Friday, April 29, 2016

Margarita Engle's _Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal_

Earlier this year I reviewed Margarita Engle's Enchanted Air which focuses on US-Cuban relations during the 1950s and 1960s, as well as Engle's own experience growing up and traveling between her two homelands. Once again, in Silver Peeople: Voices from the Panama Canal, Engle explores the Cuban perspective specifically, and Latin American history more generally in this narrative.

The Plot: Engle's 2014 verse novel, Silver People is a polyvocal narrative that includes poems in the voices of imaginary characters, historical figures, and native plants and animals in Panama's forests. Silver People takes its title from the discriminatory silver/gold payroll system in the American-ruled Canal Zone during the construction of the Panama Canal. The verse novel takes place between the years of 1906 and 1915. The narrative begins by introducing the reader to Mateo, a 14-year-old orphaned boy from Cuba, who boards a steamship to Panama after an American Panama Canal recruiter promises food, housing, and pay for his labor. After an arduous journey at sea with no food for three days, Mateo arrives in Panama, and he finds that the recruiter's promises are not truthful. The work is grueling, the working and living conditions are poor, and workers often become ill with malaria and yellow fever. Despite these hardships and the racial discrimination faced by the young laborers, Mateo and his companions manage to make a life for themselves in Panama. Early on in the narrative, he befriends Anita, a local yerbera, or herb girl, and a Jamaican boy named Henry. The narrative alternates between the voices of Engle's imagined characters: Mateo, Anita, Henry, Old Maria (Anita's adoptive grandmother), and Augusto (a Puerto Rican with a PhD in geology from a New York university) and historical figures such as John Stevens, Theodore Roosevelt, George Goethals, Jackson Smith, Gertrude Beeks, and Harry Franck. Engle also includes eight sections of poems that are told from the imagined voices of native plants and animals in the forest including: howler monkeys, trees, vipers, butterflies, crocodiles, and frogs. The inclusion of these personified voices demonstrates the ways in which the landscape of Panama and the individuals who labored on the canal are intimately connected in that both were harmed immeasurably. The epilogue to the verse novel is a letter from Augusto to Mateo, Anita, and Henry noting that at the San Francisco Panama-Pacific International Exposition fails to honor the silver people who labored and died in the construction of the canal.

The Poetry: Engle is the author of nine verse novels for young readers, and her tenth is scheduled for publication in August. Like Engle's many other verse novels for young readers, Silver People relies heavily upon the use of lyricism and imagery to depict the natural world and the emotional lives of her characters. For example, in the poem "The Voyage from Cuba" Mateo reflects upon hunger and the experience of being at sea for three days:
feels like a knife in the flesh--
twisted blade, rusty metal
the  piercing tip of a long
called regret (10).
Later in the narrative, Augusto the map maker provides Mateo with art supplies and he begins to sketch the wonders of the forest around him. In the poem "Completely Magnificent" he describes the animals he paints:
two swiftly sprinting whiptail lizards,
and all the gigantic rodents that graze
on gold-zone lawns-- cat-size agoutis
and dog-size capybaras, none of them
afraid to be captured
by my paintbrush (131).
The Page: In terms of form, Engle's verse novel is primarily told through free verse poems in the alternating voices of eleven characters. Each section of poems in the voices of human characters is separated by a section called "The Forest," and in these eight sections, Engle depicts the voices of plants and animals as they respond to the canal's construction. These poems often take the form of visual poetry (shaped verse or concrete poetry). For example, the poem "The Giant Hissing Cockroaches" includes short phrases alternatively right and left justified so that the words appear to flit across the page, mimicking the movement of the cockroach (104).

Engle's Silver People was an interesting and engaging narrative, and she employs her signature lyric free verse to represent a historical moment and give voice to the Cuban experience. I give Silver People four stars and recommend it to those who already enjoy Engle's verse novels.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Kwame Alexander's _Booked_

Earlier this year I reviewed Kwame Alexander's Newbery Medal winner The Crossover (2014). I highly recommend The Crossover, which incorporates some truly electric language and utilizes a variety of different formal approaches to tell a rich story that deals with family, grief, sports, and boyhood in an absolutely innovative way. Alexander's follow up to The Crossover, Booked (2016) is another groundbreaking verse novel that is sure to garner praise from young readers, librarians, educators, and scholars.

