Friday, June 9, 2017

Margarita Engle's _The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom_

The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom (2008) was the first verse novel by Margarita Engle that I encountered years ago. It is the first book in Engle's "loosely linked group of historical verse novels about the struggle against forced labor in nineteenth-century Cuba" (Lion Island, 160). The Surrender Tree was a 2009 Newbery Honor Book, only the third verse novel to be recognized by the Newbery committee after Marilyn Nelson's Carver: A Life in Poems (2002) and Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust (1998)Engle was the first Latinx author to receive a Newbery honor.

The Plot: In Engle's The Surrender Tree, poems alternate among the voices of five primary characters to tell a story based upon historical events as well as Engle's own great-grandparents' experiences during Cuba's fight for independence. It take place between 1850 and 1899, during which time three different wars rage in Cuba. The narrative follows Rosa, a healer and nurse; Lieutenant Death, a slavehunter; Jose, Rosa's husband; Weyler, a captain-general of Spain who instituted concentration camps in Cuba to control the rural civilian population; and Silvia, an eleven year old girl from a small farm who comes to learn from Rosa after her family starves in the concentration camps.

The Poetry: The most striking poems in this collection are told in the voices of Rosa and Silvia and meditate upon the natural world as a healing balm for war and sorrow. For instance, in an early poem, Rosa describes the burning city of Bayamo:

I watch the flames, feel the heat,
inhale the scent of torched sugar
and scorched coffee....
I listen to voices,
burning a song in the smoky sky. (28)
Imagery, language, and metaphor are at work in this poem to evoke the sense of beauty and danger brought on by the violence of war. The internal and slant rhymes in the first three lines ("watch," "torched," "scorched") emphasize the crackling sound of the flames, while the image of "voices, / burning a song" links the lives of the people to the fire that engulfs the city. Later in the verse novel, the poems told from Silvia's view point evoke the same lyricism and imagery. In one poem, the speaker describes how the driver of an oxcart helps her steal away from the concentration camp: "He points to a hole int he fence, / puts his finger to his lips, / then draws a map in the sky--" (103). Again, the sky figures heavily into the narrative, and silence lingers at the end of each line of poetry.

The Page: Engle's verse novel is divided into five parts: "The Names of Flowers, 1850-51," "The Ten Years' War, 1868-78," "The Little War, 1878-80," "The War of Independence, 1895-98," and "The Surrender Tree, 1898-99." The novel begins with a dedication and explanation of the historical roots for the narrative, as well as a quote from a poem by Jose Marti. It concludes with an author's note, a historical note, a chronology, selected references, and acknowledgements.

I give The Surrender Tree four stars.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Margarita Engle's _Hurricane Dancers: The First Caribbean Pirate Shipwreck_

The Plot: In Hurricane Dancers: The First Caribbean Pirate Shipwreck (2011), a 2012 Pura Belpre Honor Book, Margarita Engle tells a story alternating five characters' perspectives: Quebrado, a young slave of Taino Indian and Spanish ancestry; Bernardino de Talavera, a real-life conquistador who became the first pirate of the Caribbean Sea in the 1500s when he stole a boat to avoid debtors' prison; Alonso de Ojeda, a brutal European slave trader and conquistador who was taken prisoner by Talavera; and two young islanders who are secretly in love -- Caucubu, the daughter of a Ciboney chieftain, and Narido, a fisherman. Engle invented the character Quebrado, but the remaining characters are all historical figures-- two European and two Cuban. Engle reveals in her author's note that she "became fascinated by the first Caribbean pirate shipwreck while researching [her] own family history" as one of her ancestors "was a Cuban pirate who used his treasure to buy the cattle each where many generations of [her] mother's family were born" (135). She notes further that she became the subject of the Cuban DNA project and discovered that she carries a genetic marker verifying tens of thousands of years of maternal Ameindian ancestry; Engle is "a descendant of countless generations of women like Caucubu. Indigenous Cubans do survive in body, as well as spirit" (135).

The Poetry: The majority of Hurricane Dancers meditates upon the enslaved life of Quebrado, who is referred to as "broken boy," "spirit-boy," "storm-boy," and "born-of-wind friend" by various characters throughout the narrative. While the experiences of the other characters in the narrative are interesting, the poems told from Quebrado's perspective are the most lyrical and lively on the page. For instance, the first poem in the collection "Quebrado," begins:
I listen
to the song
of creaking planks,
the roll and sway
of clouds in sky,
wild music
and thunder,
the groans
of wood,
a mourning moan (3).
The poem ends as the speaker links the old ship's sounds with the materials used to create it, explaining that the sounds echo the ship's memory of "her true self / her tree self / ... alive" (3). Poems like this one, steeped in metaphor reflecting the natural world and ringing with sound and rhythm, are characteristic of those told from the point of view of Quebrado.

