Friday, September 23, 2016

Madeleine Kuderick's _Kiss of Broken Glass_

The Plot: Madeleine Kuderick's 2014 YA verse novel, Kiss of Broken Glass, follows fifteen-year-old Kenna Keagan during her 72 hour stay at Adler Boyce Pediatric Stabilization Facility after she is "Baker Acted" (1) when a classmate catches her cutting in the bathroom at school. The poems in the narrative are told in second person (you) point of view, and over the course of three days,the reader steps into the shoes of Kenna as she makes friends at Adler, attends group therapy, and prepares for her family to attend a group session before she is released. Kuderick's work is most certainly a traditional YA problem novel, and much like Ellen Hopkins's Crank Series, the reader discovers in the author's note that the author was inspired to write the book after her own daughter's struggle with cutting and experience of being "involuntarily committed under Florida's Baker Act" (203).

The Poetry: While the author strives to utilize memorable imagery and crisp language that hold the reader in the narrative, ultimately most of it falls flat and reads as cliche or inauthentic. At times the imagery and lyricism work well; for example in the poem "By the Time My Mother Leaves," the speaker describes her urge to cut using simile, alliteration, and anaphora: "The way the blood pools warm at first / then cools like morning dew on slivered skin" and "The way the crimson dances 'round the bowl / then trickles tiny teardrops down the drain" (100-101). Beyond the poetry used to describe Kenna's experiences, one of the characters that she befriends, Skylar (who is also a cutter and is struggling with anorexia) also writes poetry which she passes to Kenna.

The Page: Throughout the narrative, almost every poem title includes one word with multiple strike-throughs obscuring it; this is one of the somewhat gimmicky things that Kuderick's Kiss of Broken Glass engages in that contributes to the at times tired approach to the topic of cutting. The author does include an author's note and a list of resources for young readers who might be struggling with self-harm themselves.

Overall, I found Kuderick's Kiss of Broken Glass to be a fine verse novel. It approaches the problem novel in a way that is becoming common-place with the verse novel form and strives to employ poetic technique while doing so. I give it three stars.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Margarita Engle's _Lion Island: Cuba's Warrior of Words_

The Plot: Margarita Engle's newest verse novel, Lion Island: Cuba's Warrior of Words (2016), is the fifth and final volume in what she calls her "loosely linked group of historical verse novels about the struggle against forced labor in nineteenth-century Cuba" (160). And it is a lovely and powerful work that follows three young, culturally diverse protagonists: twelve year old Antonio, a messenger boy with Asian, African, and European ancestry who eventually becomes a translator  (based upon the historical figure Antonio Chuffat-- a champion of civil rights for the Chinese Cuban community); Wing, a fourteen year old Chinese American boy whose family barely escaped the anti-Asian riots in San Francisco; and his twin sister, Fan, a talented singer and performer. Antonio, Wing, and Fan's stories intertwine to tell the tale of how a group of young friends worked hard to tell their stories and have their voices heard in a time of violence, with injustice, war, and rebellions swirling around them. Antonio works to record, translate, and help give voice to the experiences of those enslaved Africans and near-enslaved Chinese indentured servants who were forced or coerced to sign eight-year contracts to work in the fields of Cuba, while Wing's story leads him to eventually join the rebellion and Fan runs away from home to work at el teatro chino as a singer who assists runaways in hiding on their way to escaping enslavement.

The Poetry: As previously noted, Engle is a prolific verse novelist for young readers, having published nine well-received, award winning verse novels before Lion Island. This volume contains beautiful poetry, and I found the poems which Fan is the speaker of to be particularly moving as she longs to become an artist. Engle's use of imagery, lyricism, and metaphor contribute richly to her work. The poem "That Same Evening" in which the speaker Wing describes being robbed by Spanish soldiers ends with two rhythmic stanzas describing his emotions: "Rage comes and goes in gusts, / like a hurricane's furious / wind" and "Quietly, I return to work the next day, / trapped in the eye of my own / storm" (41). The quiet rhythm and movement on the page of these two stanzas enacts the content of the poem, tracing the rise and fall of the wind as well as Wing's anger. Later in the narrative, in the poem "Mirror," Fan meditates upon her experiences of being a young woman and the twin sister of a passionate brother:
Being the twin of a boy
is like shimmering
in and out of a shiny river,
the constant burst of rushing water
never peaceful enough to see my own
reflection (52).
Toward the end of this same poem, Fan notes that her brother can go anywhere and so or say whatever he pleases, while as a young woman she must constantly guard herself and speak and dream with caution. While Fan and Wing's stories are significant to the narrative, Antonio's experiences are the underlying drive of the work. In the poem "Quiet Truths" toward the end of the verse novel, Antonio examines his place as messenger, translator, and activist,

