Friday, May 27, 2016

K. A. Holt's _House Arrest_

The Plot: In K. A. Holt's most recent verse novel House Arrest (2015), seventh grader Timothy must write in a journal every week for the entire year of his court-ordered probation. In addition to his journal writing, Timothy must meet with his probation officer, see a therapist, and remain on house arrest as punishment for stealing a wallet and using the credit card inside to pay for his sick younger brother's medicine. Throughout the course of the narrative, the reader learns that Timothy's baby brother, Levi, has subglottic stenosis, bronchiectasis, and failure to thrive (87), and that Timothy's mother is struggling to deal with her younger son's illness as a newly single parent after the boys' father abandons the family. Timothy's family has difficulties paying for Levi's medical bills, their mortgage, grocery bills, and Levi's in-home nurses.

The Poetry: Holt's verse novel is unique in its structural and formal approach in that it is essentially a poetry journal. Each of the 52 poems in the book is entitled as a week number and includes several stanzas of varying lengths separated by a single black bullet shaped like a sunburst. The first poem "Week 1" begins with a short three line stanza that mimics a similar approach taken by Sharon Creech in her poetry notebook verse novel Love That Dog: "Boys don't write in journals,/ unless it's court-ordered./ At least, this is what I've figured" (2). Formally, Holt focuses mostly on constructing a series of free verse monologues for her character that make use of white space and the gaps created by line breaks to explore his internal thoughts and emotions. In a few poems, such as "Week 4," House Arrest nods to other poetic forms such as the haiku: "A year is a long time/ to write in a journal./ and never go to paintball parties./ That is not a haiku" (15).

The Page: In addition to each of the poems being named after a week of the year, House Arrest is also divided into four sections that are titled by the seasons of the year ("Winter," "Spring," "Summer," and "Fall"). Each section title spread includes the number of days included in that season; for example, the "Winter" spread has 91 tallies and includes 13 weeks.

I found Holt's newest verse novel fell far short of her 2014 Rhyme Schemer, which I reviewed a few weeks ago. The narrative often felt exaggeratedly sentimental and some of the details of the plot seemed a bit far fetched. I give Holt's House Arrest two stars.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Dana Walrath's _Like Water on Stone_

The Plot: Like Water on Stone (2014), Dana Walrath's debut verse novel, tells the story of the Donabedian family who live in Palu in the Armenian Highlands of the Ottoman Empire in the early 1900s. Walrath holds a PhD in anthropology and an MFA in creative writing, and she is the granddaughter of survivors of the Armenian genocide of 1915. She notes in her author biography that she completed Like Water on Stone while she was a Fulbright scholar in Armenia. This rich personal history adds depth and significance to a narrative that follows three young protagonists-- Shahen, Sosi, and Miriam-- as they escape their home after an attack on their village leaves them orphaned. Shahen and Sosi are preteen twins and Miriam is their little sister. Shahen is depicted early on in the verse novel as wishing he could grow whiskers like his older brothers and move to America where his uncle lives without fear of the violence surrounding them. Sosi is portrayed as coming of age, experiencing the impacts of puberty on her body, and secretly beginning to fall for a boy in her town. Like Margarita Engle's Silver People, Karen Hesse's Witness, and Allan Wolf's New Found Land, Walrath's verse novel is polyvocal in that it gives voices to multiple speakers throughout the narrative. In Like Water on Stone, the voices of Shahen, Sosi, and Ardziv (an eagle) echo the strongest throughout the narrative. One of the most unique aspects of Walrath's verse novel is her use of elements of magical realism through the inclusion of an anthropomorphic speaker. The eagle's voice runs like an omniscient thread through the narrative, while the eagle himself acts a symbol of hope, strength, and protection for the young protagonists.

The Poetry: Beyond the use of persona, one of the strongest elements of poetic technique is the use of imagery. and particularly multiple characters' meditations on the eagle quill as an object of significance. In the first poem in the collection, the speaker of the poem, Ardziv, describes his view from above of the three children:
Three young ones,
one black pot,
a single quill,
and a tuft of red wool
are enough to start 
a new life
in a new land.
I know this is true
because I saw it.

We track our quills
when they fall (3).
Later in the narrative, Shahen is learning to play the oud (an eleven-stringed instrument which is the precursor to the European lute [348]) with the mizrap (a pick made of eagle quill) from his father: "Papa tells me that mystery and power / come in through the quill, / that eagles were with us / long before Christ" (88). And after their parents and older brothers are killed, Sosi rescues the single quill from the bushes and carries it as a connection to her mother: "the feather has a pattern, / ... like petals or tiny leaves / dyed into its yarn. / I found this quill with Mama (210).

The Page: Like Water on Stone is divided into four parts that each correspond with a year and a place. Part one describes the family's life in Palu in 1914, part two tells of the massacre of 1915, part three describes the young protgaonists' journey in the summer of 1915, and part four takes place in 1919. The narrative is also framed by a cast of characters list, an Armenian proverb, a map, an author's note, a glossary, and a list of resources.