The Plot: Kwame Alexander's Booked follows eighth grader Nick Hall-- a wordsmith and avid soccer player-- as he navigates his first crush, his parents' separation, and his relationship with books. Alexander's verse novels have both portrayed highly professionalized parents; in The Crossover Josh's parents were a retired professional basketball player and an assistant middle school principal, and in Booked Nick's parents are a linguistics professor and a former horse racer turned trainer. The narrative begins with Nick daydreaming about soccer and feeling annoyed that his father makes him read a dictionary he wrote called Weird and Wonderful Words in preparation for college. As the narrative continues, the reader learns that in addition to playing soccer, Nick takes regular lessons at Miss Quattlebaum's School of Ballroom Dance and Etiquette (21), where he often gets to dance with April (the girl he has a crush on but is mostly too nervous to talk to). Early on in the narrative, Nick learns that his mother has decided to go back to work with horses in Kentucky and that his parents are separating (57). After learning this news, Nick becomes depressed; he has a hard time sleeping and begins to struggle in his classes. Nick struggles with his parents' separation throughout the novel, while also building up the courage to talk to April, playing against his best friend in soccer tournaments, dealing with being bullied, and resisting his honors English teacher's and his librarian's pleas for him to get more involved in reading because of his strength with words.

The Poetry: One of the most unique and fascinating things about Alexander's Booked is his use of erasure poetry, footnotes, acrostics, and intertextuality throughout. Towards the end of the verse novel, Nick begins to become immersed in literature for younger readers and joins a book club. He describes the experience of reading works like Karen Hesse's verse novel Out of the Dust and Jacqueline Woodson's Peace, Locomotion. In many ways, Booked takes on a pedagogical or didactic function in that it introduces readers to contemporary works for young readers and schools them in vocabulary. While acrostics, poems in which the first letter of a line spells out a word when read vertically, may seem like a commonplace poetic form for works for young readers, Alexander elevates this form by using unfamiliar words and then following up these poems with discussions of the word's meaning. For example the poem "April is" (114) utilizes an acrostic of the word "limerence," which means "the experience of being in love with someone" (119) to describe all of the characteristics he likes about April. When his English teacher asks him to find an example of a malapropism in Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Nick creates an erasure poem from a page of the novel to show two malapropisms he found in the text (51). While Alexander's Booked does not contain the same level of electricity and playfulness in language as his previous work, The Crossover, Booked is innovative in its approach to form.

The Page: Footnotes are another inventive device that Alexander uses throughout Booked. While the footnote might be seen as academic, Nick utilizes them not only to define words, but also to provide his own commentary on the words. For example, in the poem "Busted," Nick's footnote reads: "*malapropism [mal-uh-prop-iz-uhm] noun: the amusing and ludicrous misuse of a word, especially by confusion with one of a similar sound. Here's an example: my English teacher, Ms. Hardwick, is a wolf in cheap clothing" (18).

I found Alexander's new verse novel Booked to be a fascinating and fun read. I give it four stars and highly recommend it.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Meg Wiviott's _Paper Hearts_

The Plot: Paper Hearts, Meg Wiviott's 2015 historical verse novel, is based upon the true story of the group of young women who survived the Holocaust, experienced the horrors of Auschwitz, and endured the death marches at the end of the war. Wiviott's narrative focuses specifically on two young women, Fania and Zlatka, who became friends and worked together as part of the Union Kommando (work squad) for the Weichsel Union Metallwerke (private factory in Auschwitz that made munitions for the Third Reich). The narrative of Paper Hearts focuses not only on the historical events, but also on the friendship and experiences of Fania and Zlatka and one specific act of defiance and love-- Zlatka's creation of a birthday card for Fania's 20th birthday. Wiviott was inspired to tell this story after seeing "Fania's Heart" on display at the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre. The author notes in her "What Is True?" section at the end of the verse novel that she relied upon "the USC Shoah Foundation's audiovisual testimonies of Fania Fainer (Fania Landau) and Zulema Pitluk (Zlatka Sznaiderhauz), the film documentary The Heart of Auschwitz (Ad Hoc Films), the testimony given by Zlatka on the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre website, and several e-mail and telephone conversations with Fania's daughter" (329). The narrative consists of fourteen chapters which alternate the first person perspectives of Fania and Zlatka. Both girls' narrative begins with their experiences living in different ghettos; Zlatka lives in Pruzany ghetto with her parents and three siblings, and Fania lives in Bialystok with her parents and two siblings. Zlatka observes Fania upon their arrival in Auschwitz; Zlatka is alone, having been separated from her family, and Fania is with only her younger sister Necha. Necha eventually becomes ill and is taken to Block 25, where prisoners were housed before they were sent to the gas chambers. Sick with despair, Fania begins to lose hope, and it is only her friendship with Zlatka that brings her back from the brink.