How difficult it is to describe injustice.
No wonder Fan used a knife on wood,
or a stick in mud, before discovering
her own songs.
There's nothing a warrior of words can do
for people who have already been murdered,
nothing but offer comfort so that the living
can begin to feel peaceful in the presence
of memories (142).
This seems to be the overall drive of Engle's series of historical verse novels that examine the struggles and injustices faced by so many during this time period in Cuba. Engle's Lion Island and her series as a whole draw attention to these experiences and histories.

The Page: Lion Island includes seven sections of poems: "Running with Words: Year of the Goat 1871," "The Beast of Hope: Year of the Monkey 1872," "Free Songs: Year of the Rooster 1873," "The Shadow Path: Year of the Rooster 1873," "Dangerous Flames: Year of the Rooster 1873," "Listeners: Year of the Dog 1874," and "Voices Heard Across the Sea: Year of the Tiger 1878." Engle's verse novel is not only rich in poetry and plot, but Lion Island also includes sections book-ending the narrative focused on historical background. Engle includes sections not only about Cuban history, but also about historical figures, and she provides a reference section and further readings for young people.

I give Engle's Lion Island: Cuba's Warrior of Words four stars and highly recommend it.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Roxane Orgill's _Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph_

The Plot: Roxane Orgill's Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph (2016) is not your typical verse novel; in fact, some might say that it is not a verse novel. Orgill's 55-page picture book contains 21 poems that tell the story of a day in 1958 when Art Kane photographed a group of 57 jazz musicians and a dozen children in front of a typical brownstone in Harlem. Although Jazz Day seems different from the longer verse novels for young readers, Orgill's author's note provides some clarity regarding her intentions: "I wanted to tell the story of how the photo got made and of some of the people who happened to be in it. What I didn't expect was that I'd begin writing poems. I write prose, not poetry. But this story demanded a sense of freedom, an intensity, and a conciseness that prose could not provide" (44). My conception of the verse novel for young readers, as I've tried to underscore on this blog, is that it uses poetry to tell a story and to meditate upon characters and events. Jazz Day does just that; each poem focuses on a different point of view, a different character, including Kane; unknown neighbor children; and famous musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, and Eddie Locke, and the poems move through time from 9 am on August 12, 1958 to the day the issue of Esquire in which Kane's photograph was published appeared on newsstands to the present day in which Orgill praises Kane's efforts.

The Poetry: The 21 poems in Jazz Day are mostly told in free verse, but a few of them utilize traditional forms such as the pantoum, "This Moment" (29), and the abecedarian, "What to Wear (from A to Z)" (17-18). Orgill remarks in her author's note that she hopes "the poems contain the sound of jazz music" (44). The poems certainly contain a sense of play and rhythm; for instance "Don't Get Me Started" is a poem told from the point of view of an imagined young boy named Alfred. In this poem, Alfred meditates on a beautiful car that pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams arrives in:
Don't get me started
on her Cadillac
don't let's talk about
tail fins
L-shaped chrome
hooded dash
pan-o-ramic windshield
Imagine the view
"Mary Lou!" (13)
Orgill explains that she used various historically accurate events and sources as "departure points" in order to fill in the gaps of about the group of unknown neighborhood boys. "I gave the boy in suspenders a name, Alfred, and a role in the events, and I had him note the fictionalized arrival of pianist Mary Lou Williams in a Cadillac" (43). Another poem, "At the Window," also focuses on the imagined experiences of the children pictured in the photograph; "At the Window" features a young girl watching the musicians gather from her window, "twirling / a twist / of curly hair" as she leans out her window (28).

