Friday, July 29, 2016

J. J. Johnson's _Believarexic_

The Plot: J. J. Johnson's 2015 Believarexic is an "autobiographical novel" that recounts a ten week period of the author's life during the late 1980s when she lived in an inpatient eating disorder unit. In the beginning of the narrative, 15-year-old Jennifer struggles to convince her family that she needs help, but ultimately they accompany her to her screening interview and she is admitted to the treatment facility. During her hospitalization, Jennifer is treated for bulimarexia, a combination of bulimia and anorexia, and as the narrative unfolds, Jennifer learns that her eating disorder is really just the most visible aspect of her mental health issues. She ultimately discovers that she is an alcoholic, suffers from depression and anxiety, and has unhealthy relationships with both of her parents. The narrative follows her life on the EDU (eating disorder unit) as she attempts to develop positive friendships, learns to interact with the staff on her unit, and moves away from negative relationships with her family members. Ultimately, Jennifer emerges at the end of the novel having moved forward in her own recovery; Believarexic seems to be not only a typical eating disorder focused problem novel, but also a cathartic expression for the author.

The Poetry: Formally, Believarexic has a complicated and somewhat unique approach. The work is divided into six sections: "Before," "Admission," "Stage One," "Stage Two," "Stage Three," and "Discharge." The first three sections, which comprise about half of the book, are told in third person point of view and utilize free verse, while the last three sections are told in first person point of view and employ prose. Furthermore, the narrative as a whole functions as a kind of diary/scrapbook. Dated entries span the entire work, both in the free verse and prose sections, and various treatment focused documents are sporadically inserted throughout as well (including letters, group therapy worksheets, treatment planning objects, facility rules, and so on). As previously mentioned, this work is certainly part of the problem novel tradition, as are most YA texts focused on eating disorders, but this work seems particularly interesting in terms of its use of formal collage. Moreover, the shift from free verse to prose and third person to first person point of view as the protagonist progresses in her recovery seems to suggest the emotion state of the character. Free verse seems to imply a sense of fragmentation, while the third person point of view emphasizes a distance and slows the reading pace. The formal and narrative shift to first person in the second half of the narrative suggests a sense of connection and encourages more intimate reader involvement in the protagonist's experiences. While the reader is encouraged to lose herself in the narrative (because of the use of first person, engaging narration) during the second half, the first half of the narrative asks the reader to spend more time piecing together fragments of verse, voice, and experience.

The Page: In addition to the formal experimentation and assemblage in the narrative, Johnson also employs varying fonts between the first two sections (typewriter-style) and the final four (traditional Times New Roman), as well as gray pages to denote supplemental documents that appear within the diary narrative.

Johnson's narrative was an interesting experiment in form. I would categorize Believarexic more as a hybrid verse novel, as it certainly does employ verse and poetic techniques in half of the narrative. While the narrative was engaging, the author could have made more use of the verse form throughout the first half. I give Believarexic three stars.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Sarah Crossan's _One_

The Plot: Sarah Crossan's 2015 verse novel One tells the story of conjoined twins, Grace and Tippi. The girls have been home schooled their whole lives, but at the beginning of the narrative they start their junior year of high school at a private school. Initially worried that they will be mocked and isolated, Grace and Tippi are excited when they meet and befriend Yasmeen and Jon, both of whom are also outsiders (Yasmeen has HIV and Jon has a rough home life). The narrative follows the protagonist, Grace, as she experiences going to school for the first time, having her first crush, feeling less connected to Tippi, and her parents' separation. Both Grace and Tippi see their therapists regularly to process their feelings and support their mental health. In addition to all of these issues, their younger sister Dragon, who is a ballet dancer, is also beginning to show signs of anorexia. Toward the middle of the narrative, it is clear that Tippi and Grace are beginning to experience some health issues that eventually lead their doctors to decide that they need to have separation surgery in order for one or both of them to survive. Grace is having serious heart issues after struggling to get over the flu, causing her to need a heart transplant, which she cannot get while living as a conjoined twin. Eventually the sisters and their family decide that they will go through with the surgery, although it is likely that Grace will not survive.

The Poetry: Like many verse novels for young readers, Crossan's One makes use of free verse throughout the narrative. In addition to the use of the gaps and space created by line breaks, Crossan also makes use of repetition, and when the narrative tension is at its highest point toward the end of the verse novel, Crossan alters the justification of the text of her poems from left to center. Overall, the use of free verse makes sense, but the repetition and justification of text seem a bit gimmicky and don't serve the narrative much. For example, page 366 features a poem titled "Tippi" that is made up of the word "Tippi" repeated 97 times: 12 lines each feature 8 repetitions of the word followed by question marks, while a final line features a single repetition of "Tippi" with a period. There doesn't seem to be much point to including a poem like this as it doesn't play with form in any significant way and the repetition doesn't serve to move the narrative forward or reveal anything about the character.

