Friday, January 29, 2016

Melanie Crowder's _Audacity_

The Plot: Melanie Crowder's verse novel Audacity (2015) explores the adolescent years of real-life activist Clara Lemlich Shavelson, who is best known for her role as an executive board member of The International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) and her impromptu speech in the Great Hall at Cooper Union which helped incite a strike called "The Revolt of the Girls" in the garment industry in New York City's Lower East Side in the early 1900s. The narrative begins with Clara describing her experiences living on the outskirts of a small shtetl in the Russian Empire. Her mother runs a small grocery store and her father is an orthodox scholar who spends his days studying the Torah and praying. Clara's religious parents do not approve of schooling for girls, and in protest of the anti-Semitism in the region, her father forbids her to read or write in the Russian language. Despite their disapproval, Clara advances her education by secretly trading singing lessons for books (which her father burns when he finds them in her room). After a pogrom in which almost fifty people in her shtetl are murdered, Clara's family immigrates to the US. The first half of the verse novel focuses on Clara's life in the shtetl and her journey to New York, and the second half follows her experiences working in garment shops and her work with the ILGWU. Appalled by the terrible and dangerous working conditions (low wages, 70 hour work weeks, restricted bathroom breaks and access to drinking water, sexual harassment from the foreman, and no fire escapes), Clara helps form her local union. In spite of being repeatedly fired, harassed, beaten, and jailed for her participation in the union and worker strikes, Clara continues her activism, and she even gives up a scholarship to go to medical school in order to keep fighting for justice.

The Poetry: Crowder, who received her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, divides her verse novel into five dated sections: "tinder 1903," "spark 1904-1905," "flame 1905-1907," "fire 1908," and "blaze 1909." Crowder utilizes one to three page free verse poems that are composed in short lines and often play with both right and left justification in order to note a shift from lyrical or narrative description to the speaker's inner monologue. For example, the lead-off poem in the collection, "clouds," begins with Clara working to memorize a poem "Song of the Storm Petrel" by Russian writer Maksim Gorky, a founder of the socialist realism literary movement:
float like wayward clouds
in the air
in my mind.
                                      Now his wing the wave
or was it,
                                     Now the wave his wing caresses
I dip a hand
into my apron pocket
unfold a square of paper
against my palm (3).

Poems utilizing this shift from image to thought, from external to internal are scattered across the collection. Crowder also repeatedly uses bird imagery throughout the verse novel to serve as a metaphor for Clara's desire for voice and freedom.

The Page: Like many other historical verse novels including Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming and Margarita Engle's Enchanted Air, Crowder frames her poetry with a variety of paratextual materials including an author's note, an epigraph from Clara Lemlich, an eight page historical note with photographs, an interview with Clara's daughters and grandchildren, a glossary of terms, and a bibliography of sources. As with Padma Venkatraman's A Time to Dance, Crowder employs the blank space on each page adeptly.

Crowder's narrative and use of imagery were strong, and although this book is near 400 pages, it never became tiresome. I give Audacity four stars.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Margarita Engle's _Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir_

Last Monday the American Library Association announced the 2016 youth media award winners. Margarita Engle's 2015 Enchanted Air was named the winner of the Pura Belpré author award. According to the ALA's website, the Pura Belpré award is presented annually to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth. Enchanted Air was also a finalist for the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults ages 12 to 18.

The Plot: Engle's work follows other recent examples of memoirs in verse such as Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming and Thanhha Lai's Inside Out and Back Again in that it explores the author's childhood experiences of "otherness" during tumultuous periods in US history. Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings is composed of what Engle refers to in her author's note as "travel memories" from the first fourteen years of her life (191). The novel's dust jacket begins: "Margarita is a girl from two worlds." The young protagonist describes her life from 1951 through 1965 growing up in Los Angeles and frequently visiting her mother's homeland of Cuba. The first half of the narrative focuses on the magic Margarita experiences visiting Cuba and learning about the language and landscape of the island. As the years pass, revolution breaks out in Cuba and US-Cuban relations become strained by the events of the Cold War. As a middle-schooler, Margarita struggles to find her place and longs to return to Cuba. Eventually travel to Cuba becomes completely restricted, and Margarita's family travels to Europe instead.

