VERSE NOVELS are novels written in free verse; in other types of verse, such as Nikki Grimes’ Garvey’s Choice written in tanka; or a in variety of verse types, as in Laura Shovan's The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary. Novels-in-verse can be multi-formatted, employing a fusion of different types of verse, prose, and graphics. In some verse novels, there are two narrators, one narrating in verse and one in prose, in some cases written by two co-authors; some verse novels offer multiple narrators and perspectives.
VERSE NOVELS are published in a variety of genres, i.e., memoir, biography, historical fiction, and all other types of fiction, and written at a range of reading levels. These novels are available by diverse authors on diverse topics, featuring diverse characters and settings. Verse texts lend themselves to lessons for teaching poetic elements and devices and can be employed as mentor texts for writing poetry or poetically.
NOVELS-IN-VERSE is a text format which engages readers for divergent reasons. Reluctant readers, emerging readers, and ELL readers particularly appreciate the less-dense text while proficient readers value their lyricism and creative structures, the words, the spacing—sometimes creatively designed. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote, “Prose, the best words; poetry, the best words in the best order.” . What I particularly appreciate in reading verse novels is the effectiveness of the line breaks which nuance the author’s or narrator’s message and allow the reader to note the words or phrases important to the authors’ meaning. When reading independently, I tell students to take an “eye-linger,” and, if reading aloud, line breaks require a pause shorter than that of a period and maybe even a comma.
Mrs. Marcus Says Line breaks help Us figure out What matters To the poet. Don’t jumble your ideas Mrs. Marcus says Every line Should count. (from Locomotionby Jacqueline Woodson)
Students may want to look at diverse renditions of line breaks in a free verse poem to analyze how line breaks affect the subtle messages. They may compare a writing such as the three versions of a poem below.
Experiencing the happy times of childhood, I fortunately had Parents who made these experiences possible. Experiencing the sadness that accompanies adolescence, I frequently had Teachers who guided me though. Experiencing the traumas of young adulthood, I always had Friends who would comfort me. Experiencing the challenges of teaching, Luckily I have had Peers who shared their triumphs and celebrated mine.
or with different line breaks, Experiencing the happy times of childhood, I fortunately had parents who made these experiences possible. Experiencing the sadness that accompanies adolescence, I frequently had teachers who guided me though. Experiencing the traumas of young adulthood, I always had friends who would comfort me. Experiencing the challenges of teaching, luckily I have had peers who shared their triumphs and celebrated mine.
and again with shorter lines and different line breaks, Experiencing the happy times of childhood, I fortunately had parents who made these experiences possible. Experiencing the sadness that accompanies adolescence, I frequently had teachers who guided me though. Experiencing the traumas of young adulthood, I always had friends who would comfort me. Experiencing the challenges of teaching, luckily I have had peers who shared their triumphs and celebrated mine.
There are a great number of possibilities; the point is to cause students to become mindful of author’s writing decisions and to become adept at evaluating those decisions and their effect on the writing and the message. Students can look at diverse examples of published free verse, rating the effectiveness of the line breaks. (from Roessing, L. “Challenging the Gender Binary while Studying Author's Craft in Freakboy.” QUEER ADOLESCENT LITERATURE AS A COMPLEMENT TO THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE ARTS CURRICULUM)
Booked, The Crossover, Rebound, Swing, Solo, House Arrest, Knock Out, Rhyme Schemer, Redwood and Ponytail, One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies, Seeing Red, What about Will, Three Pennies, All of Me, The Magical Imperfect, Make Lemonade, Full Cicada Moon; Skyscraping, What Is Goodbye, Garvey’s Choice, Garvey in the Dark, Words with Wings, Pieces of Georgia, Kaleidoscope Eyes, FreakBoy, Orchards, Falling into the Dragon’s Mouth, Junk Boy, Somewhere Among, Beyond Me, Red White and Whole, When You Know What I Know, Ode to a Nobody, The Wild Book, Wild Dreamers; Other Words for Home, Singing with Elephants, American Ace, Serafina’s Promise, All the Broken Pieces, Hidden, We Come Apart, The Weight of Water, One, Clap When You Land, The Poet X, The Ever After, Long Way Down, Star Fish, Perfect, The Places We Sleep, Home of the Brave, The Way the Light Bends; Sold, A Time to Dance, Addie on the Inside, After the Death of Anna Gonzales, Becoming Joe DiMaggio, Red Butterfly, Love That Dog, Coaltown Jesus, The Red Pencil, Ronit & Jamil, Inside Out & Back Again, Unsettled, Golden Girl; The Road to After, Warrior Girl, A Work in Progress, Call Me Adnan, The Order of Things; Shark Girl, Locomotion. Bronx Masquerade, Between the Lines, Breakout, Forget Me Not, Forget Me Not, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, Moo, Shakespeare Bats Cleanup, Jump Ball, Flight of the Puffin, BennBee and the Teacher Griefer, Ben Y and the Ghost in the Machine, Jordan J and the Truth about Jordan J; Ordinary Hazards, Shout, Enchanted Air, Soaring Earth, Brown Girl Dreaming, Stop Pretending, How I Discovered Poetry; Above the Rim, Audacity, The Lightning Dreamer, October Mourning, Force of Nature, Feed Your Mind; Moonwalking, Becoming Muhammad Ali, Every Shiny Thing; White Rose, Out of the Dust, Up from the Sea, Unbound, Flooded, The Memory of Things, Witness, Paper Hearts, Kent State, Loving vs Virginia, Dust of Eden, An Uninterrupted View of the Sky, Ringside 1925, The Trial, Your Heart-My Sky, Tropical Secrets, Rima’s Rebellion, Wings in the Wild
Here are 120 verse novels I have read and recommend for readers grades 4-12, most of which are reviewed here, some in greater detail, some in less. Before I created this website, I frequently guest-blogged reviews for Dr. Bickmore's YA Wednesday. Here are
Recommendations and Reviews from my April 3, 2018 guest-blog for YA Wednesday
Recommendations and Reviews from my March 29, 2019 guest-blog for YA Wednesday
Recommendations and Reviews from my April 9, 2021 guest-blog for YA Wednesday
Recommendations and Reviews for Verse Novels read since April 2021, updated to December 2023
Recommendations and Reviews from my April 3, 2018 guest-blog for YA Wednesday:
Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy andOne of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies and Saving Red by Sonya Sones
I need to begin with the author who introduced me to verse novels with her wonderful memoir, Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy. I first met Sonya Sones when she talked about how she came to write about that topic and in verse and heard her read some of the poems, Through free verse the author captures the highs and lows of her thirteenth year from “My Sister’s Christmas Eve Breakdown” to her fantasy of coming “To the Rescue” to the heartbreak of her “February 15th” birthday spent in the hospital visiting her sister to the joy of spending “Memorial Day” alone with Father to playing scrabble “In the Visiting Room” after the situation and their adaption to it has become somewhat “BETTER.” When I read selected poems aloud to my students, I wished they could see the line breaks—I refer to Sones as the Master of Line Breaks—and would pause a microsecond shorter than a comma. After my students tattered our three copies of Stop Pretending, I purchased two copies of One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies and had to wait in line until June to snag a copy to read myself.
I was thrilled when Saving Red, a story of homelessness and mental illness, was published in 2016. In this novel Molly meets Red when she is counting her town’s homeless population. She becomes intrigued with Red who suffers from metal illness and is determined to help her return to her home. Through friendship Molly, who suffers from her own trauma, and Red help each other. ----------
Booked and The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
It is difficult to believe that anyone has not heard of Kwame’s Alexander’s The Crossover,the story of twin basketball players who behave like any adolescent brothers and then face a family trauma together. This verse novel has captivated reluctant readers, especially male, since its publication.