The Page: One is divided into sections based upon the months from August to February. Each new section is marked by an illustrated page that features the silhouette of what appear to be a portion of a chain of paper dolls. The dolls are meant to represent the connections that Grace and Tippi share, not just the physical, embodied experience of being conjoined, but also their bonds as sisters, twins, and partners in life.

Crossan's One was a quick read, and the narrative certainly draws on the tradition of the problem novel in YA literature, but there were a few issues. The topical focus on conjoined twins was discussed briefly in an author's note at the end of the text, but there could have been more focus on engaging with disability or difference from a medical and social standpoint. Additionally, the author's use of poetic techniques seemed strained at times and could have been more purposeful. I give Crossan's verse novel two stars.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Holly Bodger's _5 to 1_

The Plot: Holly Bodger's 2015 verse novel 5 to 1 is a polyvocal dystopian narrative that tells the story of Sudasa and Kiran, a teenage girl and boy growing up in India in the year 2054. After years of the government's one-child policy, there are five boys for every one girl in the country; fed up with the commodification of girls, a group of women found a new country called Koyanagar. In Koyanagar, girls are also highly prized, but the government sets up a series of seven tests so that every boy, no matter how rich or poor, has the opportunity to "win" a wife. Sudasa, the middle sister in a wealthy family, does not want to be a wife, although her grandmother with a high ranking position in the government is set on using her marriage as a way to pay a debt she owes. When Sudasa realizes her marriage contest has been rigged (as her cousin is one of the competitors, given an edge by her grandmother), she becomes determined to subvert the tests in some way. Kiran, or contestant five as he is referred to throughout most of the narrative, is a poor farmer boy from the coast. He does not want to be married either, and he has a plan to use the tests to his advantage as well, but finds that he feels a connection with Sudasa that he did not expect.

The Poetry: Bodger's verse novel alternates perspectives and styles; Sudasa's chapters are in verse, while Kiran's chapters are in prose. Like many other verse narratives, Bodger's utilizes the manipulation of space and the gaps created by line breaks to encourage a slowing of narrative pace and reader contemplation. Bodger also makes use of anaphora, variations in typography, strikethrough/underline/bold text, and arrows. Each of these elements draws attention to the words on the page and enacts many of the features of more standard visual or concrete poetry. At times these poetic techniques can seem gimmicky. One of the stronger poetic devices that Bodger uses is the reference to William Blake. Sudasa is depicted as a lover of poetry and she and her father often quote Blake. For example in the final poem, "34," Sudasa's father speaks to her in code using a quote from Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, a text that mixes poetry, prose, and image: "Remember, beti,/ no bird soars too high,/ if he soars with his own wings" (236). Her father then follows up with a secret message to help Sudasa make a decision about her future: "And sometime, when wings burn,/ they rise from the ash/ as fins in turn" (237). Blake's exploration of contraries and his insistence upon the necessity of both in his The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is interestingly reflected in Bodger's verse novel about the two extremes of the prizing of boys vs. the prizing of girls in culture.

The Page: 5 to 1 is organized into three parts, each part representing a day of the tests. Each part is then further separated into chapters that explore the narrative from Sudasa and Kiran's point of view. Each chapter includes a varying illustration that depicts an image of a woman/fish hybrid, and each part includes an illustrated image of a pair of hands with mehndi or henna designs (typically applied to women's hands during Hindu wedding ceremonies) featuring the same woman/fish hybrid.

I found 5 to 1 to be an interesting read, and it is one of the first ever dystopian verse novels I have encountered. I give it three stars.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Christine Heppermann's _Ask Me How I Got Here_

The Plot: In Christine Heppermann's 2016 verse novel Ask Me How I Got Here, high school sophomore Addie attends an all-girls Catholic school (Immaculate Heart Academy) where she runs on the cross country team. At the beginning of the narrative, Addie is dating a junior named Craig from St. Luke's, but his drinking and partying eventually lead her to developing a connection with his best friend, Nick. Addie and Nick kiss after a party one night, Addie breaks up with Craig, and begins dating Nick. After dating for a few months, Nick and Addie have sex and she becomes pregnant. Addie talks to her boyfriend, and eventually her parents, and decides that she wants to have an abortion. The remaining half of the narrative focuses on Addie's physical, emotional, spiritual, and psychological struggles and growth after her abortion. Although Addie never wavers in her view that having an abortion was the right choice for her, she is conflicted throughout the narrative with what her choice means for her morally and how she will be perceived by others because of her choice. In the second half of the narrative, Addie reunites with Juliana, a former cross country runner who graduated the year before. Addie decides to quit the cross country team, and is happy to meet regularly with Juliana, who is taking a break from college cross country and going to therapy to deal with her own demons.

