Friday, June 24, 2016

Marie Jaskulka's _The Lost Marble Notebook of Forgotten Girl and Random Boy_

The Plot: The Lost Marble Notebook of Forgotten Girl and Random Boy (2015) is a collection of poems by Marie Jaskulka that alternate perspectives between Forgotten Girl, a 15-year-old high school sophomore who is dealing with her parents recent separation and her mother's depression and drinking problem, and Random Boy, an unemployed recent high school graduate who is also dealing with a troubled home life in which his alcoholic father physically abuses him and his mother. The verse novel's alternating perspectives are visualized through font; Forgotten Girl's poems are in standard font and Random Boy's poems are in italics. The narrative follows the development of the romantic relationship between Forgotten Girl and Random Boy, which very quickly moves from intense to abusive. Random Boy's desire to keep Forgotten Girl isolated from others and to become completely enmeshed with her intensifies after Forgotten Girl decides she wants to begin exploring a sexual relationship with him. Forgotten Girl begins to develop interest in another young man, who she gives the alias of Peter X in her notebook poems, and this further enrages Random Boy. Peter X takes hundreds of pictures of Forgotten Girl on his cell phone and creates photo collages for her. Forgotten Girl eventually realizes she is in an abusive relationship after Random Boy brutally beats Peter X after he tries to stand up for her. The narrative builds upon the legacy of Judy Blume's problem novels like Forever that confront taboo issues such as teen sexuality and romantic relationships and also follows in the footsteps of other verse novelists who use poetry to approach the problem novel such as Ellen Hopkins and Sonya Sones.

The Poetry: The most unique aspect of Jaskulka's verse novel is her use of multiple narrative view points to explore the intricacies of an intense teenage relationship and the way in which a physically and psychologically abusive romantic relationship can develop. The Lost Marble Notebook of Forgotten Girl and Random Boy uses free verse poetry throughout and forefronts each teenage characters' use of the writer's notebook in order to explore their feelings, trauma history, and experiences. The author also utilizes lyricism, imagery, and metaphor in her poems. For example, each speaker uses the metaphor of notebook as body in order to emphasize the intimacies of both poetic exchange and romantic partnership. The poem "Even the Air" begins: "is different / after he's undressed / my notebook" (52), and later, the poem "View" continues that Forgotten Girl is never invited to Random Boy's house after the "day he opened / his notebook / to me" (65).

The Page: One of the biggest missed opportunities of Jaskulka's verse novel is the lack of framing provided to the reader in terms of the books exploration of abuse experienced by young people in romantic relationships. Not only does the author fail to mention this issue in her acknowledgement section or in an author's note, but the reviews of the book and Jaskulka's author website all fail to open a discussion of this topic or to be provide teens with resources if they are experiencing abuse in their own relationships. Instead, the reviews and dust jacket refer to the "dark story" and relationship as "frightening, but ultimately hopeful." I found this missing info within the pages of the book and the reviewers' discourse surrounding the relationship in the book problematic.

I give Jasulka's novel three stars and suggest using THIS interview with the author and the linked resources as a companion piece.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Carole Boston Weatherford's _You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen_

The Plot: Carole Boston Weatherford's 2016 verse novel You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen is her eleventh poetry collection for young readers. In this collection, Weatherford uses the second person throughout in order to, as the front matter suggests, "allow readers to fly too." The narrative explores the history of the Tuskegee Airmen, much like Marilyn Nelson's American Ace, but Weatherford's collection employs a slightly more didactic approach, emphasizing specific historical dates, describing real-life individuals such as Lena Horne, and calling out the racist attitudes and segregation of the time period. The narrative of You Can Fly begins with the speaker of the poem's (the you's) desire to "Head to the Sky" (1)—to be trained as a pilot—and the speaker's meditation upon the image of the Uncle Sam "I Want You" poster and its implications for young African Americans entering the military at that time (2). The reader then follows the speaker to Tuskegee (4), through training in both the classroom and on the air field (14-15), on a first solo flight (16-17), overseas on deployment after the events at Pearl Harbor (44-45), and finally back home where racist attitudes still prevalent provide "No Hero's Welcome" (57).

The Poetry: Weatherford's verse novel is told through a series of 33 free verse poems. The most significant feature of the collection in terms of the poetic technique is the use of the second person throughout; this approach, as the front matter suggests, draws the reader closer, decreasing the narrative distance, and allowing the reader to step directly into the shoes of a young Tuskegee airman. In one poem, "The Fight Song," Weatherford includes the use of rhyme in order to foreground the ways in which song plays a significant role in the unity of a company: "Sailing through the blue/  Gallant sons of the 99th/ Brown men tried and true" (41). In the final poem in the collection, which includes an epigraph from an executive order issued by President Harry Truman in 1948 that declares "there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin" (63), the speaker uses anaphora through the repetition of the phrase "If you live long enough" in order to underscore the ways in which the efforts of the Tuskegee airmen cleared the way for other important advances in the representation and advancement of people or color in all realms of society including MLB, NASA, and the White House.

The Page: One of the most significant features of Weatherford's verse novel are the incredibly detailed, 23 scratchboard illustrations created by Jeffery Boston Weatherford. These black and white illustrations accompany almost every poem in the collection. At times the entire page is blacked out and the text and the scratchboard illustration appear in white to contrast. Along with many other historical verse novels for young readers, Weatherford's You Can Fly includes an author's note, a detailed historical time line that begins in 1865 and carries through until 2009, and a list of resources.

