Friday, August 26, 2016

Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu's _Somewhere Among_

The Plot: Somewhere Among (2016), a verse novel by Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu, introduces readers to Japanese fifth-grader Ema, who lives with her American mother and Japanese father in Tokyo. Because Ema's mother is struggling with a difficult pregnancy, instead of visiting her maternal grandparents for the summer in California as she usually does, Ema and her mother move to the country to stay with her paternal grandparents, Obaachan and Jiichan. Meanwhile, Ema's father stays in the city and works, visiting them as often as he can. Throughout the narrative, Obaachan is portrayed as extremely strict and grating, while Jiichan is depicted as quiet and caring, yet troubled by his memories of experiencing the horrors of WWII as a boy. The narrative takes place from June to December 2001, and Ema and her family experience the sadness and grief from the September 11th terrorist attacks, as well as several earthquakes, typhoons, and tsunamis that rock their small community. In addition to her mother's difficult pregnancy and her father's absence, Ema also combats stares and comments about her biracial status, as well as a particularly upsetting bully at her new school. Eventually, Ema's mother's early labor and Jiichan's heart attack completely upset the family's life, but ultimately allow Ema and Obaachan to grow closer.

The Poetry: Donwerth-Chikamatsu's Somewhere Among is presented in free verse, and many of the poems make excellent use of space, rhyme, metaphor, and lyricism to communicate the overwhelming sense of sorrow that emanates from the various tragedies and events explored in the narrative. For example, the poem "After the Storm" depicts Ema's family emerging from the silence of their home after a typhoon by sliding open the shutters and turning on the news:
I look at Mom,
sound asleep,
             not enjoying the night air
                         one cricket here
                                     one cricket there.
TVs blare
a news flash
the whole neighborhood gasps. (206-7).
In this poem, the author makes use of the space on the page in order to emphasize the silence and to encourage the reader to engage in the same meditation the protagonist experiences as she enjoys "the moon and the stars" and "the sparkly air after a typhoon" (206). Additionally, the use of both rhyme and slant rhyme in the final five lines of the poem adds emphasis through language and sound, and furthermore, brings a subtlety to the description of this well-known historical event. The verse novel also made several nods toward other poets and popular musicians such as Emily Dickinson and The Beatles.

The Page: Somewhere Among is divided into seven sections, each representing a month from June to December, ranging in length from 35 to 100+ pages. Each section's front page also includes a black and white illustration. At 439 pages, the verse novel spent a lot of time exploring the experiences of Ema. The early poems and the narrative moved pretty slowly, and it seemed the author could have edited the collection down a bit. Overall I found Somewhere Among to be a fine verse novel. I give it three stars.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Leza Lowitz's _Up From The Sea_

The Plot: Up From the Sea (2016) by Leza Lowitz tells the story of seventeen-year-old Kai, a Japanese American boy living in the Tohuku region of Honshu, Japan and his experience of surviving the March 2001 earthquake and tsunami that devastated his community. The verse novel begins with a preface detailing the particulars of the tragedy and then immediately immerses the reader in Kai's experiences the morning of the earthquake and tsunami. Kai loses his mother and grandparents, as well as his home, but as the months go on he comes to terms with his loss. Deciding he wants to seek out his father, who he hasn't seen in many years, he travels to New York with a group of survivors to meet with other young people who lost their parents on September 11th when hijacked planes were crashed into the World Trade Center. After Kai fails to locate his father in New York, he returns to Japan and focuses his energy on creating a soccer team in his town and teaching young people the sport he loves.

The Poetry: Lowitz's verse novel is told in free verse with short, choppy lines. It was disappointing that in an almost-300-page verse novel, Lowitz included very little poetic technique, and what was used was not impactful. The short lines, which often included a single word per line for an entire poem, seemed gimmicky after a few pages. Like other verse novels that I've discussed on this blog, Up From The Sea does not follow the standard poetic practice of only having one poem on each page, and this contributes to a lack of space for reader contemplation (which in my estimation is one of the most significant features of the verse novel form). The poem "When I Wake Up," which includes lines referencing the collection's title, was maybe the only example of a poem that utilized the short line in a way that was meaningful; this poem also makes use of rhyme, but overall the poem could have held more weight if it were placed on its own page. There were a few moments of imagery, but these were very few and far between. For example, one such instance occurs early on in the poem "March 11--" when the speaker of the poem describes his community: "Shin's dad washed his taxi in their garage, / bleached the seat covers white as bone" (4). While the second line uses a simile to begin to create some imagery, most of the collection follows the first line in that it focuses on tired descriptions with little detail or language play. The lack of imagery and lyricism, as well as the inability of the author to fully develop her character or landscape made this a tough work to get through.  

The Page: The narrative is divided into three seasons: "Spring," "Summer," and "Fall," and each season has sections of poems within it that use alliterative titles, such as, "Adrift," "Amidst," "Ashore," "Ascend," and so on. Many pages also include footnotes that define and explain Japanese terms. For instance, on page 4 the reader learns that "Obaachan" and "Ojichan" mean grandma and grandpa, respectively, and on page 79 a note explains that "natsukashii" means an "expression of a feeling of nostalgia or fondness when experiencing something for the first time in a long time."

