the Rooster 1873," "The Shadow Path: Year of the Rooster 1873," "Dangerous Flames: Year of the Rooster 1873," "Listeners: Year of the Dog 1874," and "Voices Heard Across the Sea: Year of the Tiger 1878." Engle's verse novel is not only rich in poetry and plot, but Lion Island also includes sections book-ending the narrative focused on historical background. Engle includes sections not only about Cuban history, but also about historical figures, and she provides a reference section and further readings for young people.

I give Engle's Lion Island: Cuba's Warrior of Words four stars and highly recommend it.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Roxane Orgill's _Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph_

The Plot: Roxane Orgill's Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph (2016) is not your typical verse novel; in fact, some might say that it is not a verse novel. Orgill's 55-page picture book contains 21 poems that tell the story of a day in 1958 when Art Kane photographed a group of 57 jazz musicians and a dozen children in front of a typical brownstone in Harlem. Although Jazz Day seems different from the longer verse novels for young readers, Orgill's author's note provides some clarity regarding her intentions: "I wanted to tell the story of how the photo got made and of some of the people who happened to be in it. What I didn't expect was that I'd begin writing poems. I write prose, not poetry. But this story demanded a sense of freedom, an intensity, and a conciseness that prose could not provide" (44). My conception of the verse novel for young readers, as I've tried to underscore on this blog, is that it uses poetry to tell a story and to meditate upon characters and events. Jazz Day does just that; each poem focuses on a different point of view, a different character, including Kane; unknown neighbor children; and famous musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, and Eddie Locke, and the poems move through time from 9 am on August 12, 1958 to the day the issue of Esquire in which Kane's photograph was published appeared on newsstands to the present day in which Orgill praises Kane's efforts.

The Poetry: The 21 poems in Jazz Day are mostly told in free verse, but a few of them utilize traditional forms such as the pantoum, "This Moment" (29), and the abecedarian, "What to Wear (from A to Z)" (17-18). Orgill remarks in her author's note that she hopes "the poems contain the sound of jazz music" (44). The poems certainly contain a sense of play and rhythm; for instance "Don't Get Me Started" is a poem told from the point of view of an imagined young boy named Alfred. In this poem, Alfred meditates on a beautiful car that pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams arrives in:
Don't get me started
on her Cadillac
don't let's talk about
tail fins
L-shaped chrome
hooded dash
pan-o-ramic windshield
Imagine the view
"Mary Lou!" (13)
Orgill explains that she used various historically accurate events and sources as "departure points" in order to fill in the gaps of about the group of unknown neighborhood boys. "I gave the boy in suspenders a name, Alfred, and a role in the events, and I had him note the fictionalized arrival of pianist Mary Lou Williams in a Cadillac" (43). Another poem, "At the Window," also focuses on the imagined experiences of the children pictured in the photograph; "At the Window" features a young girl watching the musicians gather from her window, "twirling / a twist / of curly hair" as she leans out her window (28).

The Page: One of the most striking things about Jazz Day are the illustrations; each page consists of a painting by Francis Vallejo that illustrates the poem with which it is paired. The poem "Some Kind of Formation, Please!" is also paired with a fold-out double-page spread of a reproduction of the famous photograph after which the book is written, Harlem 1958. In addition to the previously mentioned author's note, Jazz Day also includes an introduction, seven pages of biographies on the 57 musicians, and a bibliography of sources. Jazz Day follows the form of Carole Boston Weatherford's Becoming Billie Holiday, in that it is a shorter illustrated verse narrative that fictionalizes historical figures and events, and Weatherford's text would actually pair nicely with Orgill's narrative.