The Poetry: Wiviott, like several other verse novelists reviewed on this blog, is a graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts's MFA program in writing for children and young adults. Her verse novel is full of lyricism, imagery, and music that makes her exploration of this historical moment fresh. For example, in the poem "74207," Fania meditates upon the landscape of Auschwitz Birkenau and her body:
Just outside the barbed-wire fence,
A stand of birches.
I'd never seen trees the color of ghosts.

Bark streaked with black,
Lashes on the skin.
Blending with the
Winter sky
My forearm,
    Thin as paper,
    Losing luster,
    Scarred with black. (117)
In this poem, the haunting image of ghost trees and the dull landscape is richly mirrored in Fania's body. Other poems, like "Coping," provide similarly grim representations of life during the Holocaust. In this poem, Zlatka watches a horrible scene unfold on a spring day: "Upwind from the chimneys / blue sky hung like a promise / in the air." Zlatka describes watching three girls holding hands who "walked past us / toward the / shadow of the chimneys" and the electrified fence: "one girl lifted her hand to the fence... / Death rippled / through her fingers / radiated to the others" (212).

The Page: One unique thing about Paper Hearts is its inclusion of the image of Fania's paper heart and its incorporation of translations of the inscriptions inside the heart card throughout the last half of the narrative. Each of these translation pages is a darker gray color and includes an image of stitching at the edge of the page. One of the final pages of the narrative also includes a reproduced image of the actual heart on display at the Holocaust Memorial Centre. These elements, along with the glossary, bibliography, and author's "What Is True?" sections contribute to the construction of the verse novel as a whole and link the narrative to the actual historical events it portrays.

Meg Wiviott's Paper Hearts was a beautiful and fresh historical verse narrative. I give it four stars and highly recommend it.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Skila Brown's _Caminar_

The Plot: Skila Brown's 2014 verse novel Caminar tells the story of Carlos, a young boy growing up in Guatemala in 1981. According to the prefatory note to the reader, Brown's narrative is inspired by the real events and experiences of individuals living in Guatemala during the period after 1954 when the "democratically elected government of Guatemala was overthrown by a group of military men who were unhappy with the way the government had been passing laws to help poor farmers in rural communities. Forty horrible years followed, in which the people of Guatemala tried to resist, organize, and bring about change." Carlos lives in a small farming village with his mother in the mountains and is at the point where he is still treated like a child but wants to be grown up. When a group of soldiers come through their village asking for names of Communists and promising money for individuals who provide names, Carlos's mother and community begin to worry. The villagers decide that if the soldiers or the rebels fighting against them return to their village again, they will run and hide in the trees. While some of Carlos's friends wish to stay and defend the village, Carlos's mother is adamant that he run if anything happens. A few days later, when Carlos walks to the edge of the village and into the jungle to gather mushrooms for his mother to make soup, the soldiers return and massacre his village. He escapes into the jungle and hides in a tree; unsure about whether or not to return or to flee, he decides to make his way to the village where his grandmother lives. Along the way, he encounters a group of rebels and, after some trepidation, he begins to walk with them. Carlos teaches them what he knows about the jungle, plants, animals, hunting, and hiding. Once he reaches his grandmother's village, he must decide whether to carry on with the rebels or stay and defend the village.

The Poetry: Some of the most interesting features of Brown's verse novel are her use of space, repetition, shape, and language. Throughout Caminar, which is the Spanish word for "walk," Brown relies heavily upon the use of repetition and the blending of English, Spanish, and other indigenous languages to emphasize the significance of voice, cultural experience, and character subjectivity in the narrative. For example, in the poem "Nahuales," an elder named Santiago explains the process of coming of age for young men when he was growing up in which each young man enters the jungle to meet his animal spirit protectors:
I looked up to the trees,
away from his eyes. I did not want to tell him
no one believes anymore
in nahuales,
spirit animals who guides us in life, keep us
safe.        I walked away.
                           But I wondered
                                   which animal
                                           he saw. (22)
This poem foregrounds the tensions between Carlos's connections with his cultural history and the circumstances of his experience of war. These tensions are also connected to Carlos's desire to grow up, to go to work instead of school, and his mother's insistence that he is too young to think about participating in work and war.