The Page: Hurricane Dancers is divided into six parts: "Wild Sea," "Brave Earth," "Hidden," "The Sphere Court," "The Sky Horse," and "Far Light." Engle begins her verse novel with a quote uttered by Caliban in William Shakespeare's The Tempest and a description of Talavera from Bartolome de las Casas's History de las Indias; a note on her historical setting; and a list and description of the cast of characters. The verse novel ends with an author's note; a historical note detailing her narrative's connection to historical characters and events, culture and language, and literature; and a list of references.

I found Hurricane Dancers to be extremely engaging, and I thoroughly enjoyed Engle's characteristic use of free verse, lyricism, and imagery within her historical narrative. I give Hurricane Dancers four stars and highly recommend it.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Margarita Engle's _The Wild Book_

The Plot: The Wild Book (2012) by Margarita Engle is verse novel inspired by the stories and experiences Engle's maternal grandmother told her about her childhood growing up in Cuba in the early 1900s. As she explains in her author's note, the verse novel follows Fefa (Josefa de la Caridad Uria Pena) who lives on a small farm in the countryside during a time of "chaos following Cuba's war for independence from Spain and the subsequent US occupation of the island. It was a time of lawlessness, when bandits terrorized the countryside, kidnapping children unless their families agreed to deliver ransom money" (123). From the first poem in the collection, readers learn that Fefa has "word-blindness" (3)-- "a medical term used in the early twentieth century for what we now call dyslexia" (125). The narrative focuses on Fefa's struggle with dyslexia and learning to read and write through poetic exploration, as well as Fefa's encounter with Fausto, her family's old farm manager, who writes a sloppy "ugly" poem in her honor (42); Fefa is mortified by Fausto's attention.

The Poetry: Like many other of Engle's verse novels, The Wild Book employs free verse, lyricism, and imagery to tell the story of a young girl's experiences. The Wild Book in many ways shows a young girl developing a love for reading poetry and writing in her own wild book, which her mother gives to her upon her diagnosis with word-blindness: "Think of this little book / as a garden, / Mama suggests" (5-6). Her mother advises her to view her writing as a path to maturation and self-acceptance:
Throw wildflower seeds
all over each page, she advises.
Let the words sprout
like seedlings,
then relax and watch
as your wild diary
grows. (6) 
And eventually, a love of language emerges within Fefa. She exclaims later in the collection in a poem entitled "Fly to the Truth of Dreams" that she "love[s] the way poetry / turns ordinary words / into winged things" (68). In addition to the imagery and lyricism Engle relies upon, she also utilizes repetition and the space on the page to emphasize the ways in which Fefa's struggle with dyslexia manifests itself, as well as how she begins to find ways to allow herself to experience more comfort and pleasure in language.

The Page: Engle's verse novel begins with a dedication "for young readers who dread reading and for those who love blank books" which answers one of the chargers that the verse novel form is ideal for reluctant readers. This dedication is followed by a quote in Spanish with a translation from the poet Ruben Dario, who is referred to throughout the narrative as the Fefa's mother's favorite poet. The quote reads: "In the hour of daydreams my eyes watched / the blank page // And there came a parade of dreams and shadows" (from "La Pagina Blanca" or "The Blank Page"). This epigraph complicates Engle's dedication in that it demonstrates the complexity and intertextual, cross-cultural references made throughout the collection. The book ends with an author's note that includes a family photograph of Fefa from 1914 and an acknowledgements section.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Wild Book; I give it four stars and highly recommend it.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Margarita Engle's _The Firefly Letters_

On May 11, 2017 Margarita Engle was named the Young People's Poet Laureate by the Poetry Foundation. Engle follows Jacqueline Woodson, who was the previous honoree in 2015. As I've noted in previous reviews of Engle's work on this blog, Engle is a prolific verse novelist; she has published eleven verse novels to date (four of which I have reviewed here)-- one every year since 2008. Over the next year, as part of this blog's focus on the geneology of the verse novel, I will review the remaining six verse novels written by Engle, which date back to 2006.

The Plot: Engle's 2010 verse novel The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette's Journey to Cuba is the second book in her "loosely linked group of historical verse novels about the struggle against forced labor in nineteenth-century Cuba" (Lion Island, 160). Winner of a Pura Belpré Honor for narrative, The Firefly Letters is a polyvocal verse novel that tells the story of real-life historical figure Fredrika Bremer (1801-65) who traveled to Cuba in 1951 for three months and interacted with a fifteen-year-old African-born enslaved translator named Celia. Engle's narrative follows these two women and her invented twelve-year-old character Elena. Bremer, as Engle explains in her historical note, was Sweden's first female novelist and one of the world's earliest advocates of equal rights for women (146). The Firefly Letters combines the voices of Fredrika, Celia, and Elena to explore the struggles facing women from different backgrounds, of different ages, and of different races toward equality.