I found Orgill and Vallejo's story of the making of Harlem 1958 to be a beautiful and interesting read. I give it four stars.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Helen Frost's _Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War_

The Plot: Helen Frost's 2013 polyvocal verse novel Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War follows two protagonists Anikwa, a twelve-year-old Miami boy, and James, a twelve-year-old American boy, and emphasizes the ways in which the War of 1812 impacts both of their lives. The narrative alternates perspectives, with every other poem told in the voice of either boy; poems about salt and the natural landscape are interspersed throughout the narrative. Anikwa is being raised by family members after his mother died of small pox and his father was killed in "a skirmish" (7) when he was an infant. James lives with his mother, father, and infant sister outside Fort Wayne near the trading post where his father works. The narrative depicts both boys experiencing hardships and the repercussions of the war. While the polyvocal narrative structure and the attention to poetic form seemed promising, overall Frost's Salt is problematic in both form and content in the way it represents Native voices and the historical relationship between settlers and natives. Primarily because this verse novel puts itself forth as "a story of friendship in a time of war," it might have been more successful if Frost had reached out to a Native author to collaborate with her on this project. (I am thinking of the way in which Jayson Reynolds and Brendan Kiely collaborated on All American Boys.) Anytime I encounter a children's narrative that represents the experiences of American Indians, I consult Debbie Reese's blog. Here is Reese's assessment of Salt; Frost also chimes in in the comments section.

The Poetry: One thing that Reese picks up on in her own review of Salt that I would like to echo and expand upon here is the way in which poetic form plays into the representations of the characters. The poems in which Anikwa is the speaker are concrete poems, which Frost describes in her author's note on form as, "shaped like patterns of Miami ribbon work" (133), while the poems in which James is the speaker utilize a series of seven couplets, which Frost says represent "an image of the stripes on an American flag" (133). This dichotomy of form seems to suggest a connection between James and patriotism and Anikwa and folk art. The use of concrete poetry juxtaposed with the couplet also sets up a binary between avant-garde poetic form and more traditional poetic form. The symbolic use of form is intentional, but it sets up a binary between creativity/Native populations and national pride/white settlers that is troubling. Clearly Frost, who has written multiple verse novels, is aware the impact that poetic form has on readers and the ways in which symbols make meaning in poetry. She notes that she utilizes the poems about salt to "allow readers to pause between one event and another" (133). In many ways, Frost's project seems like a missed opportunity to bring in the voices of Native authors and/or scholars. As Reese's blog underscores, it is extremely important for white writers and publishers to ask themselves critical questions when they choose to represent experiences and cultures that are not their own, particularly in historical narratives.

The Page: As previously noted, Frost's polyvocal Salt utilizes dualing voices and this is represented with spreads that include juxtaposed visual poetry. Frost's narrative also includes a map of the "Miami Homeland," an introduction, a cast of characters, a notes section, a glossary of Miami words, and an acknowledgement section. Frost notes in her comments on Reese's blog that she is working on creating a curriculum to pair with Salt that takes into account some of Reese's concerns.

Overall, I thought Frost's Salt was an interesting exercise in formal experimentation and was interested in the historical period she chose to explore, but ultimately, many of the concerns Reese raised about the narrative's representation of Native experience were also troubling to me as a reader. I give Salt three stars. Again, I think a polyvocal project such as Frost's would have been much more successful if she would have reached out to a Native author to collaborate with on the work. This month, the blog Reading While White is focusing a spotlight on #OwnVoices books, "amazing books that have been written by authors and artists of color and Native authors and illustrators." Hopefully, in the future authors can take scholarly and critical views such as those championed by Reese and RWW into consideration when they are interested in telling historical stories that represent a diversity of experiences.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu's _Somewhere Among_

The Plot: Somewhere Among (2016), a verse novel by Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu, introduces readers to Japanese fifth-grader Ema, who lives with her American mother and Japanese father in Tokyo. Because Ema's mother is struggling with a difficult pregnancy, instead of visiting her maternal grandparents for the summer in California as she usually does, Ema and her mother move to the country to stay with her paternal grandparents, Obaachan and Jiichan. Meanwhile, Ema's father stays in the city and works, visiting them as often as he can. Throughout the narrative, Obaachan is portrayed as extremely strict and grating, while Jiichan is depicted as quiet and caring, yet troubled by his memories of experiencing the horrors of WWII as a boy. The narrative takes place from June to December 2001, and Ema and her family experience the sadness and grief from the September 11th terrorist attacks, as well as several earthquakes, typhoons, and tsunamis that rock their small community. In addition to her mother's difficult pregnancy and her father's absence, Ema also combats stares and comments about her biracial status, as well as a particularly upsetting bully at her new school. Eventually, Ema's mother's early labor and Jiichan's heart attack completely upset the family's life, but ultimately allow Ema and Obaachan to grow closer.