Booked, is a the story of soccer, friendship, bullying, impressing girls, and the power of words. Twelve-year-old Nick has his own family problems to deal with and is mentored by one of YA literature’s most memorable characters, the rapping school librarian.
Both novels are available as graphic novels. ----------
Freakboy by Kristin Elizabeth Clark
Brendan has always identified with his birth-assigned gender. He lives as a male; he is an athlete, and he has a serious girlfriend. But during his senior year, Brendan realizes that he wants more, or wants different, and begins to question his sexuality and/or gender identity. When he meets Angel, a transgender woman, he finds someone who has suffered adversity and now is confortable with herself, demanding that others accept her as she is. Angel works at the Willows Teen LBGTQ Center and wants to provide Brendan, who is not a client, with the support he needs. Brendan’s girlfriend Vanessa now worries what she is since she loves Brendan who says he is trans. Told through three perspectives, this verse novel gently examines gender fluidity and leads readers through Brendan’s, Angels’s, and Vanessa’s stories.
The author includes few shape (concrete poems) as well as an interesting technique where the last word of stanzas, read vertically, create their own messages.
See my chapter, “Challenging the Gender Binary while Studying Author's Craft in Freakboy” in Queer Adolescent Literature as a Complement to the English Language Arts Curriculum, edited by Greathouse, Paula, Brooke Eisenbach, and Joan Kaywell. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018. ----------
Moo by Sharon Creech
Reena, Luke, and their parents move from the big city to rural Maine where Reena and Luke are volunteered by their parents to take care of their eccentric neighbor’s cow (and pig, cat, and snake). The story is delightful, but it is the text that will grab the reader’s interest. The story is written in prose, and all types of poetry—free verse, shape poems, and there might have been some rhyming poetry. And the author plays with script and fonts and spacing to enhance the story—as on page 29, Flies dipped here there and
and page 61, and the f l u t e m u s i c drift ing d o w n and then abruptly stopping.
Readers will examine not only how relationships are portrayed but the effectiveness of style and punctuation choices. ----------
We Come Apart by Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan
I fell in love with Jess and Nicu as they fell in love with each other. Both teens have reasons to escape; Nicu is an immigrant, and Jess comes from a violent home. This is a story about bullying, racism, cultural values, abusive parents, but most of all it is the story of building a friendship—standing up for others and putting them first. There are two characters and two authors—and an unfortunately realistic ending and powerful message. Two authors, two voices. ----------
I also recommend two other verse novels by Sarah Crossan: The Weight of Water, about an adolescent immigrant with a broken family. Kasienka and her mother emigrate from Poland to England to find the father who has left them. She discovers prejudice in her middle school but also a new family and a new friend. In this novel Crossan makes an important point of many teachers who choose to ignore bullying in their classrooms and bullied students who don't know what to say when one finally intervenes. And One, the story of conjoined twins, told from the viewpoint of one of them, about love, sharing, and an impossible, critical choice. ----------
Audacity by Melanie Crowder (historical fiction)
I usually choose books about more contemporary issues but am noticing the same issues appear throughout history, wearing different masks. Unfortunately oppression, intolerance, and treatment of refugees have not ended, and we still need people unafraid to stand for their own rights and those of others.
Audacity relates the true story of Clara Lemlich, a Russian Jewish immigrant with dreams of an education who sacrifices everything to fight for better working conditions for women in the factories of Manhattan's Lower East Side in the early 1900's. Lyrically related in verse, the use of parallelism and the purposeful placement of the words is as effective as the words themselves.
The novel includes the history behind the story and a glossary of terms, a wonderful "text" for a social studies class. Readers not only learns the story of Clara Lemlich but experience the trials of the factory workers in NYC’s garment district and the obstacles Clara surmounted as she fought to organize the women to fight for their rights. ----------
An Uninterrupted View of the Sky by Melanie Crowder (historical fiction)
This novel takes place in Bolivia at the beginning of the 21st century and reveals how the United States’ role in the passage and enforcement of a law that violated the rights of citizens, especially the poor and indigenous peoples, led to innocent families living in prisons for years, hoping for the reform that has been slowly occurring. “Our lives are stretching out before us, unplanned and unpredictable” (p. 277). Readers meet Francisco and his little sister Pilar and Francisco’s classmate and new friend Soledad, who become a part Bolivia’s prison children population. As they struggle to survive the violence of prison life and the streets and loss of family, they realize that education can help them make a change. The readers learns about Francisco and Papa through their poetry. ----------
Forget Me Not by Carolee Dean
This is one of my favorite verse novels, not only for the story line, which will generate important conversations among teens about cyberbullying, shaming, and suicide, but for the format. Dean creatively employs a variety of poetic forms—villanelle, pantoum, cinquain, tanka, shape poems—and meter, as well as script writing to identify the characters and alter the mood of the plot so subtly and artistically as to not disrupt the reading and the reader.
In response to a compromising photo of her that is texted throughout her high school and the resulting shaming by her peers, Ally commits suicide —or so she thinks—as her only way out. A friend tries to save her by showing her that her life has value and that she can make the decision to live. ----------
Somewhere Among by Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu
Ema is binational, bicultural, bilingual, and biracial. Some people consider her “half,” and others consider her “double.” Her American mother says she contains “multitudes,” but Ema sometimes feels alone living in Japan somewhere among multitudes of people.
When fifth-grader Ema and her mother go to live with Ema’s very traditional Japanese grandparents during a difficult pregnancy, readers experience six months (June 21, 2001-January 2, 2002) of customs, rituals, and holidays, both Japanese and American. There are challenges, such a choosing a name for the new baby that will bring good luck in Japan and that both sets of grandparents can pronounce. Ema celebrates American Independence Day and Japanese Sea Day, and she now views some days, such as August 15 Victory Over Japan Day from diverse perspectives.
On September 11, 2001 she experiences both two typhoons in her town and the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in America on television. As the reader traverses the intricacies of two fusing two distinct cultures with Ema and her family, our knowledge of others is doubled. ----------
One reason we read is to experience other cultures, times, and places. With diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba recently restored, it is crucial that our children learn more about its history, culture, and people. And what better way to learn than through the provocative, well-written, diverse verse novels written by Cuban-American author Margarita Engle.
Enchanted Air:Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir by Margarita Engle
Through this memoir in verse, the narrative of Engle’s childhood as a Cuban-American growing up in LA during the 50’s and 60’s, readers can experience the challenge of children torn between cultures and, and learn about the Cold War. ----------
The Lightning Dreamer by Margarita Engle (biographical fiction)
The story follows feminist Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda, known as Tula from 1827, from when she tells us that “Books are door-shaped portals…helping me feel less alone” to 1836 where she begins the first of her books to spread her hope of racial and gender equality
As a girl, Tula reads in secret and burns her writings as reading and writing are unladylikes. A13 she is nearing the age of forced marriage, and her grandfather and mother make plans to barter her for riches. The reader follows Tula through Engle’s beautiful verse as she writes plays and stories to give hope to orphaned children and slaves; refuses not one, but two arranged marriages; falls in love with a half-African freed slave who loves another; and at last independent, moves to Havana to be healed by poetry and plans the writing of “a gentle tale of love,” a story about how human souls are “free of all color, class, and gender,” an abolitionist novel written by the real Tula to spread her hope of racial and gender equality. ----------
Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba by Margarita Engle (historical fiction)
I have read many Holocaust novels and memoirs of diverse people in diverse situations set in Europe but had not read about the Jews who sought refuge in Cuba.