The Poetry: While I found Engle's verse novel rich in terms of narrative, The Firefly Letters lacked some of the more arresting lyricism and imagery evident in many of Engle's more recent verse novels. The elements of poetic form that The Firefly Letters employs include the use of free verse and the space on the page, the blending of voices (each poem is titled by the character speaking's name), and the occasional bit of imagery or use of metaphor. One such passage appears in the poem told from Elena's point of view where she describes the folds in cloth as stirring "in the sea breeze, / moving with a sigh / like wings" (139). In this poem, Elena is meditating upon a secret plan she has to help better Celia's life that involves her smuggling expensive fabrics from her house. The "e" sounds in the first quoted line enact the "sigh" mentioned in the second line, while the final line that describes the movement of cloth as that of wings alludes to a possible freedom or movement toward hope.

The Page: Within the 144 pages of the verse novel, poems alternate between the three characters' points of view. The narrative is book-ended with a quote from a letter from Bremer to the Queen of Denmark describing her visit to Cuba and a historical note, an author's note, acknowledgements, and references. Engle cites Bremer's New Sketches of Every-Day Life (1850) as comprising the "most complete known record of rural daily life on the island [of Cuba] at that time" (146).

I give Engle's The Firefly Letters four stars. Look forward to my reviews of Engle's verse novels from published between 2006 and 2012, as well as her newest 2017 verse novel in the coming months.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Pamela L. Laskin's _Ronit and Jamil_

The Plot: Pamela L. Laskin's Ronit and Jamil (2017) is a contemporary retelling of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet set in the Middle East. The protagonists, Ronit (an Israeli girl) and Jamil (a Palestinian boy), are teenagers living in the present-day on either side of the barrier fence that divides Israel and Gaza. Ronit and Jamil first meet when they go to work with their fathers. Ronit's father is a pharmacist and Jamil's father is a doctor; the two men know and respect each other. Once Jamil and Ronit fall desperately in love, though, their families do not support them and become hostile toward each other. The verse novel is told primarily from the alternating viewpoints of the titular characters, but also includes the voices of their fathers in act IV. As Laskin notes in her afterword, the voices of the two teenagers sound very similar and that was a conscious decision on her part (180). Although this technique makes it difficult to tell who is who at the beginning of the narrative, it allows the reader to not quite become fully immersed in the story.

The Poetry: Although the majority of the poems in the collection are told in free verse, with a mirrored version of the poem spoken by the opposite character, Laskin also employs a variety of other poetic forms throughout Ronit and Jamil including a series of ghazals (a Middle-Eastern lyric poem with a fixed number of verses and repeated rhyme, typically on the theme of love and often set to music) and a crown of sonnets (a series of multiple 14-line poems, where each new sonnet begins with the last line of the previous sonnet). Laskin utilizes lyricism, rhyme, repetition, and imagery in order to convey the sense of longing shared by Ronit and Jamil. For example in the ghazals that appear together in one spread, "Built of Bones: Jamil's Ghazal" and "Water: Ronit's Ghazal," the speakers of the poems meditate on embodiment and their connection:
There is nothing but the body
built of bones,

when I find myself beside you
I rise like bones;

from the dead and my desire
it grows like bones. (124)
In Ronit's counterpoint, she laments, "my body withers in brutal summer / so what I need is water" and "if your body's mine / I'll need no water" (125). Additionally, multiple poems reference lines from Romeo and Juliet, as well as work by other poet such as Mahmoud Darwish.

The Page: Ronit and Jamil is divided into five acts: "Naming Things," "Complications" (which includes the series of ghazals), "Dreaming an Escape: Overlapping Voices," "A Father's Lament" (which is made up of a crown of sonnets), and "Onward." The verse novel is also bookended by an introduction, reader's note, and epigraph, as well as an afterword and acknowledgement section. I found Ronit and Jamil to be an interesting and lively read. I give it four stars.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Skila Brown's _Slickety Quick: Poems About Sharks_

The Plot: Slickety Quick: Poems About Sharks written by Skila Brown and illustrated by Bob Kolar is a picture book that contains 14 spreads, each dedicated to a poem and informational blurb about a different shark. Brown's picture book is not a verse narrative, as it doesn't contain any sort of plot; instead the thread that links each poem is simply the fact that they all address sharks. It may fall into the informational books category (because of its inclusion of informational blurbs), but it does not include a bibliography of sources or peritextual matter that would lead to further resources.