The Poetry: Donwerth-Chikamatsu's Somewhere Among is presented in free verse, and many of the poems make excellent use of space, rhyme, metaphor, and lyricism to communicate the overwhelming sense of sorrow that emanates from the various tragedies and events explored in the narrative. For example, the poem "After the Storm" depicts Ema's family emerging from the silence of their home after a typhoon by sliding open the shutters and turning on the news:
I look at Mom,
sound asleep,
             not enjoying the night air
                         one cricket here
                                     one cricket there.
TVs blare
a news flash
the whole neighborhood gasps. (206-7).
In this poem, the author makes use of the space on the page in order to emphasize the silence and to encourage the reader to engage in the same meditation the protagonist experiences as she enjoys "the moon and the stars" and "the sparkly air after a typhoon" (206). Additionally, the use of both rhyme and slant rhyme in the final five lines of the poem adds emphasis through language and sound, and furthermore, brings a subtlety to the description of this well-known historical event. The verse novel also made several nods toward other poets and popular musicians such as Emily Dickinson and The Beatles.

The Page: Somewhere Among is divided into seven sections, each representing a month from June to December, ranging in length from 35 to 100+ pages. Each section's front page also includes a black and white illustration. At 439 pages, the verse novel spent a lot of time exploring the experiences of Ema. The early poems and the narrative moved pretty slowly, and it seemed the author could have edited the collection down a bit. Overall I found Somewhere Among to be a fine verse novel. I give it three stars.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Leza Lowitz's _Up From The Sea_

The Plot: Up From the Sea (2016) by Leza Lowitz tells the story of seventeen-year-old Kai, a Japanese American boy living in the Tohuku region of Honshu, Japan and his experience of surviving the March 2001 earthquake and tsunami that devastated his community. The verse novel begins with a preface detailing the particulars of the tragedy and then immediately immerses the reader in Kai's experiences the morning of the earthquake and tsunami. Kai loses his mother and grandparents, as well as his home, but as the months go on he comes to terms with his loss. Deciding he wants to seek out his father, who he hasn't seen in many years, he travels to New York with a group of survivors to meet with other young people who lost their parents on September 11th when hijacked planes were crashed into the World Trade Center. After Kai fails to locate his father in New York, he returns to Japan and focuses his energy on creating a soccer team in his town and teaching young people the sport he loves.

The Poetry: Lowitz's verse novel is told in free verse with short, choppy lines. It was disappointing that in an almost-300-page verse novel, Lowitz included very little poetic technique, and what was used was not impactful. The short lines, which often included a single word per line for an entire poem, seemed gimmicky after a few pages. Like other verse novels that I've discussed on this blog, Up From The Sea does not follow the standard poetic practice of only having one poem on each page, and this contributes to a lack of space for reader contemplation (which in my estimation is one of the most significant features of the verse novel form). The poem "When I Wake Up," which includes lines referencing the collection's title, was maybe the only example of a poem that utilized the short line in a way that was meaningful; this poem also makes use of rhyme, but overall the poem could have held more weight if it were placed on its own page. There were a few moments of imagery, but these were very few and far between. For example, one such instance occurs early on in the poem "March 11--" when the speaker of the poem describes his community: "Shin's dad washed his taxi in their garage, / bleached the seat covers white as bone" (4). While the second line uses a simile to begin to create some imagery, most of the collection follows the first line in that it focuses on tired descriptions with little detail or language play. The lack of imagery and lyricism, as well as the inability of the author to fully develop her character or landscape made this a tough work to get through.  