In Tropical Secrets, Engle shares the intertwined stories of Daniel, a young boy who is a German-Jewish refugee, unwittingly arriving in Cuba in 1939, of Paloma, a Catholic native teen surviving a mother who left and a father who is profiting from the refugees, and of David, a Jewish refugee who fled the pogroms, both serving as Daniel’s (and the readers’) “guides” to island life. Interestingly, I found the verse grow smoother and more lyrical as David adapts to Cuban culture.
This book is even more relevant today as xenophobia grows, no longer allocated to specific places or times. It is important that our children learn A refugee, not a spy. Still, there is the terror of being questioned by police… it will help them understand that those who feel safe today could be the ones in need of refuge tomorrow ----------
Between the Lines by Nikki Grimes
Thi is a prose novel where poetry is employed so the readers (and the other characters) can be introduced to the characters. Why do we read and write poetry? “Because poetry, more than anything else, will teach you about the power of words,” says Mr. Winston, the librarian, as he explains to Darrian why he should learn about all sorts of writing, even poetry. And Grimes shows us the power of words—to heal, to strengthen, to discover. Like Bronx Masquerade, this novel takes place in Mr. Ward’s English classroom where he holds Open Mike Fridays and students work towards a Poetry Slam. Mr Ward’s eleventh grade class is a microcosm of the outside world—Black, Brown, and White and maybe in-between. The reader views the eight students through the lens of Darrian, a Puerto Rican student who lives with his father and has dreams of writing for The New York Times because, “Let’s face it, some of those papers have a bad habit of getting Black and Brown stories wrong.…But I figure the only way to get our stories straight is by writing them ourselves.” So Darrian joins Mr. Ward’s class to learn about words. He does learn the power of words, but he also learns about his classmates as they learn about each other and about themselves through their narratives, their free writes, and the poetry they share.
These students, as the students in our classrooms, are more than their labels. As Tyrone explains about his class the year before, “Before Open Mic, we were in our own separate little groups, thinking we were so different from each other. But when people started sharing who they were through their poetry, turned out we were more alike than we were different.” And Darrian finds out that each word can be unique and special, as Li says about poetry, but also a newspaper story “can be beautiful, especially if it’s true.” Truth is what these characters and novel reveals. ----------
Garvey’s Choice by Nikki Grimes
This short novel is the story of Garvey, an adolescent who doesn't fit the expectations of his father who wants him to become an athlete and or his classmates who bully him. Through a good friend, he discovers his own special talents by joining the school chorus. Written in tanka, Garvey's Choice is a journey of discovery and identity that will give hope to many readers who need to find their own strengths and will help those who already have to gain empathy for others.
See my review of the sequel Garvey in the Dark in the "green" section.
New News: Garvey's Choice will be published as a graphic novel in June 2023.
Full Cicada Moon by Marilyn Hilton
Mama is sewing buttons on my new slacks and helping me fill out the forms for my new school in Hillsborough, our new town. This might be the new year but seventh grade is halfway done, and I’ll be the new girl. I’m stuck at the Ethnicity part.… I am half Mama, half Papa, and all of me.… I check off Black, cross out Oriental, and write “Japanese” with a check mark. (2-3)
One my absolutely favorite female adolescents in literature is Mimi, a biracial—half Japanese-half Black—who therefore faces racial prejudice and sexism from her peers, a friend’s parent, and teachers.
The year is 1969; Neil Armstrong will be walking on the moon, and Mimi plans to become an astronaut. She enters the 7th-grade Shop class in her Vermont school and is told that “Shop is for boys; Home Economics is for girls.” Sensing she needs this education for her future profession, she persists—and is suspended. When Mimi returns to school, her female classmates join her in a Shop Class Sit-In.
As a biracial feminist fighting stereotypes, Mimi serves as a beneficial role model for pre-teen and teenage girls and will provide a mirror and map for some readers and, hopefully, a window for others. ----------
House Arrest by K.A. Holt
What happens when a good kid does a bad thing for a good reason? This question hooks readers every time, as does this novel which is one reason why this is one of my top favorite MG novels and one of my very top recommendation for reluctant readers—this moral question and these characters.
Timothy steals a wallet to help with his baby brother’s medical expenses; he is arrested and put on house arrest for a year. This novel is the journal he keeps for his probation officer and his court-appointed counselor. As Timothy tries to help his overworked mother, keep his brother safe, and find the solution to Levi’s medical problems, the reader falls in love with him as well as the cast of characters involved in his life. As medically-fragile Levi safety is the rationale for all decisions made by Timothy, he again, at the end, becomes a victim of "what happens when a good kid does a bad thing for a good reason." ----------
Knockout by K.A. Holt
In this sequel to House Arrest, Levi is now in 7th grade and trying to make his own life and find the self who is no longer a victim of illness and an overprotective family.
Despite a loving mother, big brother, and a good friend, Levi is more self-centered than Timothy was, but he feels he needs to be able to become his own independent person—which he does in a new passion for boxing. He finally convinces his mother and the now 24-year-old Timothy to let him have his chance as he learns more about Timothy's sacrifices and the true motives of the father-who-left.
Through his indomitable spirit, he wins over the reader. Knock Out is advertised as a companion novel, rather than a sequel, to House Arrest, but since I already have the background from the first novel, I cannot evaluate how effective it would be to read it alone or first. It probably work well if students were paired to read the two novels (or half the class read each). ----------
Rhyme Schemer by K.A. Holt
Kevin is a bully—bullied by his family—and in a school with a Zero Tolerance policy he cannot be caught again. Therefore, two things happen: Students who he bullied now bully him, and Kevin bullies kids through blackout poetry; he tears pages out of the classics from the library and posts his poetry. The librarian discerns his talent and helps him gain self-respect.
This novel will engage reluctant readers through its topic, length, and format and will lead to discussions on a variety of issues relevant to the lives of middle-school boys: middle school, bullying, family relationships, peer relationships, and the roles of educators and administrators. ----------
Up From the Sea by Leza Lowitz (historical fiction)
"The bigger the issue, the smaller you write.”--Richard Price. Instead of focusing on the overwhelming statistics generated by the March 11, 2011 earthquake and resulting tsunami in Japan—nearly 16,000 deaths and 3,000 people missing—the event becomes even more intense and compelling as author Leza Lowitz relates the story of one town and one boy and the resilience of many.
The story begins on March 11 when Kai, a half Japanese, half American 17-year-old and his teachers and classmates experience the “jolting of the earth,” and as trained, they evacuate, running for their lives, looking for the highest place, as their town is destroyed. Written powerfully in free verse, the reader feels the fury of nature as the water “churns,” “thrashes,” “surges,” “sweeps,” “charges.” Kai ends up in a shelter having lost his mother, his grandparents, and one of his best friends. His father left years before to return to America.
Faced with overwhelming loss and trauma, Kai walks into the ocean but is saved by one of his classmates and convinced to accept the opportunity to go to New York City on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 where he will spend some time with young adults who lost their parents as teens in the 9/11 attacks. At Ground Zero, Fia tells him, “Bravery means being scared and going forward anyway.”
Kai hopes to find his father in NYC but returns to his village to help the young adolescents who lost their families and to rebuild his town. “I want to be/ like that tree/ deep roots/ making it strong/ keeping it/ standing tall.” And it is to his roots Kai returns and stays—“The quake moved the earth/ ten inches/ on its axis./ I guess/I shifted,” too. ----------
Every Shiny Thing by Cordelia Jensen and Laurie Morrison
In this multi-genre novel readers follow the journey of two new friends from different types of lives as they discover themselves and how they can navigate their lives. Lauren is a wealthy teen who goes to a Quaker school. She is very close to her brother Ryan, but when he is sent to a boarding school for teens on the autism spectrum, Lauren is sure that he isn’t happy, that the school is not meeting his needs, and that her parents sent him away. She then realizes that all teens who need it can’t afford the help Ryan is getting and she designs a scheme to raise money, selling the “shiny things” that she feels her affluent family and friends don’t really need.