The Poetry: Enchanted Air utilizes short, one to two page free verse poems and the poems are divided into four sections entitled "Magical Travels," "Winged Summer," "Strange Sky," and "Two Wings." These four sections are framed by a prose introduction "Love at First Sight" (which describes how Margarita's parents met and fell in love) and a Cold War timeline and author's note. Engle's poetic strength throughout her memoir in verse is her use of lush imagery and metaphor, particularly in her descriptions of the natural landscape. For instance, in her poem "The Dancing Plants of Cuba" she describes how "Fronds and petals wave / in wild wind" and
The delicate leaflets
of sensitive mimosa plants
coil and curl, folding up
like the pages
of a wizard's book,
each time I touch
their rooted magic (12).
Moments like these accumulate throughout the early pages of her verse novel. Engle also utilizes subtle rhymes occasionally which contribute to the musicality of the narrative. As the narrative progresses, more and more time is spent focusing on the protagonist's longings and memories of her relatives and the Cuban countryside.

The Page: The poems in Engle's collection focus on the repeated themes of doubles and wings throughout. This is most evident in the various poems that are titled in both Spanish and English. Poems such as "Realidad/Reality" and "Hasta Pronto/Until Soon" are only found in the first two poetry sections that take place before 1961 when Margarita and her family are able to travel to Cuba. In the final section, in the poem "My Second Wing" the speaker of the poem meditates on her realization after visiting Spain that "other journeys / are magical too" and that she "can love / many countries, / not just two" (183).

Engle's use of imagery and metaphor in Enchanted Air were lovely. I give her memoir in verse four stars.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Padma Venkatraman's _A Time to Dance_

The Plot: Padma Venkatraman's A Time to Dance (2014) tells the story of a Bharatanatyam dance prodigy, Veda, who lives in India. The verse novel opens with a prologue poem entitled "Temple of the Dancing God" that describes Veda's first encounter with a bronze statue of Shiva, God of dance; a priest in the temple explains to her that she only has to look within and around her to see God "danc[ing] within all He creates" (2). The story then moves forward to an older Veda who is getting ready to dance in the Bharatanatyam dance competition. After winning the competition with her "flawless technique" and "skillful mastery over her body" (23), Veda is injured in a car accident and her right leg must be amputated from the knee down. Devastated by this loss, she faces the possibility that she will never dance again. With the help of her prosthesis, Veda becomes determined to continue dancing. When her old dance teacher refuses to continue to work with her, her grandmother Paati encourages her to try to work with Dr. Dhanam, a different kind of dance teacher who focuses on abhinaya, or emotional expression (123). With the help of Dhanam akka, the doctor who creates her new prosthetic leg, and her new friend and dance teacher Govinda, Veda relearns dance, as well as lessons in acceptance and peace.

The Poetry: Venkatraman's verse novel is told entirely through free verse poems that range in length from one to five pages. The poems are primarily made up of plain, every day language. Each poem is clearly written to move the narrative forward, and there is little time spent focusing on the intricacies of language. There are a few lyrical moments where the beauty of language and line are apparent. For example, in the poem "The Color of Music" Venkatraman uses sensory imagery and lyricism to describe the landscape and her experience of God.

The Page: In A Time to Dance, like many verse novels for young readers, the author places a heavier focus on the narrative than she does on the use of poetic devices and techniques. The author primarily makes use of the space and pause that the verse novel naturally creates through line break. While some critics might find this to be a significant weakness in the work, I would argue that Venkatraman's use of the verse novel is a valid and useful choice because space and pause (even if they are the only elements of "poetry" in the verse novel) require reader engagement in a way that traditional prose does not.

A Time to Dance told an engrossing story. I give Venkatraman's verse novel four stars.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Kwame Alexander's _The Crossover_

The Plot: Published in 2014, Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover was the winner of the 2015 Newbery Medal and a Coretta Scott King Honor Book. The story follows 12-year-old Josh Bell and his twin brother Jordan (JB) as they lead their middle school basketball team to their first county championship. Their father is a former Euroleague basketball player and their mother is the assistant principal at their middle school. The narrative begins with Josh feeling confident about his locks, his basketball skills, his friendship with his twin brother, and the idea of one day attending Duke University. Throughout the novel, which is divided into six sections (warm up, four quarters, and overtime), things begin to change in Josh’s life: his brother accidentally cuts off five of his locks and he must shave his head, JB gets his first girlfriend and Josh feels neglected, Josh gets suspended from the basketball team, and his family becomes more and more concerned about his father’s health.

The Poetry: Alexander’s verse novel utilizes multiple poetic forms (free verse, rap, concrete, tanka, ode) and devices (rhyme, rhythm, anaphora, lyricism, metaphor, simile) in order to focus on the strong family ties and the significance of language in the life of Josh Bell. Alexander uses free verse in a variety of different poems to push the narrative thread along. Additionally, several poems utilize rhyme and rhythm that mirrors rap or hip-hop lyrics, while others use concrete poetry and irregular font size and placement to emulate movements during basketball games.