The Page: The narrative is divided into three seasons: "Spring," "Summer," and "Fall," and each season has sections of poems within it that use alliterative titles, such as, "Adrift," "Amidst," "Ashore," "Ascend," and so on. Many pages also include footnotes that define and explain Japanese terms. For instance, on page 4 the reader learns that "Obaachan" and "Ojichan" mean grandma and grandpa, respectively, and on page 79 a note explains that "natsukashii" means an "expression of a feeling of nostalgia or fondness when experiencing something for the first time in a long time."

Overall, Lowitz's Up From the Sea seemed like a missed opportunity in both narrative and poetic craft. While the verse novel's topic seemed of interest, the author was unable to use the form or narrative content to create a work that stood out. I give Up From The Sea two stars.

Friday, August 12, 2016

A. L. Sonnichsen's _Red Butterfly_

The Plot: Red Butterfly (2015) by A. L. Sonnichsen is a three part verse novel that tells the story of Kara, a preteen Chinese girl growing up in Tianjin. Kara was abandoned as an infant because of a hand deformity and taken in by an older American woman living in China. As Kara grows up, she comes to understand that her foster mother has been living illegally in China with an expired visa and that she has never officially adopted Kara, so she does not have paperwork to prove her identity. All of these issues come to a head when her mother's 40-year-old daughter Jody comes to visit, collapses, and the police are notified. Kara is sent to an orphanage where she meets and befriends Toby, a physical therapist, who helps care for children with diseases and deformities. Eventually Kara is faced with the difficulty of wanting to be with her foster mother and the possibility of being adopted by a family from Florida. While it seemed like the narrative was dangerously close to relying on the "white savior" trope, Sonnichsen does explain that she takes her own experiences living in China and volunteering at an orphanage as inspiration for the events of her verse novel. Sonnichsen reveals in her author's note that she grew up in Hong Kong, spent eight years as an adult living in Tianjin, China, and eventually adopted her daughter from a Chinese orphanage.

The Poetry: Sonnichsen's nearly 400-page verse novel utilizes lyrical free verse to tell Kara's story. Like some other verse novels for young readers, Sonnichsen project does not adhere to the traditional poetic practice of beginning each new poem on its own page; it appears that she does this to save space, but this practice also forefronts the novelistic aspect of the work. Many of the early poems in the collection employ imagery, sound, and repetition to great effect, but as the collection continues, these poetic techniques are discarded in favor of a focus on plot. The title poem, "Red Butterfly," an early poem in the collection, employs impactful poetic techniques such as imagery, space, and consonance:
I ride with my hair
whipping back,
a long,
black flag.
The city
is a blur.
No one stares,
when I am alone,
pedaling my ruby-red bicycle.
No one knows I am different,
flitting between them,
       a red butterfly. (7-8)

The Page: Red Butterfly is divided into three sections entitled "Crawl," "Dissolve," and "Fly"-- each section playing on the metaphor for transformation (from a caterpillar to a chrysalis to a butterfly). One of the most interesting elements of the verse novel are the collaged illustrations by Amy June Bates. Every four or five pages includes a small illustration, most of the times in the margins of the poems. These illustrations appear to collage bits and scraps of Chinese newspapers combined with pencil drawings. They are quite lovely.