The Poetry: Slickety Quick includes 14 short poems that employ a variety of poetic techniques and forms. In terms of poetic devices, Brown uses rhyme and repetition pretty consistently throughout the collection. The form that Slickety Quick uses most frequently is the concrete poem; for example, the poems, "Great White Shark," "Frilled Shark," "Cookie-Cutter Shark," "Nurse Shark," "Megamouth Shark," and "Whale Shark" all use the space on the page and the visual arrangement of the words of the poem to evoke the shape of a sharks body or mouth. The poem "Hammerhead Shark (a poem for two voices" is a contrapuntal poem, as its title suggests.

The Page: Kolar uses an interesting illustration style: each spread includes an image of the shark described, as well as a background made up of layers of monochromatic shapes depicting the ocean floor and landscape. This technique gives the reader a blurred effect and a feeling of viewing each illustration through goggles or a swim mask.

I found Slickety Quick an interesting approach, but none of the poems really stuck with me. I also found the informational blurbs to be a missed opportunity to expand the purview of the picture book as an information/educative text. I give it three stars.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Margarita Engle's _The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba's Greatest Abolitionist_

The Plot: Margarita Engle's verse novel The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba's Greatest Abolitionist (2013), a 2014 Pura Belpre Honor Book, is a work of historical fiction based upon the life and writing of Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda (Tula) a poet, playwright, and novelist who lived from 1814-73. Avellaneda's boldest and most well-known work is Sab, "one of the world's first abolitionist novels and the earliest one written in Spanish. Sab is also the only known Latin American abolitionist novel that combines proemancipation views with feminist themes" (170). The Lightning Dreamer begins in 1827 when Tula is thirteen years old and is told from alternating viewpoints (including those of Tula, her younger brother Manuel, her mother, her maid Caridad, the Nuns whose library Tula often visits, the Orphans at the theater, and a young boy named Sab). The narrative follows Tula through 1836 when she is twenty-one years old and details her experiences on the marriage market, the blossoming of her passion for writing through discovery of Cuban Romantic poet Jose Maria Heredia's work, and her journey to Havana to write her novel.

The Poetry: Engle's verse novel is full of lyrical verse that combines imagery and metaphor to tell the story of a burgeoning young writer growing up in a time of oppression and injustice. At times Engle employs spare, rhymed verses in her narrative, such as: "I am alone / and my heart / is my own" (108). In other poems in the collection, Tula meditates upon the power of poetry's rhythms and silence: "I study verses with a drumbeat rhythm / like pounding music," "just as often, poetry is a free / dance / of birds in air," and "in each verse; / the stillness / between words" (45). Still other poems ask poignant questions about authenticity and the ethical implications of writing the story of injustices experienced by others:
Can a woman ever write
the true thoughts of a man?
Can a free person
really understand one whose dreams
must fly up and soar
high above the depths
of slavery?

Is my imagination enough,
or do I need to add the ways
in which I myself
have felt enslaved? (162).
The Page: The Lightning Dreamer is divided into five parts: "Suns and Rays," "The Orphan Theater," "The Marriage Market," "See Me as I Am," and "The Hotel of Peace." The poems included in these sections are also book-ended by sections containing historical background and notes on the writing of Avellaneda and her mentor Heredia, as well as references. Engle also provides samples of poetry and prose written by both Avellaneda and Heredia in Spanish and with English translations.

Engle has written ten verse novels, several of which I have reviewed. The Lightning Dreamer is my favorite of Engle's verse novels for young readers. I give it five stars and highly recommend it.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Andrea Davis Pinkney's _A Poem for Peter_

The Plot: This week's picture book verse narrative is A Poem for Peter: The Story of Ezra Jack Keats and the Creation of The Snowy Day (2016) written by Andrea Davis Pinkney and illustrated by Lou Fancher and Steve Johnson. A Poem for Peter is a 40-page narrative poem. The narrative tells the story of Keats's family and birth, his early life and career, and the experiences that led him to create his most well-known work for young readers in 1962, The Snowy Day. Pinkney begins with Keats's parents, Polish immigrants who fled Warsaw in 1916 and settled in Brooklyn (9-10). From the age of eight, Keats knew he wanted to be an artist, and although his parents worried about his dream, they supported him in his education and art. Peter, the young protagonist of The Snowy Day, appears throughout the picture book in what Pinkney describes as "a 'peek-a-boo' fashion, waving at the reader, serving as a narrative thread that is stitched throughout" (49).

The Poetry: The long poem that makes up the pages of A Poem for Peter "employs a form known as 'collage verse,' 'bio-poem,' or 'tapestry narrative' in which factual components are layered with a mix of elements" (49). As Pinkney explains, "the use of a verse narrative to present Keats's life echoes Keats's use of collage to tell a story" (49). In addition to these formal attributes, Pinkney also employs anaphora, lyricism, rhythm, and rhyme to tell the story of Keats's life. For example, in the spread on pages 40-41, the reader sees Peter gazing out the window at the tops of buildings and a flock of birds. The last two stanzas on the page read:
forging your path in knee-deep wonder.
welcoming us into your play.
marching out in a whole new way.
The final stanza is bolded for emphasis (as many are throughout the picture book): "With you, Ezra tore off the blinders. / Yanked up the shades. / Revealed the brilliance / of a brown-bright day" (41).