Overall, Lowitz's Up From the Sea seemed like a missed opportunity in both narrative and poetic craft. While the verse novel's topic seemed of interest, the author was unable to use the form or narrative content to create a work that stood out. I give Up From The Sea two stars.

Friday, August 12, 2016

A. L. Sonnichsen's _Red Butterfly_

The Plot: Red Butterfly (2015) by A. L. Sonnichsen is a three part verse novel that tells the story of Kara, a preteen Chinese girl growing up in Tianjin. Kara was abandoned as an infant because of a hand deformity and taken in by an older American woman living in China. As Kara grows up, she comes to understand that her foster mother has been living illegally in China with an expired visa and that she has never officially adopted Kara, so she does not have paperwork to prove her identity. All of these issues come to a head when her mother's 40-year-old daughter Jody comes to visit, collapses, and the police are notified. Kara is sent to an orphanage where she meets and befriends Toby, a physical therapist, who helps care for children with diseases and deformities. Eventually Kara is faced with the difficulty of wanting to be with her foster mother and the possibility of being adopted by a family from Florida. While it seemed like the narrative was dangerously close to relying on the "white savior" trope, Sonnichsen does explain that she takes her own experiences living in China and volunteering at an orphanage as inspiration for the events of her verse novel. Sonnichsen reveals in her author's note that she grew up in Hong Kong, spent eight years as an adult living in Tianjin, China, and eventually adopted her daughter from a Chinese orphanage.

The Poetry: Sonnichsen's nearly 400-page verse novel utilizes lyrical free verse to tell Kara's story. Like some other verse novels for young readers, Sonnichsen project does not adhere to the traditional poetic practice of beginning each new poem on its own page; it appears that she does this to save space, but this practice also forefronts the novelistic aspect of the work. Many of the early poems in the collection employ imagery, sound, and repetition to great effect, but as the collection continues, these poetic techniques are discarded in favor of a focus on plot. The title poem, "Red Butterfly," an early poem in the collection, employs impactful poetic techniques such as imagery, space, and consonance:
I ride with my hair
whipping back,
a long,
black flag.
The city
is a blur.
No one stares,
when I am alone,
pedaling my ruby-red bicycle.
No one knows I am different,
flitting between them,
       a red butterfly. (7-8)

The Page: Red Butterfly is divided into three sections entitled "Crawl," "Dissolve," and "Fly"-- each section playing on the metaphor for transformation (from a caterpillar to a chrysalis to a butterfly). One of the most interesting elements of the verse novel are the collaged illustrations by Amy June Bates. Every four or five pages includes a small illustration, most of the times in the margins of the poems. These illustrations appear to collage bits and scraps of Chinese newspapers combined with pencil drawings. They are quite lovely.

Overall, I give Red Butterfly three stars. It was a fine verse novel; the narrative was engaging, the illustrations were captivating, and the poetry in the early parts of the collection was well-done.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Julie Sternberg's _Like Carrot Juice on a Cupcake_

The Plot: Julie Sternberg's Like Carrot Juice on a Cupcake (2014) is the third book in her verse novel series for children. She previously published Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie (2011) and Like Bug Juice on a Burger (2013) which also follow her fourth-grade protagonist Eleanor. Sternberg's verse novel follows in the footsteps of Sharon Creech's Love That Dog in its focus on younger, elementary school readers. In Like Carrot Juice on a Cupcake, Eleanor struggles with feeling left out when her best friend, Pearl, becomes close to a new transfer student, Ainsley. On top of this, Eleanor's parents decide to send her new puppy to training school for two weeks and Pearl volunteer's Eleanor for a role in the school play, despite Eleanor's stage fright. As the narrative progresses, Eleanor becomes more and more anxious about her leading role and her solo, as well as her sense of distance from her best friend. Toward the end of the narrative, Eleanor's feelings lead her to do a "very mean thing. / To a new girl AND / to [her] best friend" (143).

The Poetry: As the title suggests, Sternberg's verse novel utilizes similes, as well as anaphora throughout the free verse narrative. This is true in "Chapter Fifteen" which includes the repeated refrain "I wondered" six times throughout the poem (93-94). The use of simile and metaphor are central to the main conflict in the narrative. This comes to the forefront in the poem Eleanor writes to her poem-loving best friend, Pearl asking for forgiveness. She refers to her actions as being the worst thing, like "carrot juice on a cupcake / or a wasp on my pillow / or a dress that's too tight at the neck" (143). This is the extent of poetic device used by the author in the text, which ultimately, like many other verse narratives, makes use of the increased space on the page afforded by verse novel form.

The Page: Sternberg's Like Carrot Juice on a Cupcake is divided into thirty chapters and includes sketch-like pencil illustrations by Matthew Cordell throughout. These illustrations are in a similar style to those by Quentin Blake for Roald Dahl's children's novels. As a verse novel for elementary school readers, Like Carrot Juice on a Cupcake forefronts the narrative elements instead of the poetic practices; this seemed like a missed opportunity. I would have liked to see the author spend a bit more time focused on the poetic technique, specifically the simile, implied by the title.

I give Sternberg's verse novel three stars.