Overall, I give Red Butterfly three stars. It was a fine verse novel; the narrative was engaging, the illustrations were captivating, and the poetry in the early parts of the collection was well-done.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Julie Sternberg's _Like Carrot Juice on a Cupcake_

The Plot: Julie Sternberg's Like Carrot Juice on a Cupcake (2014) is the third book in her verse novel series for children. She previously published Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie (2011) and Like Bug Juice on a Burger (2013) which also follow her fourth-grade protagonist Eleanor. Sternberg's verse novel follows in the footsteps of Sharon Creech's Love That Dog in its focus on younger, elementary school readers. In Like Carrot Juice on a Cupcake, Eleanor struggles with feeling left out when her best friend, Pearl, becomes close to a new transfer student, Ainsley. On top of this, Eleanor's parents decide to send her new puppy to training school for two weeks and Pearl volunteer's Eleanor for a role in the school play, despite Eleanor's stage fright. As the narrative progresses, Eleanor becomes more and more anxious about her leading role and her solo, as well as her sense of distance from her best friend. Toward the end of the narrative, Eleanor's feelings lead her to do a "very mean thing. / To a new girl AND / to [her] best friend" (143).

The Poetry: As the title suggests, Sternberg's verse novel utilizes similes, as well as anaphora throughout the free verse narrative. This is true in "Chapter Fifteen" which includes the repeated refrain "I wondered" six times throughout the poem (93-94). The use of simile and metaphor are central to the main conflict in the narrative. This comes to the forefront in the poem Eleanor writes to her poem-loving best friend, Pearl asking for forgiveness. She refers to her actions as being the worst thing, like "carrot juice on a cupcake / or a wasp on my pillow / or a dress that's too tight at the neck" (143). This is the extent of poetic device used by the author in the text, which ultimately, like many other verse narratives, makes use of the increased space on the page afforded by verse novel form.

The Page: Sternberg's Like Carrot Juice on a Cupcake is divided into thirty chapters and includes sketch-like pencil illustrations by Matthew Cordell throughout. These illustrations are in a similar style to those by Quentin Blake for Roald Dahl's children's novels. As a verse novel for elementary school readers, Like Carrot Juice on a Cupcake forefronts the narrative elements instead of the poetic practices; this seemed like a missed opportunity. I would have liked to see the author spend a bit more time focused on the poetic technique, specifically the simile, implied by the title.

I give Sternberg's verse novel three stars.

Friday, July 29, 2016

J. J. Johnson's _Believarexic_

The Plot: J. J. Johnson's 2015 Believarexic is an "autobiographical novel" that recounts a ten week period of the author's life during the late 1980s when she lived in an inpatient eating disorder unit. In the beginning of the narrative, 15-year-old Jennifer struggles to convince her family that she needs help, but ultimately they accompany her to her screening interview and she is admitted to the treatment facility. During her hospitalization, Jennifer is treated for bulimarexia, a combination of bulimia and anorexia, and as the narrative unfolds, Jennifer learns that her eating disorder is really just the most visible aspect of her mental health issues. She ultimately discovers that she is an alcoholic, suffers from depression and anxiety, and has unhealthy relationships with both of her parents. The narrative follows her life on the EDU (eating disorder unit) as she attempts to develop positive friendships, learns to interact with the staff on her unit, and moves away from negative relationships with her family members. Ultimately, Jennifer emerges at the end of the novel having moved forward in her own recovery; Believarexic seems to be not only a typical eating disorder focused problem novel, but also a cathartic expression for the author.

The Poetry: Formally, Believarexic has a complicated and somewhat unique approach. The work is divided into six sections: "Before," "Admission," "Stage One," "Stage Two," "Stage Three," and "Discharge." The first three sections, which comprise about half of the book, are told in third person point of view and utilize free verse, while the last three sections are told in first person point of view and employ prose. Furthermore, the narrative as a whole functions as a kind of diary/scrapbook. Dated entries span the entire work, both in the free verse and prose sections, and various treatment focused documents are sporadically inserted throughout as well (including letters, group therapy worksheets, treatment planning objects, facility rules, and so on). As previously mentioned, this work is certainly part of the problem novel tradition, as are most YA texts focused on eating disorders, but this work seems particularly interesting in terms of its use of formal collage. Moreover, the shift from free verse to prose and third person to first person point of view as the protagonist progresses in her recovery seems to suggest the emotion state of the character. Free verse seems to imply a sense of fragmentation, while the third person point of view emphasizes a distance and slows the reading pace. The formal and narrative shift to first person in the second half of the narrative suggests a sense of connection and encourages more intimate reader involvement in the protagonist's experiences. While the reader is encouraged to lose herself in the narrative (because of the use of first person, engaging narration) during the second half, the first half of the narrative asks the reader to spend more time piecing together fragments of verse, voice, and experience.