You Can Fly is a fine verse novel and a great companion read to Nelson's American Ace; I give it three stars.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Presenting My Verse Novel Research at ChLA

This past week, I was in Columbus, Ohio where I presented my research on the verse novel for young readers at the 43rd Annual Children's Literature Association Conference. In lieu of my weekly review, I thought I would share my experience at the conference and some of the research that is informed by my interest and work with the verse novel for young readers (which I also explore on this blog).

Last summer I wrote an essay entitled "The Verse Novel for Young Readers: Collage, Confession, and Crisis in Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming" that was selected early this year as ChLA's PhD Level winner of the Graduate Student Essay Award; I was then able to present a portion of this essay during the conference on a panel called "Race in Children's Dreams, Fantasies, and Nightmares" with Ebony Elizabeth Thomas and Bevin Roue. (Both Roue and Thomas are doing fascinating work on race in children's literature. You can access Thomas's blog: The Dark Fantastic HERE.) My essay on Brown Girl Dreaming came out of the work I did on an early chapter in my dissertation project "The Collage Effect and Participatory Reading in Children's and Young Adult Literature." I reviewed Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming on this blog in mid-February.

If you are interested in my presentation, you can access the visual slides I used during my talk HERE. Several (amazing) ChLA attendees including Rebekah Fitzsimmons, Kate Slater, Pete Kunze, and Alysa Auriemma live tweeted the panel (a huge thank you to each of them!), summarizing my argument about Woodson's verse novel; I will include their notes below as well.

At the end of the presentation, several audience members posed great questions about the definition of the verse novel and its connection to collage, the depiction of the black body on various covers of verse novels, teaching the verse novel, and the ways in which other verse novelists such as Kwame Alexander's work might be related to Woodson's approach. I answered the question posed by Peter Kunze of how collage and participation are related by referencing my experiences teaching Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming in my course English 3830: Literature for the Intermediate Reader at Western Michigan University. Last semester was the third semester in a row that I have taught Brown Girl Dreaming. You can access my most recent course blog HERE where I detail my teaching approach to Woodson's verse novel HERE. Feel free to adapt my teaching materials to your own courses if you wish! I am also grateful for Gabrielle Halko's question about teaching the verse novel in the children's literature classroom. I had a great exchange about the depiction of race and the body in Kwame Alexander's The Crossover with Sarah Park Dahlen and Michelle Martin. I am grateful for the conversations I had with lots of great folks at ChLA this year! Later this week, I will resume my regularly scheduled reviewing of recently published verse novels for young readers. I am looking forward to reviewing Carole Boston Weatherford's You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen and Marie Jaskulka's The Lost Marble Notebook of Forgotten Girl and Random Boy

Friday, June 3, 2016

Linda Oatman High's _A Heart Like Ringo Starr_

The Plot: Linda Oatman High's 2015 A Heart Like Ringo Starr tells the story of 17-year-old Faith Hope Stevens who is awaiting a heart transplant. Faith, who has been sick since she was born, is home-schooled, and her family runs a funeral home, so death seems to always be a part of her life. The narrative follows Faith through her experience of being on the transplant list, to discovering that she will receive a heart transplant, to her life with a new heart and the uncertainties and surprises that arise from this transition in her life. Before her transplant, Faith is depicted as cynical, and she expects that it is not just a matter of if she will die but when. After she receives a new heart, she feels unsure of who she is and longs to have her old, defective heart back. Faith starts her senior year at high school (it is not as exciting as she thought it would be and she feels on-display and invisible at the same time), and she meets a young man while at the beach with her great aunt. The narrative moves surprisingly quickly through each of these events and has a closed, happily-ever-after ending.

The Poetry: Throughout the verse novel, Oatman High utilizes a significant amount of end and internal rhyme, as well as a considerable amount of white space. These two poetic techniques seem at odds with each other throughout the collection. The use of rhyme speeds the narrative up, which seems to contradict the serious subject matter. The white space created by the use of short lines, half-blank page, and alternatively left and right justified text might usually act as a method to slow the reader's pace in verse novels, while in A Heart Like Ringo Starr these techniques juxtaposed with the extensive use of rhyme and the sporadic changes in typography do not seem as purposeful. For example, in the poem "Wintertime," three four to five line stanzas include only one to five words and the facing page leave the top half of the page blank and includes two similarly short stanzas that end the poem:
I so
want summer.
Not icicles.

This pedicure tickles
                                         toes (9).
This use of rhyme and space on the page does little in terms of narrative work or linguistic play, and ultimately the poem falls flat. Other poems such as the title poem, "A Heart Like Ringo Starr" (91), are on the verge of successfully exploring a character's thoughts and feelings with rhyme, rhythm, and lyricism, but in the end the poem is less impactful because of the author's choice of line length and use of white space.

The Page: A Heart Like Ringo Starr is divided into two parts that follow Faith before and after her transplant. As previously noted, the poems make use of white space and typography play. It seems that the author made some of her choices because she sees her work appealing to "reluctant readers." This argument for the use of white space and short lines as inviting to readers because less appears on the page seems to be a mistake and a view that doesn't take young readers seriously as an audience. Ultimately, white space and poetic language within a verse novel are most successful when they encourage a reader to slow down and meditate upon the narrative, emotion, and meaning.

I give Oatman High's verse novel two stars.