The Page: As Pinkney emphasizes in the end pages (which include a section on "Ezra's Legacy," "Keats, the Collage Poet," acknowledgements, and sources consulted for the creation of the book), Keats's choice to include a young African American child as the main character in his picture book in the early 1960s was groundbreaking: "as an artist who had grown up surrounded by poverty and anti-Semitism, Ezra understood what it was like to be excluded" (46). Pinkney further notes the reasons behind her enthusiasm for this project in her bio: "as an African American child growing up in the 1960s, at a time when I didn't see others like me in children's books, I was profoundly affected by the expressiveness of Keats's illustrations." A Poem for Peter is a complex and striking verse narrative that would pair nicely with The Snowy Day. I give it five stars.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Christine Heppermann's _Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty_

The Plot: Christine Heppermann's Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty (2014) is a collection of fifty poems that uses fairy tales to confront the realities of contemporary girlhood. I am not sure that I would categorize Heppermann's Poisoned Apples as a verse novel; it more clearly resembles a traditional collection of poems with strong narrative impulses (it reminds me a lot of Francesca Lia Block's 2011 collection, Fairy Tales in Electri-City). While there is no primary character within the collection, the speaker of the poems is almost always concerned with the bodily experiences of the teenage girl. As Heppermann explains in her author's note: "fairy tales and reality... run together, even though the intersections aren't always obvious. The girl sitting quietly in class or waiting for the buss or roaming the mall doesn't want anyone to know, or doesn't know how to tell anyone, that she is locked in a tower" (109). The poems in Poisoned Apples tell the story of the social and cultural regulation placed upon the female body through the lens of fairy tales and the voice of a present-day young adult heroine. 

The Poetry: The poems in Poisoned Apples make use of lyricism, metaphor, and imagery. Formally, Heppermann primarily employs free verse, but also includes haiku and villanelle. Many of the poems are quite arresting. For example, the poem "Spotless" features a five-stanza poem juxtaposed with a black-and-white photograph of a woman in white buried to the waist in a mountain of snakes, her face averted from the viewer. The speaker of the poem in "Spotless" begins, 

So I whet one razor 
after another against the stony
flesh of my leg until in barely
any time at all I have seven sharp

lines (95).
The poem then uses anaphora and imagery in its description of the body: "as deep as the silence of my days, / as straight as the path I ran from / the huntsmen, / as red as those three drops" (95).

The Page: The poems in the collection are accompanied by black-and-white photographs by various artists. The photography adds considerably to the collection in that it contributes yet another example of the way in which fairy tales can be updated to reflect contemporary realities. 

I thoroughly enjoyed Heppermann's collection, and I give it four stars. 

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Ashley Bryan's _Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life_

In honor of National Poetry Month, I will be posting two reviews each week during the month of April! One of my reviews each week will be focused on a picture book verse narrative. I have become more interested in the ways in which authors for children incorporate verse narratives into their writing beyond the novel form (picture books and shorter narrative poems). I have explored this in a few of my reviews previously. At the end of January the American Library Association announced the winners of the Youth Media Awards, and Ashley Bryan's picture book Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life (2016) was selected as a Newbery Honor Book, a Coretta Scott King Author Honor Book, and a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book.

The Plot: Freedom Over Me is a collection of twenty-one poems in which Bryan imagines the lives and dreams of eleven slaves. Bryan explains in his author's note that the inspiration for this collection came when he "acquired a collection of slave-related documents... dated from the 1820s to the 1860s." The estate appraisement document that Bryan works from lists only the slaves' names and prices as they appear next to livestock and farm equipment. Bryan further notes: "My art and writing of this story aim to bring the slaves alive as human beings. I began by creating painted portraits of these eleven slaves. I studies each one, listening for their voices. I wrote what I heard in free verse to give emphasis to their words." The collection includes an introductory poem in the voice of Mrs. Mary Fairchilds, followed by a reproduction of the actual document upon which Bryan based the collection, and two poems written in the voice of ten of the eleven slaves listed in the document.

The Poetry: Bryan's free verse poems begin as primarily descriptive, with each character declaring her/his identity as a member of the Fairchilds' estate. Gradually, the poem expands the narrative behind the selling of the Fairchilds' estate. These poems employ lyricism and imagery to delve into the inner workings and longings of each character. For example, in the poem "John," the sixteen-year-old speaker describes himself as a "birthday gift" to Mrs. Fairchild, and the poem ends on his dream of freedom, "my thoughts of escaping / to freedom / grow stronger every day" and "Oh Freedom, Oh Freedom, / Oh Freedom over me!" According to the end pages, these last lines and the title of the collection come from the spiritual "Oh Freedom!": "which likely came into being soon after the end of slavery.... Like many African American spirituals, the song has more than one meaning, and was commonly sung as part of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s."