The Page: In addition to the formal experimentation and assemblage in the narrative, Johnson also employs varying fonts between the first two sections (typewriter-style) and the final four (traditional Times New Roman), as well as gray pages to denote supplemental documents that appear within the diary narrative.

Johnson's narrative was an interesting experiment in form. I would categorize Believarexic more as a hybrid verse novel, as it certainly does employ verse and poetic techniques in half of the narrative. While the narrative was engaging, the author could have made more use of the verse form throughout the first half. I give Believarexic three stars.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Sarah Crossan's _One_

The Plot: Sarah Crossan's 2015 verse novel One tells the story of conjoined twins, Grace and Tippi. The girls have been home schooled their whole lives, but at the beginning of the narrative they start their junior year of high school at a private school. Initially worried that they will be mocked and isolated, Grace and Tippi are excited when they meet and befriend Yasmeen and Jon, both of whom are also outsiders (Yasmeen has HIV and Jon has a rough home life). The narrative follows the protagonist, Grace, as she experiences going to school for the first time, having her first crush, feeling less connected to Tippi, and her parents' separation. Both Grace and Tippi see their therapists regularly to process their feelings and support their mental health. In addition to all of these issues, their younger sister Dragon, who is a ballet dancer, is also beginning to show signs of anorexia. Toward the middle of the narrative, it is clear that Tippi and Grace are beginning to experience some health issues that eventually lead their doctors to decide that they need to have separation surgery in order for one or both of them to survive. Grace is having serious heart issues after struggling to get over the flu, causing her to need a heart transplant, which she cannot get while living as a conjoined twin. Eventually the sisters and their family decide that they will go through with the surgery, although it is likely that Grace will not survive.

The Poetry: Like many verse novels for young readers, Crossan's One makes use of free verse throughout the narrative. In addition to the use of the gaps and space created by line breaks, Crossan also makes use of repetition, and when the narrative tension is at its highest point toward the end of the verse novel, Crossan alters the justification of the text of her poems from left to center. Overall, the use of free verse makes sense, but the repetition and justification of text seem a bit gimmicky and don't serve the narrative much. For example, page 366 features a poem titled "Tippi" that is made up of the word "Tippi" repeated 97 times: 12 lines each feature 8 repetitions of the word followed by question marks, while a final line features a single repetition of "Tippi" with a period. There doesn't seem to be much point to including a poem like this as it doesn't play with form in any significant way and the repetition doesn't serve to move the narrative forward or reveal anything about the character.

The Page: One is divided into sections based upon the months from August to February. Each new section is marked by an illustrated page that features the silhouette of what appear to be a portion of a chain of paper dolls. The dolls are meant to represent the connections that Grace and Tippi share, not just the physical, embodied experience of being conjoined, but also their bonds as sisters, twins, and partners in life.

Crossan's One was a quick read, and the narrative certainly draws on the tradition of the problem novel in YA literature, but there were a few issues. The topical focus on conjoined twins was discussed briefly in an author's note at the end of the text, but there could have been more focus on engaging with disability or difference from a medical and social standpoint. Additionally, the author's use of poetic techniques seemed strained at times and could have been more purposeful. I give Crossan's verse novel two stars.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Holly Bodger's _5 to 1_