The Page: One of the most striking things about Jazz Day are the illustrations; each page consists of a painting by Francis Vallejo that illustrates the poem with which it is paired. The poem "Some Kind of Formation, Please!" is also paired with a fold-out double-page spread of a reproduction of the famous photograph after which the book is written, Harlem 1958. In addition to the previously mentioned author's note, Jazz Day also includes an introduction, seven pages of biographies on the 57 musicians, and a bibliography of sources. Jazz Day follows the form of Carole Boston Weatherford's Becoming Billie Holiday, in that it is a shorter illustrated verse narrative that fictionalizes historical figures and events, and Weatherford's text would actually pair nicely with Orgill's narrative.

I found Orgill and Vallejo's story of the making of Harlem 1958 to be a beautiful and interesting read. I give it four stars.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Helen Frost's _Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War_

The Plot: Helen Frost's 2013 polyvocal verse novel Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War follows two protagonists Anikwa, a twelve-year-old Miami boy, and James, a twelve-year-old American boy, and emphasizes the ways in which the War of 1812 impacts both of their lives. The narrative alternates perspectives, with every other poem told in the voice of either boy; poems about salt and the natural landscape are interspersed throughout the narrative. Anikwa is being raised by family members after his mother died of small pox and his father was killed in "a skirmish" (7) when he was an infant. James lives with his mother, father, and infant sister outside Fort Wayne near the trading post where his father works. The narrative depicts both boys experiencing hardships and the repercussions of the war. While the polyvocal narrative structure and the attention to poetic form seemed promising, overall Frost's Salt is problematic in both form and content in the way it represents Native voices and the historical relationship between settlers and natives. Primarily because this verse novel puts itself forth as "a story of friendship in a time of war," it might have been more successful if Frost had reached out to a Native author to collaborate with her on this project. (I am thinking of the way in which Jayson Reynolds and Brendan Kiely collaborated on All American Boys.) Anytime I encounter a children's narrative that represents the experiences of American Indians, I consult Debbie Reese's blog. Here is Reese's assessment of Salt; Frost also chimes in in the comments section.

The Poetry: One thing that Reese picks up on in her own review of Salt that I would like to echo and expand upon here is the way in which poetic form plays into the representations of the characters. The poems in which Anikwa is the speaker are concrete poems, which Frost describes in her author's note on form as, "shaped like patterns of Miami ribbon work" (133), while the poems in which James is the speaker utilize a series of seven couplets, which Frost says represent "an image of the stripes on an American flag" (133). This dichotomy of form seems to suggest a connection between James and patriotism and Anikwa and folk art. The use of concrete poetry juxtaposed with the couplet also sets up a binary between avant-garde poetic form and more traditional poetic form. The symbolic use of form is intentional, but it sets up a binary between creativity/Native populations and national pride/white settlers that is troubling. Clearly Frost, who has written multiple verse novels, is aware the impact that poetic form has on readers and the ways in which symbols make meaning in poetry. She notes that she utilizes the poems about salt to "allow readers to pause between one event and another" (133). In many ways, Frost's project seems like a missed opportunity to bring in the voices of Native authors and/or scholars. As Reese's blog underscores, it is extremely important for white writers and publishers to ask themselves critical questions when they choose to represent experiences and cultures that are not their own, particularly in historical narratives.

The Page: As previously noted, Frost's polyvocal Salt utilizes dualing voices and this is represented with spreads that include juxtaposed visual poetry. Frost's narrative also includes a map of the "Miami Homeland," an introduction, a cast of characters, a notes section, a glossary of Miami words, and an acknowledgement section. Frost notes in her comments on Reese's blog that she is working on creating a curriculum to pair with Salt that takes into account some of Reese's concerns.

Overall, I thought Frost's Salt was an interesting exercise in formal experimentation and was interested in the historical period she chose to explore, but ultimately, many of the concerns Reese raised about the narrative's representation of Native experience were also troubling to me as a reader. I give Salt three stars. Again, I think a polyvocal project such as Frost's would have been much more successful if she would have reached out to a Native author to collaborate with on the work. This month, the blog Reading While White is focusing a spotlight on #OwnVoices books, "amazing books that have been written by authors and artists of color and Native authors and illustrators." Hopefully, in the future authors can take scholarly and critical views such as those championed by Reese and RWW into consideration when they are interested in telling historical stories that represent a diversity of experiences.