Her scheme spirals out of control as she begins stealing items from stores, family, and friends, selling them on line, and the thrill of stealing takes over. She even involves her new friend Sierra. Sierra’s father, a drug addict, is in jail; her mother, an alcoholic, who Sierra has cared for for years in a life of poverty, is also in jail. What she wants is her family; what she needs is a stable loving family—and a friend, but not a friend who gets her involved with her own addiction. Sierra moves in next door to Lauren with foster parents Carl and Anne, an interracial Quaker couple who are surviving the trauma of losing their own child. She pushes them away, anxious to get back to her old life. Sierra and Lauren’s friendship guides them in finding a new way of thinking. Sierra realizes she can love her mother but she can’t help her, and she can let Carl and Anne help her. Lauren realizes that she can stop worrying about Ryan who is happy in his new environment and she can’t save the world.
Lauren’s and Sierra’s narrations are written by each of the authors in their own unique style: Lauren’s narratives in prose and Sierra’s in free verse, styles which fit their lives and personalities. ----------
The Way the Light Bends by Cordelia Jensen
Like her first verse novel Skyscraping, this is the story of relationships and the ways "the composition of a relationship changes as we change individually." (p.380) Though they used to be "in tempo/ in time" (p. 4), sisters Linc and Holly in their sophomore year are following "two paths/ one in light/ one in shadow/ diverging." (p. 5) They have different skills and talents—and different dreams.
Holly, though adopted, appears to fit more easily into the family and consistently wins her parents approval; she is academically gifted, athletic, and a school leader. Linc is artistic, creative, a photographer. As the narrator of the story, the reader feels Linc's pain as she tries to be a better student and daughter while following her passion but she constantly fails—at academics, at love, and, it seems, at being the daughter her parents want. As her photography improves, the rest of her life falls apart—and she makes some wrong choices and turns. It takes a family secret and truthful sharing to make them all realize that "a family isn't something you're born into as much as it is something you chose to be a part of every day." (p. 370) ----------
Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
In Will’s neighborhood there are three rules: you don’t cry; you don’t snitch; you get revenge. When he older brother Shawn was shot and killed, Will takes Shawn’s gun to avenge his murder because he is sure he knows the story—well, he is almost sure. As he takes the elevator down, it stops on each floor where someone who has been killed in gun violence gets on and shares their story, and he learns that everything is not always as it seems. What will he do with this information?
Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote "Poetry: The best words in the best order." Jason Reynolds’ first verse novel proves that, maybe more than any verse novel I have read. In this powerful work, every single word, punctuation, and spacing counts. It is a perfect novel for reluctant readers because, even though the words are simple to read, the story generates inference, prediction, making connections re-reading, and employs all the reading strategies necessary to a good reader. It also brings up ideas of loss and retaliation and where, or if, we can break the chain of violence and who makes that decision for us. This novel takes the reader a long way down—in the space of a minute. ----------
The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary by Laura Shovan
Emerson Elementary is closing at the end of the year. As readers live through that last year with the eighteen fifth graders and experience their changing peer and family relationships through their poems, they learn who is for and who is against the upcoming change.
Each student has his or her unique poetry style and voice, and readers truly experience the diversity of poetry and one lovable class whose poems move the year along. ----------
Red Butterfly by A.L. Sonnichsen
Another well-written novel which I devoured in a day (with the help of a box of tissues), Red Butterfly relates the story of Kara, an abandoned baby of Tianjin, who was raised by an American woman (Mama) who gave up everything—husband, daughter, grandsons—to illegally stay in China to raise her.
After Kara finds she was never legally adopted and has no government identity and Mama is deported, Kara is returned to the orphanage and is adopted by another American family as Mama is too old to adopt under the rules. However, Kara learns that one can have many families, and there is room in people's heart for one more child. ----------
Forget Me Not by Ellie Askeroth Terry
Seventh grade is hard to navigate, even when you are not different. Jinsong is the president of student body, and even though he has faced prejudice in his past, he is now one of the popular kids. When Calliope June moves in next door, with her weird clothing and tics, he immediately likes her. But does he like her enough to risk his standing with his "friends," who are bullying Callie and some of whom have turned on him in the past?
Callie has moved ten times during her life—every time her mother finds and breaks up with a new boyfriend. Diagnosed with Tourette syndrome, it is hard enough to fit in and make friends, especially since her doctor told her it would be better not to tell anyone. So Callie dresses to draw attention to her clothes and tries to hide her Tourette's (which only backfires) as she desperately tries to make friends—until she meets Jinsong and Ms. Baumgartner, the school counselor. Callie moves for an 11th time, leaving a legacy of tolerance and acceptance, at least between Beatriz and Jinsong—and ready to share her whole self with her new friends. "Because wouldn't/ talking/ about something/ make it better understood?"
The reader learns about Callie, her past, her present, her future dreams, through her free-verse chapters and about Jinsong through his short prose. This is a perfect novel for reluctant readers as it is very short but leaves much to discuss (and contains both a male and female main character). Author Ellie Askeroth Terry's shares her own experience in this debut multi-genre novel. ----------
Orchards by Holly Thompson
According to the National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice Statistics, 28% of U.S. students in grades 6–12 experienced bullying. In surveys, 30% of young people admit to bullying others. In addition, a study in Britain found that at least half of suicides among young people are related to bullying and that 10 to 14 year old girls may be at even higher risk for suicide. As the social hierarchy intensifies in middle school, girls form cliques and can get meaner. Kana Goldberg, an American middle school girl, feels guilty when Ruth, a classmate, commits suicide.
Kana reflects on the social hierarchy in her eighth grade class who were “electrons/ arranged in shells/ around Lisa/ Becca and Mona/ first shell solid/ the rest of us/ in orbitals farther out/ less bound/ less stable/ and you/ in the least stable/ most vulnerable/ outermost shell.” Lisa was mean to Ruth and “we all/ followed/ her lead.”
Kana’s Japanese mother and Jewish American father send her to her maternal grandmother’s mikan orange farm for the summer to “reflect in the presence of [her] ancestors.” While there she learns to farm, becomes part of the family and community, and learns the rituals of her Japanese culture, but most important she reflects on her actions and those of her clique and thinks about Ruth and what happened and where to place blame because they didn’t understand her. She finally realizes that the list of what they didn’t do, what they could have done “…seems so basic and short.”
There is another tragedy and through the rituals surrounding death Kana practices with her relatives and the Japanese community, she returns home with ideas of ways to create a memorial to the friends who were tragically affected by the bullying—and to help, not just the girls but the entire 8th grade class, to “go on.” ----------
A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman
This novel is a poetic and inspiring story of adolescent resilience.
Veda is a young Indian dancer who, after winning a dance contest, is in an accident and loses her leg below the knee. But she never loses her will to dance and refuses to settle for less than relearning the complicated classical bharatanatyam dance form. As she begins again with the help of Govinda, a young teacher and friend, she learns the meaning of dance. ----------
Breakoutby Kate Messner
Breakout is the story of Wolf Creek and three weeks in the life of its citizens. As students finish school, write letters for the time capsule for the future citizens of Wolf Creek, and plan for Field Day, two prisoners escape, and for the next three weeks the life of the town is “different.” Police and reporters invade the town; fear is in control. Seventh-grader Nora, as a time capsule reporter, notices that life is more complex—or maybe she is becoming aware of the complexities. Nora writes at the end of the summer, “…sometimes you need to hear a lot of points of view to get the whole story.” (And that’s what this novel provides—lots of points of view revealed through letters, recorded conversations, text messages, news articles, the school’s morning announcements, and student petitions.