I found Wathram's Like Water on Stone to be a fine verse novel, but the focus on Miriam's voice and other characters voices beyond the three primary characters (Shahen, Sosi, and the eagle) was at times distracting and repetitive. I was fascinated by the unique use of magical realism and historical focus of the verse novel though. I give Wathram's verse novel three stars.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Marilyn Nelson's _American Ace_

The Plot: Marilyn Nelson's 2016 verse novel (or as she terms it, lyric history) American Ace follows 16-year-old Connor as he discovers his geneaology and his family's connection to American history. When his Italian grandmother, Nonna Lucia dies, she leaves Connor's father a letter explaining that the man who raised him is not his father. Connor's father becomes depressed upon learning this news, and it isn't until he begins to teach Connor to drive that the "glacier... growing between" them begins to melt (15). During their driving practice sessions, Connor's father divulges the contents of Nonna Lucia's letter, they begin to have a discussion about identity and belonging (19). Connor's father tells his extended family the news shortly after and all of them are interested in the romance of being a "love child" (27). In addition to the letter, Nonna Lucia also left a gold class ring that belonged to Connor's biological grandfather. Connor and his father use these two artifacts to begin discovering their family history. After doing lots of research with a local librarian and having Connor's father's DNA tested, Connor and his father discover that Nonna Lucia's lover went to Wilberforce University, which was the first HBCU (historically black colleges and universities) in the United States, and was a Tuskegee Airman, a group of famous all-black fighter pilots in WWII. Shortly after discovering all of this, Connor's father has a stroke, and while he is working through rehab and recovery, Connor continues researching the Tuskegee Airman and writes about them for his senior US History Honors Thesis.

The Poetry: Nelson is well known for her poetry for both young readers and adult readers. This work follows her recent publication of How I Discovered Poetry (which I reviewed earlier this year) and is her ninth verse novel/lyric history. Like How I Discovered Poetry, which is a series of 50 sonnets, in American Ace, Nelson utilizes a consistent stanza form and meter throughout with each of her 45 poems consisting of two 12-line stanzas in loose blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter). In addition to these formal constructions, Nelson also uses lyricism (as her categorization of her work as a lyric history implies) throughout to focus her attention on the emotions experienced by a teenage boy learning about his family history and dealing with his father's illness. For example, in the poem "Beginning," which is the second poem in part nine, Connor meditates on how he coped while his father was recovering from his stroke:
The hours I'd spent watching Dad mend his brain:
they were the only ones that held meaning.
Those, and the hours I'd spent discovering
the Tuskegee Airman, that brotherhood
of brothers. (109) 

The Page: American Ace is divided into nine parts, and each part contains five poems. Nelson also includes several photographic images depicting the Tuskegee Airman (86, 90-91, 100, 119) and an author's note entitled "How This Book Came to Be, and Why an Older African American Woman Ended Up Writing as a Young White Man" (120). Nelson also uses another interesting formal approach in parts seven and eight. While the poems in these two sections make up Connor's honor thesis entitled "Discovering the Tuskegee Airmen," each of the poem titles alludes to the stages of Connor's father's recovery ("Acute Care," "Rehab," "Daily Visits," etc.).

I thoroughly enjoyed Nelson's newest verse novel and its approach to lyric history as a poetic form. I give American Ace four stars.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

K. A. Holt's _Rhyme Schemer_

The Plot: Rhyme Schemer (2014) is K. A. Holt's second verse novel for young readers (following her 2010 Brains for Lunch: A Zombie Novel in Haiku). Holt's Rhyme Schemer follows Kevin Jamison, a seventh grader who is struggling with his home life and his school life. Both of his parents are doctors who are never around, all four of his older brothers ignore him, and he and another student Robin are constantly taking turns tormenting each other. Kevin's one solace is creating poetry through erasure (by defacing classic books for young readers, which most all of his teachers and his principal frown upon). As punishment for his bullying he is forced to work shelving books in the library where he meets Mrs. Little, who encourages him in his poetry. When Robin finds Kevin's poetry notebook and begins posting his work around school, he realizes how much his poetry means to him.

The Poetry: Holt's verse novel follows Sharon Creech's Love That Dog in that it essentially functions as a young poet's writing notebook. Like Creech's verse novel for younger readers, Rhyme Schemer emphasizes the reluctant poet character, his connection to a trusted teacher/librarian, and the young poet's hidden emotional pain. For example in the poem "Friday Rescue" Mrs. Little finds Kevin outside a restaurant alone and crying after his parents send him out for making a scene at dinner. Kevin is astonished when his teacher begins to praise him in front of his parents:
She called me
A schemer, no doubt.
But also?
Fragile (134). 
Mrs. Little then asks to borrow Kevin and take him to a poetry open mic night at a local coffee house. One of the most interesting and innovative elements of Holt's verse novel is her use of erasure poetry; there are 10 erasure poems dispersed throughout the novel pulled from The Wind and the Willows, Peter Pan, and Hansel and Gretel, among others. There are also a series of quatrains with regular rhyme schemes that Kevin calls "Necktie Poems" (written about his principal).

The Page: Through its writing journal structure, Rhyme Schemer provides yet another unique approach to the verse novel form. Poems are titled as either days of the school year or are pasted in pages of other book pages that Kevin uses to create erasure poems. Verse novels like Holt's and Creech's certainly serve a pedagogical function in that they provide an outline for how developing writers might approach poetry. In this way, the writing journal structure in the verse novel is distinct in its approach and call to young readers who want to be writers in that the form and structure imply a participatory reader experience. The structure serves as a model, one that is referred to by other verse novelists such as Kwame Alexander, whose protagonist reads and refers to Holt's Rhyme Schemer and then creates his own erasure poems after this model.

I found K. A. Holt's Rhyme Schemer to be another fascinating exercise in form and poetic experimentation. I give it four stars.