The Poetry: Heppermann's verse novel is primarily told through free verse poems, but interspersed throughout the collection are various haiku and prose poems. Throughout Ask Me How I Got Here, Addie's narrative is juxtaposed with her own writing (written in a script, sans serif font) which includes poetry, mostly focused on the figure of the Virgin Mary, and assignments for various classes. Heppermann uses a variety of poetic techniques beyond the syllabics of the haiku including imagery, lyricism, anaphora, and metaphor. For example, in the poem "Sunday Morning," one of the early poems written by Addie, she draws connections between her sexuality and religious devotion:
His mouth a skittish liturgy
along my neck,
my need a holy ache,
a blessing, I tilt back my head,
prepare to receive
communion (32). 
In this poem, Heppermann utilizes rich religious imagery and the lyric in order to foreground the bodily experience of her protagonist. In the haiku that immediately follows this poem, "A Risky Equation," the poet juxtaposes this lyric imagery with a more restrained, formal approach to express her speaker's regret and anxiety: "Add one plus one plus / zero condoms to equal / pleasepleaseplease not three" (33).

The Page: One subtle way that the author/publisher underscores the significance of her use of both narrative poems and the writing of her character is through the use of alternating page color throughout the narrative. All of the poems, class assignments, and letters written by Addie are marked with a slightly grey-toned page color, in addition to the use of a script-style, sans serif font and a inked-in script scribble at the end of the title and final line of the writing.

One of the strengths of Heppermann's verse novel is the fact that it never becomes overly didactic in terms of its approach to discussing Addie's abortion, and overall the narrative's conclusion is open-ended. I found Heppermann's Ask Me How I Got Here to be a fine verse novel. I give it three stars.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Chris Crowe's _Death Coming Up the Hill_

The Plot: Chris Crowe's 2014 verse novel Death Coming Up the Hill is set in 1968 and tells the story of seventeen-year-old Ashe. Ashe has a troubled home life: his father is conservative, dogmatic, and racist and his mother is a passionate anti-war and civil rights activist. Although his parents do not like, let along love, each other, they make it clear to Ashe that he is the only reason they got married and have stayed together. Adding another complexity to Ashe's experience, he is getting ready to graduate and is seriously concerned about the draft and the Vietnam war. Ashe plans to go to college, with the help of his father's tuition money, in order to avoid being drafted. But when his mother becomes pregnant after forming a relationship with a man at an anti-war meeting and gives birth to a biracial child, Ashe's father leaves and threatens to withdraw Ashe's tuition money if he doesn't come to live with him. Ashe does experience some respite at school where he enjoys his US history class and spending time with his girlfriend, Angela, whose brother is serving in Vietnam.

The Poetry: One of the most unique aspects of Crowe's verse novel is its form. It consists of poems made up of a series of 976 haiku, one syllable for each of the 16,592 American soldiers who died in Vietnam in 1968. Crowe's verse novel is a meditation on the number 17: a prime number, the number of syllables in a haiku, the age of his protagonist, the birthday of his protagonist (May 17), and a number when multiplied by 976 equals the 1968 death toll. Crowe use of the haiku throughout his collection is effective in focusing the reader on breath and pause. According to Crowe, the final two stanzas of the last poem in the collection are inspired by "an American soldier's letter written shortly before he died in the assault on Hamburger Hill in May 1969" (199) and the verse novel takes its title from these final lines: "I see Death coming / up the hill, and I am not / ready to meet him" (197). This final haiku embodies the spirit of the narrative as a whole and of the haiku as a formal approach in general, with its focus on the natural landscape, the speaker's individual experience of his/her surroundings, and the meditation upon the quotidian.

The Page: Each poem in Death Coming Up the Hill begins with the date and the number of lives lost in the war during the preceding week. Ashe explains that this number is a figure that his US history teaching puts up on the board every day; Crowe explains in his historical and author's notes in the back of the book that the Thursday edition of daily newspapers during this time period published the death count, which ultimately "so commonplace that many Americans barely noticed them" (201). Crowe notes in his author's note that he "wanted his main character to notice and become fascinated by the death counts as he gained an awareness of the troubled world around him" (201).

I found Crowe's verse novel to be an interesting exercise in the use of form throughout a collection, but at times the didacticism of the narrative was a bit over the top. I give it three stars.