Friday, March 25, 2016

Marilyn Hilton's _Full Cicada Moon_

The Plot: Marilyn Hilton's Full Cicada Moon (2015) takes place in 1969 and follows twelve-year-old Mimi Yoshiko Oliver as she moves from Berkeley, California to Hillsborough, Vermont with her mother and father. Mimi faces a multitude of struggles in her new town and at her new school, and most of these dilemmas are centered around the fact that she is biracial: her mother is Japanese and her father is black. In addition to the blatant and covert racism Mimi experiences, she also experiences sexist attitudes from her school administrators and teachers when she expresses interest in taking wood shop class instead of home economics. Beyond these already complex topics, Full Cicada Moon also explores a wide variety of conflicts. Mimi's family has a neighbor who is unfriendly, which the reader later learns has to do with his prejudice toward Japan after serving in WWII as a pilot. Mimi's mother is struggling to adjust to life without her relatives from California nearby. Mimi makes a friend whose mother does not like that she is part-black; this friend later wants to date a "boy with an afro" in their class, which she hides from her racist mother. Mimi wants to be an astronaut when she grows up and is fascinated by the Apollo 11 mission and the moon. She follows her passion and creates a science project about the moon's phases, and just when it seems that her project will win the school science fair, someone vandalizes her work. There are several school dances (where fights occur or where Mimi feels left out), Mimi befriends her rude neighbor's nephew and begins to have romantic feelings for him, and Mimi experiences a variety of racist attitudes and remarks from various townspeople and her schoolmates. This is a lot for one text to take on, which makes sense given the book's 400 pages.

The Poetry: While a lot happens in the novel, and the author approaches and successfully tackles some taboo topics, the one thing that was most lacking in Full Cicada Moon was the use of sustained poetic technique. In fact, in 400 pages, there were only a few poems that employed any poetic devices at all. The narrative is told in free verse poems, but the poems lack imagery, lyricism, and music. This lack of poetic technique is acceptable, so long as the author endeavors to utilize the space of the page to create pauses or to draw the reader's attention to linger on a scene. Hilton's verse novel was really more of a soliloquy, where the main focus was on the story and the voice and musings of the speaker (see Mike Cadden's "The Verse Novel and the Question of Genre" for an in-depth discussion of the ways in which the verse novel utilizes dramatic techniques). The one poetic device that Full Cicada Moon does employ every so often is the use of concrete or visual poetry (words arranged on the page to imply movement) and the em-dash (for emphasis and pause at the end of a line).

The Page: Full Cicada Moon is divided into parts that focus on the seasons of the first full year of Mimi's life in Vermont. Several poem titles also emphasize Japanese cultural traditions or follow the phases of the moon. The book includes a glossary of Japanese words, epigraphs from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Neil Armstrong, and an author's acknowledgement page that details how Mimi's narrative came to her and the research she did for the novel.

Overall, the narrative of Full Cicada Moon was interesting, but the book was far too long and filled with too many side-narratives, and the under-utilization of poetic techniques and devices seemed like a missed opportunity. I give Full Cicada Moon three stars.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Nikki Grimes's _Words with Wings_

The Plot: Nikki Grimes's Words with Wings (2013) was named a Coretta Scott King honor book in 2014 and tells the story of daydreamer Gabriella. Gabby's story begins with a poem entitled "Prologue" which explains how her parents decided on her name. Most of the poems focus on the primary narrative: Gabby's parents have just divorced and she and her mother have moved to a new town where she starts a new school. In addition to the focus on Gabby's changing home life, these poems also track her struggle in school and at home with being labeled a daydreamer. At school, most of her teachers remark that "her mind tends to wander," while at home her mother is constantly frustrated that she can't stay on task with her chores or doesn't seem to be listening. Gabby thinks this tension with her mother might have something to do with the fact that her daydreaming is something she gets from her father. The one teacher who seems to support her daydreaming is her English teacher, Mr. Spicer. When Gabby suddenly stops daydreaming, she becomes even more withdrawn and sad; it is her English teacher who encourages her by suggesting that her entire class spend some time every day writing down their daydreams. It seems that this helps her pay attention in class, and her mother begins to praise her for being such a great writer.

The Poetry: This short 83 page verse novel is comprised of mostly short free verse poems, with a few haiku and concrete poems. Eighteen of the poems are Gabby's "daydreams," and these poems are set off in a different sans-serif font and a slightly larger font size. Each of the daydream poems begins with the same refrain that focuses on the poem's title image. For example, the poem "Waterfall" begins:
Say "waterfall,"
and the dreary winter rain
outside my classroom window
turns to liquid thunder,
pounding into a clear pool
miles below,
and I can't wait
to dive in (30).
Most of the poems in Words with Wings fall into a similar pattern of using a key word to evoke an image. Mostly these poems are not extremely compelling, but they do work similar to that of Sharon Creech's Love That Dog in that they show a young person learning the intricacies of language and practicing at being a writer of poetry. A few poems in this collection incorporate interesting rhyme and imagery, but even these ultimately have endings that feel overly didactic or have a strange exclamatory clause at the end. For example, the title poem "Words with Wings" begins with interesting sound and imagery: "Some words / sit still on the page / holding a story steady" and "But other words have wings / that wake my daydreams," but ends with the phrase, "I can't help / but buckle up / for the ride!" (11).

The Page: The organization of Grimes's verse novel seemed a bit strange. At first it seemed that the daydream poems might have been flashbacks, but towards the end of the narrative it became clear that they were parts of her daydream journal. I am not sure that this was an effective organizational strategy.