The Page: Brown makes use of the space on the page and shape in her poems. Many of her poems employ right and left justification, dual columns on either side of the page, and are shaped to evoke the imagery her narrative conveys. For example, the poems "Ah Xochil" (4) and "Eye to Eye" (90) utilize right and left justified columns that encourage readers to read and reread poems in a variety of ways to glean different meanings from the poem. Concrete poems such as "After They Left" (35) and "I Climbed a Tree" utilize the space on the page and shape. "After They Left" depicts a series of voices from the village giving their opinion about what to do if any soldiers return; this poem depicts the lines of dialogue spread across the page as if the voices are coming from many different people and co-mingling together. "I Climbed a Tree" is shaped simply as a tree, utilizes repetition to depict climbing, and describes Carlos's experience of terror as he waits in the tree while soldiers with machetes and rifles pass through after destroying his village.

Brown's Caminar was a fascinating read. I give it four stars.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Ellen Hopkins's _Rumble_

The Plot: Ellen Hopkins's Rumble (2014), her eleventh verse novel for young adults, tells the story of Matthew Turner, a high school senior who is dealing with his younger brother Luke's recent suicide, his parents' separation, and his conflicted feelings toward his evangelical Christian girlfriend Hayden. Most of the narrative in this 500+ page work centers around Matt's anger and resentment toward Hayden's circle of church-going friends who bullied his younger brother mercilessly for being gay before his death. Matt also attends regular therapy sessions in which he meditates upon his anger toward everyone who he feels had a hand in Luke's death, his fear of being left along (by Luke, his parents, and his girlfriend), and his struggles with guilt and forgiveness. Toward the middle of the narrative, Matt reconnects with his girlfriend's former best friend Alexa and they begin to feel more and more attracted to each other. This connection, along with his girlfriend's deepening faith and increased commitment to her youth group ministry, leads to Hayden and Matt's breakup. Matt finds out that Hayden also had a hand in gossiping about Luke to her friends who then posted photoshopped pornographic images to Luke's social media pages before he committed suicide. Matt also begins visiting his uncle's gun range regularly to practice shooting. His uncle eventually gives him a job working at the range where one of his uncle's friends (Gus) comes regularly. Gus is depicted as suffering from PTSD after his military service and regularly comes to the range drunk and tries to obtain his gun. When Matt's uncle has a sudden heart attack and leaves Matt alone at the range, Gus shows up angry and Matt's life is changed (again) forever. There is a lot of drama packed into Rumble, and Hopkins employs her signature angsty teen voice throughout. Ellen Hopkins is the Judy Blume of the verse novel, and Rumble is absolutely a problem novel, filled with the protagonist's confessions and an overarching didacticism concerning ideas about books and censorship, faith and religion, and teenage sexuality.

The Poetry: Hopkins's verse novel is told through a series of free verse poems that have a strong focus on language and utilize internal rhymes and rhythm to move the narrative along quickly. For instance, the first poem in the collection "In the Narrow Pewter Space" begins:
Between the gray of consciousness
and the obsidian where dreams
ebb and flow, there is a wishbone
window. And trapped in its glass,
a single silver shard of enlightenment (1).
In these first few lines, Hopkins sets the focal point of the narrative on the mind and philosophical meditations of her protagonist. This first poem in Rumble utilizes alliteration, internal rhyme, and metaphor to convey the inner workings of Hopkins's character.

The Page: While most of the poems in Rumble focus on moving the narrative forward, several poems take the form of Matt's memories of his younger brother and the discussions they would have about faith, family, and the meaning of life. A few poems also focus on Matt's own writing, including an essay he writes for his English class arguing against the existence of God and a letter to the school board he writes arguing against the censorship of the YA text The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Overall, Hopkins's verse novel was in the same vein as her other works: full of drama and the frank discussion of serious/taboo topics like sex, drugs and alcohol use, religion, suicide, and PTSD. I give Rumble three stars.