In one of the most effective portrayals of the power of poetry, the newest resident and seventh-grader, Elidee begins writing poems inspired by her favorite poets: Nikki Giovanni, Nikki Grimes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Paul Laurence, Jacqueline Woodson, and finally Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics from Hamilton, my favorite being the student council vice president’s rap battle with the principal, based on “Cabinet Battle #1.”
In this frequently-humorous novel there are serious lessons to be learned: Elidee finds her voice, Lizzie learns about forgiveness; and Nora contemplates the complications of life which includes racism that she never realized existed in her small town. --------------------
Recommendations and Reviews from my March 29, 2019 guest-blog for YA Wednesday:
Rebound by Kwame Alexander
“I want to be the hero in my story.” (339) The year Charlie Bell turned twelve many good things were supposed to happen, but his father died suddenly, and Charlie began to lose his way. His dad was “a star in our neighborhood” but on March 9, 1988, Charlie’s “star exploded.” A good kid, with his best friend Skinny, he starts making bad decisions—skipping school, taking part in stealing an elderly neighbor’s deposit bottles. Even his smart friend CJ, a girl who might become more than a friend, can’t keep him on track. And his life began to revolve around his comics.
Then his mother sends Charlie to spend the summer with his grandparents on their “farm.” Through his grandmother’s love and his grandfather’s work ethic, and most of all, through his cousin Roxie’s obsession with basketball, the re-named Chuck discovers a love for basketball, and he learns to “rebound on the court. And off.” (2)
I became immediately caught up in the rhythm and rhyme of the free verse, and font size, style, and spacing were effectively employed throughout the narrative. However there were a lot of pages devoted to couplet dialogue that broke the rhythm and became somewhat monotonous. Many readers will be engaged by the graphics, comic book style, that are scattered throughout. One disappointment was many erroneous cultural references, pointed out by those reviewers more in tuned with the 80’s than I.
However, I fell in love with Charlie/Chuck and all the other characters, especially granddaddy Percival Bell and cousin Roxie Bell. In fact, I would love to see a novel featuring the young Miss Bell herself. This was definitely a character-driven novel.
A prequel to the popular verse novel The Crossover—Charlie is the twins father—this book would serve as a companion reading but can stand on its own, although I am not sure that the last section, set in 2018, would make sense to those who had not read The Crossover. ----------
Redwood and Ponytail by K.A. Holt
I love all the KA Holt’s novels I have read; Timothy from House Arrest is one of my favorite characters ever. I even have a place in my heart for Rhyme Schemer’s troublemaker-poet Kevin, and I was happy when Levi (House Arrest) grew into his own novel, Knockout (all verse novels) and makes an appearance in this new novel.
Tam (Redwood) and Kate (Ponytail) come from two different worlds. Kate’s mom puts helicopter parents to shame. She has orchestrated Kate’s entire life so that in 7th grade she will become cheer captain and she will follow her mother’s life—unlike her much older sister who joined the Navy at 18. She lives in the perfect house, which is always being perfected, and her daughter certainly isn’t gay.
Tam’s mother is the opposite. Open and accepting and prone to trying out the adolescent lingo (and providing many of the laughs in reading this book). Tam is also looked after by neighbor Frankie and her wife. Frankie, it appears, is full of advice, based on experience trying to fit the stereotype. Tam is an athlete, tall as a redwood, ace volleyball player, who everyone high-five’s in the hallway, but she realizes she only has one good friend, Levy.
On the first day of school, Tam and Kate meet and, as they quickly, mysteriously, develop deep feelings for each other, they find each not only different from the stereotypes everyone assumes, but, opposite though they seem, opposite though their lives and families may be they each discover they may be a little different than they thought they were and more alike than they thought. Does Kate actually want to be cheer captain or would she rather run free in the team’s mascot’s costume? Does she really want to have lunch at her same old table or would she rather sit with Tam and Levy which is much more fun? Does Tam really want to beat Kate for the school presidency? Or is she punishing Kate for not being able to admit what their friendship may be? As their relationship experiences ups and downs, and they each try to define their attraction, they also find that others may not be as critical and narrow-minded as they assumed.
Written in my favorite format, free verse with some rhymes thrown in for rhythm, the author takes the form to another level with parallel lines and two-voice poetry. I would suggest that the reader have some experience with verse novels before reading. I also loved the Greek chorus—Alex, Alyx, Alexx—who comment on the action and keeps it moving along. ----------
Hidden by Helen Frost
A few years after I graduated from college, I was talking to a friend who had become a social worker. I asked her about her job. “The hardest thing is to have to take a child from his parents,” she said. “No matter how neglectful or abusive the parents are, children don’t want to leave their family or have family members leave them.”
Confusing feelings, complex relationships, and speculative blame develop from a simple plot in Hidden—even though both girls were there.
When she was eight, a man ran from a botched burglary and stole Wren’s mother’s car. Wren was in the back, hidden. West didn’t know she was there until he hid the car in his garage and Heard on the news that a child who was in a stolen car was missing, West’s wife and daughter, although threatened and hit by West, try to find her, and eight-year old Darra leaves food in the garage just in case the girl is there. Wren escapes, and West is caught and sentenced to a jail term, and Darra grows up with ambivalent feelings for the girl who took her “Dad” away.
Six years later the two girls meet at camp. They aren’t sure how they feel about each other, but they agree to avoid each other and not discuss the incident. Until one day they are placed together for a life-saving class event and finally realize that they are the only ones that can discuss the past, and they begin to listen to each other’s side of the story “and put the pieces into place” (124). Darra reflects, “Does she think you can’t love a dad who yells at you and even hits you?”(120). When Wren reveals that she wasn’t the one who turned West in, Darra thinks, “Everything is turning upside down.” And reassures Wren “None of what happened was your fault” (124). Together, they become “stronger than we knew.” (138)
Hidden is written in different styles of free verse. Wren recount her past and present stories in the more traditional style of short lines and meaningful line breaks in combination with meaning word and line spacing. Darra’s narration is crafted in a unique style of long lines and shorter lines, the words at the end of each long line, read vertically, tell Darra’s past memories of her father and explain her love for him. I am glad I happened to read the author’s “Notes on Form” at the end of the story that explained the format or I would have missed the effectiveness of this creative format, although the reader could return to the text for the message. ----------
Shark Girl by Kelly Bingham
This multi-formatted novel— newspaper clippings, phone conversations, letters, internal dialogue, and mostly free verse—chronicles 15-year-old Jane Arrowood’s life during the year following a shark attack, an attack that took her right arm.
“Where can I find that line to stand upon, step into the stream of humanity, the place that is mine.” (112)
A high school junior, Jane has won the art contests every year and planned to become a professional artist. Little did she know when she went to the beach that day, her life and her aspirations would dramatically change. The novel, although fiction, has the feeling of a true story of an actual person. The reader experiences Jane’s ordeal from her perspective, even when she argues with her negative inner thoughts.
Through most of that year, Jane journeys through numerous emotions, the majority negative and despairing. She feels the tingling, throbbing, ache of the phantom limb and the frustration of using a prosthesis. She is not encouraged by the cards and presents sent by strangers—Pity Bears—a result of the video of the attack that someone posted. “Those people who write to me. They tell me they love me. / They don’t even know me.” (71)
Her therapist tells Jane that is natural to be depressed. “Allow yourself to feel as bad as you want. / The sooner you do this, / the sooner you will be able to move on.” (25) and then moves her beyond, a step at a time. “’Time to think about the smaller picture,’ / Mel says. ‘Like getting through one day. / Not your whole life, not forever / one day. / Sometimes we can only look at one hour / or one minute.’”