Overall, Words with Wings is a fine verse novel. I give it three stars.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Andrea Davis Pinkney's _The Red Pencil_

The Plot: The Red Pencil (2014), written by Andrea Davis Pinkney and illustrated by Shane W. Evans, takes place in Sudan in 2004 and tells the story of Amira. The narrative opens on the day of Amira's twelfth birthday, the day she can exchange her tarha for a toob (a child's headscarf for a woman's sari-like garment). Part one of the verse novel meditates upon Amira's family and cultural traditions; her mother and father tell her birth story (26-31) and her little sister Leila's birth story (38-43), she practices calling the Sayidda Moon (glowing lady) with her family (36), and Amira meditates upon the goz (sandy soil of Darfur) "sprinkled by Allah" and its connection to her family's farm (52). The reader also learns that Amira loves to draw in the sand and desires, more than anything, to one day attend school, which goes against her mother's wishes that she follow tradition and marry. Toward the end of part one, her parents begin to worry about the Janjaweed militia attacks and war. After the Janjaweed attacks her village, she journeys with whats left of her family and neighbors to a refugee center called Kalma Camp. While the camp is safer, Amira and her family are forced to live with thousands of others in poor conditions. For a while, the grief Amira experiences causes her to lose her voice, and it isn't until an aid worker named Miss Sabine offers her a red pencil and tablet for drawing and writing that she begins to regain her voice and desire to learn. Her old neighbor eventually begins to teach her to read and write in secret, and the narrative ends hopefully as the possibility for education and healing are within Amira's grasp.

The Poetry: Pinkney uses lyrical free verse throughout her verse novel; some of the most prevalent poetic techniques in her work include anaphora, imagery, and internal rhyme. Language play and rich imagery abound in the poems that describe Amria's family's journey to the Kalma Camp. For example, in the poem "Soles" Amira wishes she could be closer to her mother as they traveled: "I could press my chest right to her. / I could send my hearth's drumming to Muma's heart, / sliced with sorrow" (125), and in the poem "Hungry," Pinkney uses internal rhyme for effect: "A clump of corn, / swallowed down with the little bit of wet / I can summon from my tongue" (129). The pain of Amira's loss after the Janjaweed attack is exemplified through Pinkney's use of imagery in the poem "Locked":
I know the names,
but can't say them.
I shake my head.

Pain-clouds rise in Muma's eyes.
She takes both my hands in hers.
Holds them.
Kneads them,
as if she's shaping dough.

"Amira, sorrow's fence
has locked you in," she says (158-59).
Once again this poem uses internal rhyme, lyricism, metaphor, and imagery in order to illustrate the experience of grief and the connection between Amira and her mother.

The Page: The Red Pencil, like many other verse novels, includes several paratextual elements that add to the reader's experience including: a map, a glossary/pronunciation guide, an author's note that includes historical information, and definitions of important terms. One of the most striking things about The Red Pencil are Evans's pencil sketches that illustrate the verse novel. These sketches fill the blank spaces left by the poems and add much to the collaged aspects of the narrative. As Pinkney clarifies in her Author's Note, "The Red Pencil's illustrated poems follow one child's journey through grief and possiblity. Part novel, part sketchbook, this story celebrates the power of creativity, and the way that art can help us heal (312).

I give The Red Pencil four stars and highly recommend it.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Mariko Nagai's _Dust of Eden_

The Plot: Markio Nagai's verse novel Dust of Eden (2014) takes place between 1941 to 1945 and focuses on the experiences of thirteen-year-old Mina Masako Tagawa and her Japanese American family as they are forced from their home in Seattle and relocated to an internment camp in Idaho after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Amidst increasing discrimination in their town, Mina's father is imprisoned, and her family is then placed on a bus with only two pieces of luggage each to Camp Harmony in Puyallup, Washington. After four months, her family must travel again by train to Minidoka Relocation Center in Hunt, Idaho where they live for three years. Throughout the narrative, Mina struggles with her identity and experience of living as a Japanese American during a tumultuous time in US history. Her grandfather and father practice "the stoic Japanese principle known as gaman, which means to bear hardship silently" (122), while her eighteen-year-old brother Nick expresses his anger and frustration at the unfair treatment of Japanese Americans by the US government and eventually volunteers to join the Japanese American regiment in the US military to prove his loyalty to his country. Throughout the narrative, Mina expresses sadness and longing for the way her life used to be; she misses her home, her cat Basho, her best friend Jamie, and her family being together and happy.

The Poetry: The free verse poems in Dust of Eden utilize a variety of poetic techniques and formal approaches to express Mina's story. Some of the most prevalent features of Nagai's collection are the use of imagery, anaphora, lyricism, and metaphor. Each of these features in the poem "October 1942":
Dust enters
during the night like a thief,
leaving mounds 
of sand in all corners
of the room where the wind left it,
leaving mounds like graves,
even on top of us, burying us
while we were asleep.
Dust enters through our noses
and mouths while we are asleep (53).
In this poem and many others in the collection, Nagai uses space and symbol to illustrate the hopelessness and grief experienced by those interned in the camps during World War II. Poems like "September 1942" utilize space and movement on the page to depict mundane every-day experiences of internment such as the way in which internees were forced to stand in "line after line" while imprisoned (51), while other spare poems like "July 1945" disclose the horrors of internment: "A woman killed her baby / today because she was / afraid of leaving the camp" (114).

The Page: Nagai's verse novel is divided into five sections each focused on place; each poem is titled with the month and the year to give the collection a diary or journal-like quality. In addition to free verse poems, Dust of Eden also presents Mina's experiences through letters to and from Mina and essays written by Mina for school. This approach contributes to the layered and assembled nature of the verse novel as a work that contains not just lyric poetry but also documents and correspondences.

I found the narrative of Nagai's Dust of Eden fascinating and affecting, and the poetry beautifully and uniquely crafted. I give Dust of Eden four stars and highly recommend it.