The Plot: Holly Bodger's 2015 verse novel 5 to 1 is a polyvocal dystopian narrative that tells the story of Sudasa and Kiran, a teenage girl and boy growing up in India in the year 2054. After years of the government's one-child policy, there are five boys for every one girl in the country; fed up with the commodification of girls, a group of women found a new country called Koyanagar. In Koyanagar, girls are also highly prized, but the government sets up a series of seven tests so that every boy, no matter how rich or poor, has the opportunity to "win" a wife. Sudasa, the middle sister in a wealthy family, does not want to be a wife, although her grandmother with a high ranking position in the government is set on using her marriage as a way to pay a debt she owes. When Sudasa realizes her marriage contest has been rigged (as her cousin is one of the competitors, given an edge by her grandmother), she becomes determined to subvert the tests in some way. Kiran, or contestant five as he is referred to throughout most of the narrative, is a poor farmer boy from the coast. He does not want to be married either, and he has a plan to use the tests to his advantage as well, but finds that he feels a connection with Sudasa that he did not expect.

The Poetry: Bodger's verse novel alternates perspectives and styles; Sudasa's chapters are in verse, while Kiran's chapters are in prose. Like many other verse narratives, Bodger's utilizes the manipulation of space and the gaps created by line breaks to encourage a slowing of narrative pace and reader contemplation. Bodger also makes use of anaphora, variations in typography, strikethrough/underline/bold text, and arrows. Each of these elements draws attention to the words on the page and enacts many of the features of more standard visual or concrete poetry. At times these poetic techniques can seem gimmicky. One of the stronger poetic devices that Bodger uses is the reference to William Blake. Sudasa is depicted as a lover of poetry and she and her father often quote Blake. For example in the final poem, "34," Sudasa's father speaks to her in code using a quote from Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, a text that mixes poetry, prose, and image: "Remember, beti,/ no bird soars too high,/ if he soars with his own wings" (236). Her father then follows up with a secret message to help Sudasa make a decision about her future: "And sometime, when wings burn,/ they rise from the ash/ as fins in turn" (237). Blake's exploration of contraries and his insistence upon the necessity of both in his The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is interestingly reflected in Bodger's verse novel about the two extremes of the prizing of boys vs. the prizing of girls in culture.

The Page: 5 to 1 is organized into three parts, each part representing a day of the tests. Each part is then further separated into chapters that explore the narrative from Sudasa and Kiran's point of view. Each chapter includes a varying illustration that depicts an image of a woman/fish hybrid, and each part includes an illustrated image of a pair of hands with mehndi or henna designs (typically applied to women's hands during Hindu wedding ceremonies) featuring the same woman/fish hybrid.

I found 5 to 1 to be an interesting read, and it is one of the first ever dystopian verse novels I have encountered. I give it three stars.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Christine Heppermann's _Ask Me How I Got Here_

The Plot: In Christine Heppermann's 2016 verse novel Ask Me How I Got Here, high school sophomore Addie attends an all-girls Catholic school (Immaculate Heart Academy) where she runs on the cross country team. At the beginning of the narrative, Addie is dating a junior named Craig from St. Luke's, but his drinking and partying eventually lead her to developing a connection with his best friend, Nick. Addie and Nick kiss after a party one night, Addie breaks up with Craig, and begins dating Nick. After dating for a few months, Nick and Addie have sex and she becomes pregnant. Addie talks to her boyfriend, and eventually her parents, and decides that she wants to have an abortion. The remaining half of the narrative focuses on Addie's physical, emotional, spiritual, and psychological struggles and growth after her abortion. Although Addie never wavers in her view that having an abortion was the right choice for her, she is conflicted throughout the narrative with what her choice means for her morally and how she will be perceived by others because of her choice. In the second half of the narrative, Addie reunites with Juliana, a former cross country runner who graduated the year before. Addie decides to quit the cross country team, and is happy to meet regularly with Juliana, who is taking a break from college cross country and going to therapy to deal with her own demons.