The Page: The visual elements of each page of the picture book are quite fascinating. Bryan juxtaposes a portrait of each slave with a collaged background of newspaper clippings, images, and handwritten legal documents. The facing page includes a poem titled after the name of the speaker of the poem ("Peggy") and usually appears on a dull-colored background. The next spread includes a poem on a brightly-colored background, entitled with the character's name and the word "dreams" ("Peggy dreams"). This poem is mirrored with a painting of the character engaged in an her/his artistry (whether cooking, carpentry, basket making, or painting). This painting often includes the character surrounding by individuals from his/her community.

Bryan's verse narrative is a beautifully constructed, and the poems together with the inclusion of an actual historical document come together to create a thoughtful addition to historical visual literature for young readers. I highly recommend Freedom Over Me and give it five stars. I also suggest Reading While White's spotlight on #ownvoices post on the book and the New York Times article "Black Lives Didn’t Matter: New Children’s Books Tell Slaves’ Real Stories" as companions to this picture book.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Sonya Sones's _Saving Red_

The Plot: Saving Red (2016) is Sonya Sones's sixth verse novel for young adults. Like her first verse novel, Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy (1999), Saving Red takes on the topic of mental illness; the protagonist, 14-year-old Molly, experiences severe anxiety and panic attacks, while other characters in the verse novel suffer from PTSD and schizoaffective disorder. A poem early in the collection provides insight into Molly's panic attacks: "I can't breathe...! // ... I'm having a heart attack! // But then Pixel's here--" (12). Pixel is Molly's service dog that accompanies her everywhere. The narrative begins cryptically alluding to the root of Molly's anxiety by referring to "the awful thing / that happened last winter" (26), but readers don't learn that "the awful thing" has something to do with her brother, Noah, until 163 pages into the narrative. Beyond exploring Molly's family and personal history with mental illness, the verse novel also examines Molly's encounter with a homeless youth named Red and her quest to reunite her with her family before the holidays.

The Poetry: Like many verse novels for young adults, Sones's work is a problem novel and is devoted primarily to narrative. Saving Red is over 400 pages and told in short, free verse poems. Sones's verse novel conforms to expectations readers of poetry might have about the way a collection should be presented (multiple stanzas, each poem titled, poems that are 1-3 pages in length). Each poem title runs into the poem, but beyond that, there is little attention to the ways poetry can use language and imagery to communicate to readers differently than traditional prose. The only poetic techniques evident in Sones's verse novel are her use of the space on the page and a sporadic simile. For example, in the poem "I suck in a Breath," the speaker describes feeling "something like / a steel plate // splitting / apart // deep inside / of me" (371). This is the closest Saving Red comes to a poetry that allows the reader to slow down or focus on language; this seems like a missed opportunity in the collection.

The Page: The end of the verse novel includes an acknowledgements and author's note section in which the author describes her own experiences of having a family member with a mental illness and how these experiences inspired her to write Saving Red. Overall, the most compelling part of Saving Red is the plot; I found the poetry to be pretty lackluster. I give it three stars.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Patricia Hruby Powell's _Loving Vs. Virginia_

The Plot: Patricia Hruby Powell's Loving Vs. Virginia: A Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Case (2017) with artwork by Shadra Strickland is an interesting approach to the verse narrative form. Powell's work tells the story of Mildred and Richard Loving, who fell in love as teenagers in Caroline County. The Loving's story underscores the ways in which the cruelties and injustices of segregation and racism impacted one couple. The narrative begins in the fall of 1952 and follows the couple through the US Supreme Court's final ruling on their case in 1967. The narrative describes Mildred and Richard's experience growing up together in their small community, their love story, their marriage and the birth of their three children, and their almost decade-long court battle to allow them to live together as husband and wife in their hometown.

The Poetry: Powell's Loving Vs. Virginia is a polyvocal narrative that alternates between poems from Mildred and Richard's point of view, with each poem titled with one character's name and often with a date and place. The poems are told in free verse and make use of short lines and the space on the page to encourage reader contemplation. Interspersed throughout the poems are various documents and photographs (as indicated by the subtitle of the narrative) illustrating the historical context of the Loving's story. While the poems in this collection don't stand out particularly in their lyricism or use of language, together with the documentary elements of the work, the most successful poems in the collection seem to be those that focus on the characters' emotions. For example, in one poem in the middle of the work, the speaker of the poem Richard relates his experience of seeing Mildred "holding a bunch of greens / like they was a bouquet of wedding flowers" and the way that her smile makes "any doubts I might've had-- ... / drifted away on the wind" (142). The poem ends with the lines: "My country gal / I am her husband" (142). This short 12-line poem is juxtaposed with an illustration of Mildred smiling in the family's garden.