However, she is supported by family (particularly her brother who rescued her and whose quick-thinking saved her life) and friends, and Jane is greatly inspired by Justin, a little boy who lost both legs but retains his optimism.
In the fall she goes back to school, facing the hurdles of being the Shark Girl, some days bad but some good, support coming from unexpected places and people. “’We’re all just trying to help.’ / [Angie] shifts. ‘I don’t want to see you get hurt again.’” (264)
Although she struggles to train herself to draw with her left hand, Jane begins to reflect on the encouragement she received from hospital staff members (and on those who were unsupportive and unfriendly), and she realizes the difference a person can make. She begins to look into careers in the medical field—physical therapist, art therapist, nurse, doctor, gaining a new goal and purpose. “I’m going to start living again, / only differently.” (265)
This story is truly a mirror and a window that will develop empathy for those who have to navigate life “differently.” ----------
Soaring Earth by Margarita Engle (memoir)
I read Engle’s new memoir, a continuation of Enchanted Air, which covers the years 1966-1973. This was more reminiscing, than learning, about the lifestyle and events. As a reader of about the same age of young adult Margarita and possibly crossing paths at some point, I am quite familiar with that time period.
Engle depicts a feeling of duality as she longs for Cuba, home of her “invisible twin,” now that travel is forbidden for North Americans.
Readers witness firsthand the era of hippies, an unpopular war, draft notices, drugs, and Martin Luther King’s speeches and assassination, riots, Cambodia, picket lines, as they follow 17-year-old bell-bottomed Margarita from her senior year of high school to her first university experience, fascinating college courses, books, unfortunate choices of boyfriends, dropping out, travel, homelessness, homecoming, college, agricultural studies, and finally, love.
At one point young Margarita as a member of a harsh creative writing critique group says, “If I ever scribble again, I’ll keep every treasured word secret.” (31). Thank goodness she didn’t. This beautifully written verse novel shares her story—and a bit of history—through poetry in many formats, including tanka, haiku, concrete, and the power of words. ----------
Ringside, 1925: Views from the Scopes Trial by Jen Bryant (historical fiction)
Most of us know the Who, What, Where, When, and believe we know the Why – but do we? How often do we know the true story of historic events—and the stories behind the story, and the different perspectives on the story. Jen Bryant’s historical novel grants us the chance to observe the events of the Scopes Trial close up and personally.
Through this novel, written in the voices of those who had a ringside seat to this trial, readers secure a ringside seat to the trial, the people who participated in it, and the town that hosted it.
As the reader views the controversy and the trial from the point of view of nine fictitious, diverse characters (plus quotes from the real participants), each character develops more as the story progresses. My favorite are the teenagers of Dayton, Tennessee, because, through meeting those on both sides of the issue and closely observing them and the the trial, it affects them, their relationships, and their futures. Peter and Jimmy Lee, best friends become divided by their beliefs; Marybeth is a young lady who finds strength to stand up to her father’s traditional view of the role of women in society; and my favorite character, Willy Amos, meets Clarence Darrow and dares to believe what he can attempt to achieve. “’Well,’ I pointed out, ‘there ain’t no such thing as a colored lawyer.’”…”Do you plan to let that stop you?” (210)
The novel is powerfully written in multiple formats—free verse in a variety of stanza configurations and spacing decisions, a few rhyming lines here and there, and some prose. And the messages are powerful: Peter Sykes—“Why should a bigger mind need a smaller God.” (11); Marybeth Dodd—“I think some people can look at a thing a lot of different ways at once and they can all be partly right.” (131); and Constable Fraybel—“[Darrow] claims [his witnesses] are anxious to explain the difference between science and religious faith and how they made places in their heart and minds for both.” (143)
An epilogue shares the aftermath and the lasting effects of the trial. Every American History/Social Justice teacher and ELA teacher should have copies of this novel. ----------
The Trial by Jen Bryant (historical fiction)
Our students can learn more about history from novels than textbooks, and, more importantly, stories help them understand history and its effects on the people involved. Familiar with aviator Charles Lindbergh, I was not as knowledgeable about the 1932 kidnapping of his son and the resulting trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, but the most effective way to learn about it was through the eyes, and words, of seventh-grader Katie Leigh Flynn.
Katie is a resident of Flemington, New Jersey, a town where “nothing ever happens.” (5). Katie’s father left her and her mother years ago, and both Katie and her mother are compassionate about the plight of others. The Great Depression has begun; Katie donates food and clothing for less-fortunate children and, when the hotel’s assistant chef is caught putting food in his pockets, her mother says she will “find him an apron with larger pockets.” Katie supports her best friend Mike who “is not like / the other boys I know…he’s not / stuck-up or loudmouthed or silly” (10) and lives with his father, a drunk.
Katie, nicknamed “Word Girl” by the local newspaper editor, plans to become a reporter and keeps a scrapbook of news clippings and headlines, especially about Colonel Lindbergh and the kidnapping. When the Hauptmann is arrested and the trial comes to the local courthouse, her reporter uncle needs a secretary to take notes, and she takes six weeks off school to help. Thus, readers experience the 1935 trial through Katie.
During the trial, readers meet the Lindbergs; the judge; the defendant; the alcoholic defense lawyer who hasn’t won a case in years; prosecutor Wilentz; Anna Hauptmann who swears her husband was at home with her and their baby that night; a witness (paid by the prosecution); and Walter Winchell and other celebrities who come to town for the trial.
The story reminds us that at this time Hitler is in power and discrimination and his persecution has begun in Europe. But Americans are just as prone to prejudice and discrimination. The German bakery changes its sign to “Good American-Baked Bread and Desserts.” [Katie’s] “Mother shrugs, ‘Everything German is suspicious these days.’” (96) And Hauptmann is a German immigrant.
Prejudice is not limited to Germans. People talk about Katie’s friend Mike. “They say: ‘Kids like Mike / never amount to much.’” (24) He is accused of vandalism but when Katie wants to tell who really was responsible, he tells her, I’m a drunkard’s son. You’re a dancer’s daughter. Bobby Fenwick is a surgeon’s son. His mother is on the School Board, the Women’s League, the Hospital Auxiliary, the Town Council, If you were Mrs, McTavish, [who is a member of the School Board, the Women’s League, the Hospital Auxiliary, the Town Council, (110)] Who would you believe? (112)
Truth moves to center stage for Katie (if not for anyone else). Thinking about the conflicting testimonies and absence of evidence, she reflects, “Truth must be … like a lizard that’s too quick to catch and turns a different color to match whatever rock it sits upon.” (126) She is careful to write down every word of testimony. “I say, ‘But when a man’s on trial for his life / isn’t every word important?’” (84)
The search for truth is the heart of Jen Bryant’s novel told in free verse. After her experiences, Katie is disillusioned with the American Justice System and says that “…everything used to lay out so neatly, / everything seemed / pretty clear and straight. / Now all the streets run slantwise / and even the steeples look crooked.” (151)
As in Ringside 1925, the novel ends with an epilogue and a reflection on “reasonable doubt,” media, and “the complexities of human behavior” and will lead to important classroom conversations, not about the trial, but about justice. ----------
The Memory of Things by Gae Polisner (historical fiction)
An engrossing, insightful story about the effects of the events of September 11, 2001. One reason we read is to understand events we have not experienced and the effect of those events on others who may be like ourselves. After witnessing the fall of the first Twin Towers on 9-11, teenager Kyle finds an adolescent girl, wearing wings, poised on the edge of the Brooklyn Bridge. She is covered in ash and has no memory of who she is. He takes her back to his apartment hoping that his father, who is working at Ground Zero, can discover who she is and what she was doing on the bridge. And how she may be connected to, or have been affected by, the events of 9/11.