The Poetry: Heppermann's verse novel is primarily told through free verse poems, but interspersed throughout the collection are various haiku and prose poems. Throughout Ask Me How I Got Here, Addie's narrative is juxtaposed with her own writing (written in a script, sans serif font) which includes poetry, mostly focused on the figure of the Virgin Mary, and assignments for various classes. Heppermann uses a variety of poetic techniques beyond the syllabics of the haiku including imagery, lyricism, anaphora, and metaphor. For example, in the poem "Sunday Morning," one of the early poems written by Addie, she draws connections between her sexuality and religious devotion:
His mouth a skittish liturgy
along my neck,
my need a holy ache,
a blessing, I tilt back my head,
prepare to receive
communion (32). 
In this poem, Heppermann utilizes rich religious imagery and the lyric in order to foreground the bodily experience of her protagonist. In the haiku that immediately follows this poem, "A Risky Equation," the poet juxtaposes this lyric imagery with a more restrained, formal approach to express her speaker's regret and anxiety: "Add one plus one plus / zero condoms to equal / pleasepleaseplease not three" (33).

The Page: One subtle way that the author/publisher underscores the significance of her use of both narrative poems and the writing of her character is through the use of alternating page color throughout the narrative. All of the poems, class assignments, and letters written by Addie are marked with a slightly grey-toned page color, in addition to the use of a script-style, sans serif font and a inked-in script scribble at the end of the title and final line of the writing.

One of the strengths of Heppermann's verse novel is the fact that it never becomes overly didactic in terms of its approach to discussing Addie's abortion, and overall the narrative's conclusion is open-ended. I found Heppermann's Ask Me How I Got Here to be a fine verse novel. I give it three stars.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Chris Crowe's _Death Coming Up the Hill_

The Plot: Chris Crowe's 2014 verse novel Death Coming Up the Hill is set in 1968 and tells the story of seventeen-year-old Ashe. Ashe has a troubled home life: his father is conservative, dogmatic, and racist and his mother is a passionate anti-war and civil rights activist. Although his parents do not like, let along love, each other, they make it clear to Ashe that he is the only reason they got married and have stayed together. Adding another complexity to Ashe's experience, he is getting ready to graduate and is seriously concerned about the draft and the Vietnam war. Ashe plans to go to college, with the help of his father's tuition money, in order to avoid being drafted. But when his mother becomes pregnant after forming a relationship with a man at an anti-war meeting and gives birth to a biracial child, Ashe's father leaves and threatens to withdraw Ashe's tuition money if he doesn't come to live with him. Ashe does experience some respite at school where he enjoys his US history class and spending time with his girlfriend, Angela, whose brother is serving in Vietnam.

The Poetry: One of the most unique aspects of Crowe's verse novel is its form. It consists of poems made up of a series of 976 haiku, one syllable for each of the 16,592 American soldiers who died in Vietnam in 1968. Crowe's verse novel is a meditation on the number 17: a prime number, the number of syllables in a haiku, the age of his protagonist, the birthday of his protagonist (May 17), and a number when multiplied by 976 equals the 1968 death toll. Crowe use of the haiku throughout his collection is effective in focusing the reader on breath and pause. According to Crowe, the final two stanzas of the last poem in the collection are inspired by "an American soldier's letter written shortly before he died in the assault on Hamburger Hill in May 1969" (199) and the verse novel takes its title from these final lines: "I see Death coming / up the hill, and I am not / ready to meet him" (197). This final haiku embodies the spirit of the narrative as a whole and of the haiku as a formal approach in general, with its focus on the natural landscape, the speaker's individual experience of his/her surroundings, and the meditation upon the quotidian.

The Page: Each poem in Death Coming Up the Hill begins with the date and the number of lives lost in the war during the preceding week. Ashe explains that this number is a figure that his US history teaching puts up on the board every day; Crowe explains in his historical and author's notes in the back of the book that the Thursday edition of daily newspapers during this time period published the death count, which ultimately "so commonplace that many Americans barely noticed them" (201). Crowe notes in his author's note that he "wanted his main character to notice and become fascinated by the death counts as he gained an awareness of the troubled world around him" (201).

I found Crowe's verse novel to be an interesting exercise in the use of form throughout a collection, but at times the didacticism of the narrative was a bit over the top. I give it three stars.