The Page: One of the most striking elements of Powell's Loving Vs. Virginia is the way in which various formal elements are woven together to tell the Loving's story: Strickland's artwork, the blue-toned photographs, the quotes from court cases and public figures, and the poems co-mingle together to make this a unique work. The narrative includes several timelines, an epigraph from Langston Hughes, a bibliography of sources, and notes from the artist and author.

I enjoyed the hybrid, collage-style form of Powell's verse narrative. I give it four stars.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Helen Frost's _Applesauce Weather_

The Plot: Helen Frost's Applesauce Weather (2016) is a slim verse novel illustrated by Amy June Bates that tells the story of siblings Faith and Peter and their Uncle Arthur. Every year, when the first apples begin to fall from the apple tree in their yard, Uncle Arthur comes to visit Faith and Peter to make applesauce and tell stories. But this year is a bit different, as Aunt Lucy has recently passed away and Uncle Arthur is still grieving. As the narrative unfolds, readers learn of Arthur and Lucy's love story, and Uncle Arthur weaves strange tales about how he lost one of his fingers. Frost's narrative is about ritual, relationships, and growing together through love and grief.

The Poetry: Every ten pages in the verse novel, a new section begins with a short poem. The first of these eight poems is called "The Apple Tree," and each subsequent poem is entitled "Lucy's Song" (17, 27, 37, 55, 69, 83, 91). These poems often include end rhyme, and they all refer to Lucy and Arthur's love story. "The Apple Tree" begins by describing place, "A house beside an orchard / at the edge of a small town / a bench beneath an apple tree" and continues as a prologue to the narrative: "this story tells what happened / between here and that first bend" (ii). Each of the additional poems in the collection are titled with the name of the character from whose perspective the reader hears the story ("Faith," "Peter," or "Arthur"). Frost tells an engaging narrative, utilizing both rhyme and the space on the page to focus the narrative.

The Page: Bates's pencil illustrations for the verse novel are striking and truly enrich the narrative. This shorter verse novel (103 pages) mirrors the length of poetry collections for adults and allows readers to focus on the poetic silence in the spaces left. While Frost uses rhyme and narrative elements to great effect, her verse novel would have benefited from additional use of poetic devices such as imagery. I give Applesauce Weather three stars.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Kwame Alexander's "Seventy-Six Dollars and Forty-Nine Cents: A Story-in-Verse"

The Plot: Kwame Alexander's "Seventy-Six Dollars and Forty-Nine Cents: A Story-in-Verse" is the penultimate story the anthology Flying Lessons and Other Stories (2017) edited by the cofounder of We Need Diverse Books, Ellen Oh. Alexander pitched the work as a "novella-in-verse" or a "story-in-verse" on twitter the day before the book's release in early January. "Seventy-Six Dollars and Forty-Nine Cents: A Story-in-Verse" is a 48-page series of poems about 12-year-old Monk. The series begins with the poem "How to Write a Memoir" which details why Monk begins writing his poems (159). The next poem in the series, a haiku, is entitled "Question About the Assignment" and underscores the unique aspect of this story-in-verse: "I know memoir is / based in fact, but can it have / a little fiction?" (160). The story goes on to detail how after a car accident, Monk develops the ability to read people's minds, and ultimately he uses his powers on Angel Carter, his crush, to impress her enough to maybe get her to go on a date with him.

The Poetry: Alexander's story-in-verse is told primarily in free verse, with the exception of one haiku, and another poem which includes a haiku stanza. In addition to these formal aspects, Alexander also employs rhyme and anaphora sporadically throughout the series, as well as imagery and space on the page. Overall, "Seventy-Six Dollars and Forty-Nine Cents: A Story-in-Verse" is more focused on story than it is on poetic device, which makes sense for a shorter work. One aspect of Alexander's series that is particularly effective is his use of parenthetical aside in several of his poems. For example, in "How to Write a Memoir," Alexander uses five of these asides to develop the voice of his protagonist:
After reading
by Gary Soto
(who I like)
Mr. Preston
(who I don't)
asks us
if we liked it
(which I did)
then makes us
(which I hate) (159).
The use of the short line and the parenthetical aside ask the reader to move more quickly and rhythmically through the poem and mirror Alexander's signature technique in his previous verse novels that focus on rhythm, linguistic play, and voice.

