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.