The Page: Throughout the narrative, the poems make use of a variety of narrative modes including conversation poems, basketball rules, definition poems, text messages, play-by-plays, and newspaper articles. For example, in the definition poem “cross-o-ver,” the speaker of the poem, Josh, explains the meaning of this basketball term and how it relates to knowledge he has gathered from his education in language, his father, and professional basketball players he admires (29). In the final basketball rules poem in the novel, “Basketball Rule #10,” Josh meditates upon the year that has gone by: “A loss is inevitable, / like snow in winter. / True champions / learn / to dance / through / the storm” (230).

I found Alexander’s verse novel to be one of the best I have encountered thus far. Both the narrative and the use of poetry were compelling. I give The Crossover five stars and highly recommend it.

Friday, January 1, 2016

An Introduction to the Verse Novel Review

Welcome to The Verse Novel Review! This blog features my reviews, critical perspectives, analysis, and exploration of the verse novel for young readers as a literary form. I am a children's and young adult literature scholar and educator who studies form in contemporary American poetry, comics, and realistic fiction.

I first became interested in the verse novel as a form while I was completing my MFA in Poetry. I read hundreds of children's, young adult, and adult verse novels and even experimented with writing my own verse novel. Throughout my research and writing process, I was most struck by the fact that although this form has deep historical roots and has been utilized by many contemporary adult writers (such as Anne Carson, Rita Dove, Marilyn Hacker, Derek Walcott, and Seth Vikram), the form has emerged strongly in literature for young readers from the 1990s onward. Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust was the first verse novel for young readers to win the Newbery Medal in 1998, and Virginia Euwer Wolff's True Believer and Thanhha Lai's Inside Out and Back Again each won the National Book Award for their verse novels in 2001 and 2011, respectively. Most recently, verse novels such as Kwame Alexander's The Crossover and Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming have been awarded top honors by the Newbery Medal Selection Committee and the National Book Award panel. Beyond awards and honors, verse novels for young readers have also emerged as a form extremely popular with young people. Verse novels by Ellen Hopkins, Margarita Engle, David Levithan, Sonya Sones, Sharon Creech, Helen Frost, among others can regularly be found in stock at large chain bookstores.

Further research into the critical opinion about the verse novel for young readers uncovered a general feeling of suspicion and distaste for the form (see the bibliography of critical perspectives page on this blog, noting critical commentary from the panel for The Lion and the Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Poetry in 2005, 2009, and 2014). Critics have debated about whether there is any poetry in the verse novel and whether the form merits serious critical consideration. This led me to wonder: Why the verse novel? What is the verse novel? Why have authors for young readers found the form useful to communicate to and about children in the twentieth and twenty-first century? Why have critics of verse novels for young readers found the form lacking at times? What makes the verse novel for young readers a valuable form? I hope to use this blog as a way to open up a dialogue about the form and to begin answering these questions. I also hope to use this blog as a place to begin tracking, organizing, categorizing, and recognizing patterns in the production, consumption, and content of the verse novel for young readers.

Although many have defined the verse novel, it is not only scholars, but also readers, authors, and publishers who help determine what makes a book a verse novel. What makes the verse novel unique is its hybrid form, a form that combines elements of poetry, prose, and even drama (see Mike Cadden's "The Verse Novel and the Question of Genre" for more on this idea). I define the verse novel as a series of poems linked by a central narrative thread. Furthermore, because of the strong connection between children's and young adult literature and participatory culture, I argue that if a publisher, author, scholar, or reader identifies a work as a verse novel, it is a verse novel.

The verse novel as a form is significant in that, in both children's and adult literature, it has a literary history and tradition that dates back to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Since the late 1990s, the verse novel has reemerged within both children's and adult literature, marking an important shift in the way in which we view contemporary poetry. The verse novel, in its unique hybrid construction, opens up a space for young readers and educators to come to contemporary poetry without feeling overwhelmed. The verse novel presents itself as an accessible form, and quite often reveals much depth and complexity through its language and craft.

So welcome to the blog! You can look forward to my posts weekly. I will be reviewing a new verse novel for young readers each week beginning with those published most recently in 2014 and 2015, with an occasional post about what I will call "genealogical" works from 1990 through 2013. I will provide discussion of elements of the plot, the poetry, and the page, as well as note my rating on a five-star scale system. Cheers to a new year full of verse novels!