The Page: Like longer verse novels, Alexander's novella- or story-in-verse makes use of the space on the page, and among the nine other works in Flying Lessons and Other Stories, "Seventy-Six Dollars and Forty-Nine Cents: A Story-in-Verse" takes up the most space in the collection. Alexander's use of this shorter form of the verse narrative is new and groundbreaking; perhaps many other verse novelists will turn to this shorter form as poetry and verse narratives become more popular in contemporary children's and YA literature.

You can listen to a soundcloud recording of Alexander reading his story HERE. I highly recommend "Seventy-Six Dollars and Forty-Nine Cents: A Story-in-Verse" and the other nine stories in the collection. I give it five stars.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Kelsey Sutton's _The Lonely Ones_

The Plot: Kelsey Sutton's 2016 verse novel The Lonely Ones follows Fain, a high school student who feels deeply disconnected from her family and her peers. Fain finds solace in writing, her imagination, and the quarry near her home. While her older brother and sister are consumed with sports, friends, and significant others, her mother and father are constantly fighting about money. Fain spends time with her younger brother Peter and enjoys caring for him, as she perceives her parents cannot. One interesting element of The Lonely Ones is the repeated reference to Fain's midnight explorations with monsters. This was a strange detail that seemed to serve as a metaphor for Fain's experiences of escape through writing and storytelling, but it ultimately became overly didactic and tired toward the end of the novel. Fain struggles at school with her peer group; early on in the narrative she meets and falls in love with a boy named Matthew, but he ultimately only considers her a friend. Midway through the narrative, Fain's younger brother becomes ill and this brings her family closer together.

The Poetry: Sutton's verse novel is told in free verse and uses short, abrupt lines. The primary poetic devices at work in The Lonely Ones include imagery and metaphor, but Sutton does not use these techniques to great effect. Often her verse comes off as cliched and purple. For example, the poem "The Hole" describes Fain's feelings after discovering her love interest does not share her feelings:
There is a hole
in my chest
where my heart
has been ripped out.

I don't know why
people call it heartbreak
when there's nothing left
to crack. (189)
This poem attempts to use the line to emphasize particular words and add weight to the scene, but ultimately Sutton's poem falls flat. Additionally, Fain's writing becomes an overly didactic tool in the final poem in the collection, where the speaker of the poem relates how she writers about "a girl who is learning" various lessons from her experiences (227).

The Page: As Sutton notes in the acknowledgement section of her book, this was her first attempt at writing poetry (and her editor's first attempt working with a verse text as well), and it shows throughout her verse novel. While elements of the narrative were at times surprising, much of the poetry lacked an attention to the ways the form can enrich narrative. I give Sutton's verse novel two stars.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Janice N. Harrington's _Catching a Storyfish_

The Plot: Catching a Storyfish (2016) by Janice N. Harrington follows Katharen Walker as she moves with her family from Alabama to Illinois to be closer to her grandfather. Keet, as her family calls her, is a natural storyteller who delights in talking and making stories so much that her friends nicknamed her Keet-Keet Parakeet. Katharen is sad to leave her friends and home in the south, and once she starts at her new elementary school, these feelings intensify as she is made fun of for "talking funny." While she struggles to make friends at her school, her relationship with her grandfather, who calls her Fish Bait, blooms through their regular fishing trips. Eventually Katharen meets Allegra, a Spanish-speaking girl in her class who loves her Cockatoo and excels at spelling. Allegra is self conscious about her teeth, while Katharen continues to be teased about her accent, so this allows the girls to bond. Throughout the narrative, Katharen experiences many changes that help her to grow, and while her identity as a storyteller is challenged initially, she is able to find her niche as a writer through the help of her family, friends, and one special librarian.

The Poetry: Harrington's Catching a Storyfish is unique in that it experiments with a multitude of forms throughout the verse novel, including: free verse, blues poetry, prose poetry, pantoum, narrative poetry, haiku, haibun, concrete poetry, catalog poetry, abecedarian, and contrapuntal poetry (a poem in two columns that can be read three different ways, what I have previously referred to in my posts as dueling poems). Each of these poetic forms (except free verse) is identified and discussed in the poetry glossary at the back of the book; Harrington also provides an example poem from her collection. In addition to these forms, Harrington also makes use of anaphora, rhyme, simile, metaphor, and imagery throughout her collection. In the poem "Monday: Reading and Writing Centers," many of these techniques are on display: "I like to roll words in my mouth, like pebbles / I like to read my books aloud / I like the ways stories unwind like Grandpa's fishing line" (60).

The Page: Catching a Storyfish is divided into nine "chapters" and also includes a prologue, a poetry glossary, and an acknowledgements page. Each of the nine chapters represents Katharen's experiences in a different week and includes several poems (anywhere from three to twenty-two poems). Harrington's Catching a Storyfish is a fine verse novel. It employs a variety of forms and tells the story of a friendship between two diverse characters, but at times the poems were not as engaging or electric as they could be. I give it three stars.