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.