The Memory of Things is told in alternating narratives—Kyle's in prose, the girl’s perceptions are conveyed through free verse—the two characters sharing their stories and perspectives, introducing adolescent readers, who were not alive during 9/11, to the uncertainty and immediate, as well as lasting, effects of this tragedy. ----------
American Ace by Marilyn Nelson
A story about identity, family, and pride, this short verse novel was written by award-winning poet and novelist Marilyn Nelson.
Connor Bianchini is an Italian-Irish-American adolescent, of 100% Italian heritage on his close-knit father’s side—or so he thinks. When his grandmother dies, she leaves behind the revelation that Connor’s father’s biological father was an American killed during the war.
The family reacts in different, primarily positive, ways to the news. “’It’s funny to think about identity,” / Dad said. ‘Now I wonder how much of us / we inherit, and how much we create.’” (19) Uncle Father Joe says, “You’re as much a Bianchini as I am” and Aunt Kitty although “shocked,” admits “…but I’m glad to know Mama had a Grand Romance! / Tony, nothing makes you less my brother!” (25) Only Dad’s older son Carlo objects to the family announcement, “His says bad news should be told privately.” (79)
As Connor tries to discover more about his grandfather, nicknamed Ace, he has two clues: a class ring engraved with two initials and the term “Forcean” and a pair of pilot's wings. “Forcean” leads him to the Class of 1939 yearbook of Wilberforce University, an historically black university. Surprised to learn that his grandfather was African-American, “I felt like a helium-filled balloon / only the helium was the word ‘wow.’” (71) Connor’s father has his DNA tested and finds his ancestry is so much more than Irish and Italian. “So Ace connects us to the larger world!” (75) Connor embraces his mixed heritage, “It’s like having more teams you can cheer for! / I’d become a citizen of the world.” And “I walked the [school] halls in slow motion. … Little things I hadn’t noticed before: the subtle put-downs, silent revenges.” (75)
Realizing that this grandfather, a pilot, may have been a Tuskegee Airman, Connor researches and learns as much as he can about the Tuskegee Airmen and welcomes this part of his heredity with openness and pride. He can retain his bond with his family while amplifying his own identity and appreciation of who he is. “Inside I’m both the same and different. / I’m different in ways no one can see.” “I fee there is a blackness beyond skin, / beyond race, beyond outward appearance. / A blackness that has more to do with how / you see than how you’re seen. That craves justice / equally for oneself and for others. / I hope I’ve found some of that in myself.” (117)
A blend of narrative and informational text (the information Connor finds on the Tuskegee Airmen), this is yet another book for learning about people and times in our history, written by the daughter of one of the last Tuskegee Airmen and author of a verse memoir, How I Discovered Poetry. ----------
Shout by Laurie Halse Anderson (memoir)
When I think of Laurie Halse Anderson, writer, I think of well-told important stories—whether contemporary or historical, memorable characters, critical messages. When I think of Laurie Halse Anderson, person, I think of hugs, compassion, empathy, attention, and action. Now when I think of Laurie Halse Anderson, poet, I will ruminate on the power of words, the rhythm of words, the lyricism of words.
It is hard to believe that Shout is Anderson’s first free-verse writing. I was swept away in the unexpected word choices, startling word combinations, thoughtful line breaks, and subtle alliterations.
[As a child,] I learned then that words Had such power Some must never be spoken And was thus robbed of both Tongue and the truth. (16)
In this memoir Anderson generously shares her life—the bottomless depths and the highest peaks—all that made her the force she is today. A challenging family life and the rape that “splits open your core with shrapnel,” clouds of doubt and self-loathing…anxiety, depression, and shame,” leaving “untreated pain / a cancer of the soul / that can kill you.” (69)
But also there were teachers, librarians, and the tutor who taught “the ants swarming across the pages” to form words and meaning, the lessons learned from Greek mythology, the gym teacher who cared enough to inspire her to shape-shift from “a lost stoner dirtbag / to a jock who hung out with exchange students, / wrote poetry for the literary magazine / and had a small group of …friends to sit with at lunch.” (88) and her home in Denmark which “taught me how to speak / again, how to reinterpret darkness and light, / strength and softness…redefine my true north / and start over.” (114)
She describes how the story of her first novel Speak found her and the origin of Melinda, “alone / with her fear / heart open, / unsheltered” (162)
Part Two bears witness to the stories of others, female and male, children, teens, and adults, connected through trauma and Melinda’s story, the questions of boys, confused, having never learned “the rules of intimacy or the law” (181) and the censorship, “the child of fear/ the father of ignorance” which keeps these stories away from them. Anderson raises the call to “sisters of the march” who never got the help they needed and deserved to “stand with us now / let’s be enraged aunties together.” (230)
And in Part Three the story returns to her American birth family, her father talking and “unrolling our family legacies of trauma and / silence.”
Shout is a tale of Truth: the truths that happened, the truths that we tell ourselves, the truths that we tell others, the truths that we live with; Shout is the power of Story—stories to tell and stories to be heard. ----------
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
The power of words – to celebrate, to heal, to communicate, to feel.
Fifteen-year-old Xiomara grabbed me immediately with her words. She sets the scene in “Stoop-Sitting”: one block in Harlem, home, church ladies, Spanish, drug dealers, and freedom that ends each day with the entrance of her Mami.
Xiomara feels “unhide-able,” insulted and harassed because of her body. We meet her family—the twin brother whom she loves but can’t stand up for her and a secret that he is hiding; her father who was a victim of temptation, and now stays silent; her mother, taken away from the Dominican Republic and her calling to become a nun and forced into a marriage that was a ticket to America; and Caridad, her best friend—only friend—and conscience,
Bur Xio fills her journal with poetry and when she discovers love, or is it lust, she finds the one person with whom she can share her poetry. He is not elegant enough for a sonnet, too well thought-out for a free write, Taking too much space in my thoughts To ever be a haiku. (107)
Aman gives Xio the confidence to see what she can become, not what she is told she can be, and to appreciate, rather than hide, her body. “And I think of all the things we could be if we were never told out bodies were not built for them.” (188)
She also begins to doubt religion and defy the endless rules her mother has made about boys, dating, and confession. With the urging of her English teacher, Xio joins the Poetry Club and makes a new friend, Isabelle “”That girl’s a storyteller writing a world you’re invited to walk into.” (257) and with the support of Isabelle, Stephan, and Chris “My little words feel important, for just a moment.” (259)
When her mother discovers that Xio has not been attending her confirmation class, things come to a climax; however, even though her obsession with poetry has destroyed relationships in her family, it also, with some “divine intervention,” becomes the vehicle to heal them.
As I read I wanted to hear Xio’s poems, but when I finished the book, I realized that I had. A novel for mature readers, The Poet X features diverse characters and shares six months’ of interweaving relationships built on words. --------------------
Recommendations and Reviews from my April 9, 2021 guest-blog for YA Wednesday:
Above the Rim: How Elgin Baylor Changed Basketball by Jen Bryant (historical-biographical fiction)
In one smooth move, like a plane taking off, He leaped… Higher and higher and higher-- As if pulled by some invisible wire, And just when it seemed he’d have to come down, No! He’d HANG there, suspended, floating like a bird or a cloud, Changing direction, shifting the ball to the other side, Twisting in midair, slashing, crashing, Gliding past the defense, up—up—above the rim.
Above the Rim is the story of NBA player Elgin Baylor and how he changed basketball, but it is also the story of Civil Rights in the United States and how Elgin contributed to that movement.
Readers follow Elgin from age 14 when he began playing basketball “in a field down the street” to college ball at the College of Idaho to becoming the #1 draft pick for the Minneapolis Lakers (later the LA Lakers) to being named 1959 NBA Rookie of the Year. At the same time readers follow the peaceful protests of Rosa Parks, the Little Rock Nine, and the African American college students sitting at the “whites only” Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, NC.
In his first season Baylor sat out a game to protest the hotel and restaurants serving “whites only,” leading the NBA commissioner to make an anti-discrimination rule. “Elgin had already changed the way basketball was played. Now by sitting down and NOT playing, he helped change things off court.”
“Artists [such as Baylor,] change how we see things, how we perceive human limits, and how we define ourselves and our culture.” (Author’s Note)
This picture book, exquisitely illustrated by Frank Morrison, belongs in every classroom and home library for readers of all ages. Lyrically written in free verse by Jen Bryant, it would serve as a mentor texts for many writing focus lessons:
repetition, free verse, and rhyming lines for musicality
technical language (jargon), i.e., hanging jumper, spin-shot, backboard
active verbs, i.e., gliding, shifting, floating, twisted, reverse dunked
Figurative language, i.e., floating like a bird or a cloud
Sensory details, i.e., steamy summer day, padlocked fences, clickety-clack trains, flick of his wrist, beds that were too short, cold food
Following the story, the author provides a lengthy Author’s Note about Baylor, a bibliography of Further Reading, and a 1934-2018 Timeline of Elgin’s life, black athletes, and Civil Rights highlights. ----------
Becoming Muhammed Ali by James Patterson and Kwame Alexander
Becoming Muhammad Ali relates the story of boxer Cassius Clay from the time he began training as an amateur boxer at age 12 until he won the Chicago Golden Gloves on March 25, 1959—with glimpses forward to his 1960 Olympic gold medal and his transformation to Muhammad Ali.
The novel is creatively co-written by two authors in the voices of two narrator-characters: James Patterson writes as Cassius’ childhood best friend Lucius “Lucky” in prose and Kwame Alexander writes in verse, sometimes rhyming, most times not, as Cassius Clay. Dawud Anyabwile drew the wonderful illustrations.
Cassius Clay’s grandaddy always advised him, “Know who you are, Cassius. And whose you are. Know where you going and where you from.” (25) and he did. From Louisville, Kentucky, from Bird and Clay, and (in his own “I Am From” poem) from “slavery to freedom,…from the unfulfilled dreams of my father to the hallelujah hopes of my momma.” (28-29)
Readers learn WHY Cassius Cassius fought, for my name for my life for Papa Cash and Momma Bird for my grandaddy and his grandaddy… for America for my chance for my children for their children for a chance at something better at something way greater. (296-297)
As Lucky tells the reader, “He was loud. He was proud. He called himself the Greatest. Even when he wasn’t. Yet. But deep down, where it mattered, he could be very humble. It was another part of him that he didn’t let most people see.” (231) “He was also a true and loyal friend.” (305)
Throughout the novel, readers also learn boxing moves, information about famous boxers, such as Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano, and matches, and even more about the person who was Cassius Clay and became Muhammad Ali. ----------
Before the Ever After by Jacqueline Woodson
I have long been a fan of Jacquelyn Woodson’s books and have read all her picture books, middle grades, Young Adult, and adult books. Her newest novel for middle grade readers not only is a well-written verse novel but addresses an important topic—CTE.
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is a degenerative brain disease found in athletes, military veterans, and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma or concussion. Many of our children are affected by CTE either through their parents and other relatives who played sports as children and as adults or served in the military or as athletes themselves who may face CTE in their futures. Sports with high risks of concussion are rugby, American football, ice hockey, and soccer, as well as lacrosse, wrestling, basketball, softball, field hockey, baseball, and cheerleading.
Before the ever after, there was three of us And we lived happily Before the ever after. (7)
Before the Ever After there was ZJ, his mother and famous father. ZJ’s father was Zachariah 44, a pro football star, hero to many and to his son, he’s not my hero, he’s my dad, which means he’s my every single thing. (4)
But in the Ever After, ZJ’s dad is forgettful, moody, has splitting headaches, and sometimes even yells. Only 35 years old, he has good days and bad days. The many doctors he visits and tests he is subjected to don’t have any answers or a cure, but doctors all agree this is a result of the many concussions he suffered in his career as a football player. Only ZJ’s music seems to bring him peace.
Before—and During—the Ever After, ZJ has loyal, true friends: Ollie, Darry, and Daniel: Feels like we’re all just one amazing kid the four of us, each a quarter of a whole (108)
And he has his music: When I sing, the songs feel as magic as Daniel’s bike as brilliant as Ollie’s numbers as smooth as Darry’s moves as good as the four of us hanging out on a bright cold Saturday afternoon.
It feels right and clear and always. (15)
This is a novel about the effects of CTE but also the story of family and friends. ----------
Beyond Me by Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu
On March 11, 2011, a magnitude-9 earthquake, the strongest earthquake in Japan’s recorded history, shook northeastern Japan, unleashing a savage tsunami. More than 5,000 aftershocks hit Japan in the year after the earthquake. The tsunami caused the meltdown of three nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant resulting in the release of radioactive materials. (LiveScience.com and National Geographic.org)
Beyond Me is one story of this tragedy. Fifth-grader Maya lives in Japan with her American mother and Japanese father, grandmother, and great grandfather. On March 9, 2011, at the end of their school year, her class feels an earthquake, different from earthquakes they have experienced before.
On March 11th at 7:44am the “earth shudders.” Beginning at 2:46pm an earthquake struck the eastern coast “so strong it pushed Japan’s main island eastward, created a massive tsunami, and slashed the eastern coastline in size.” (89) And even though Maya’s family lives miles from the tsunami, they are affected, and Maya is terrified. She chronicles the 24 days after the earthquake, sometimes minute by minute, as she shares her thoughts and feelings over what is happening in her house, her town, and, through the news, the people of Northeast Japan. The house shakes, food is rationed, and transportation has stopped, but she and her family are safe.
Readers see Maya overcome her fears and reach out with her mother and father to help those most affected by the disaster. She and Yuka fold paper cranes and ask for sunflowers seeds to plant, and Maya writes notes to the “People of the Northeast.” Maya continues journaling for 113 days after she and her best friend plant sunflower seeds on her grandparents’ farm, strengthening and helping to heal Earth as the mug she put back together with lacquer and gold dust.
Through free verse, timelines, and creative word placements readers take this journey with Maya as they learn a lot about nature and the effects of earthquakes. This book would pair nicely with Leza Lowitz’s Up from the Sea, a verse novel that focuses on the story of one town and one boy directly affected by the tsunami. ----------
Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo
One plane crash. One father’s death. Two families’ loss.
“Papi boards the same flight every year.”(18) This year when her father leaves for his annual 3 months in his homeland, Yahaira knows the secret he has kept for 17 years. But she is unaware of who else knows. Not Camino, the other daughter who is practically Yahaira’s twin. Camino only knows she has a Papi who lives and works in New York City nine months a year to support her and the aunt who has raised her since her mother died.
When Papi’s plane crashes on its way from New York to the Dominican Republic, all passengers lose their lives and many families are left grieving. But none are more affected than the two daughters who loved their Papi, the two daughters whose mothers he had married.
It was like he was two Completely different men. It’s like he split himself in half. It’s like he bridged himself across the Atlantic. Never fully here or there. One toe in each country. (360)
Sixteen year old Yahaira lives in NYC, a high school chess champion until she discovered her father’s secret second marriage certificate and stopped speaking to him and stopped competing, and has a girlfriend who is an environmentalist and a deep sense of what’s right. “This girl felt about me/how I felt about her.” (77)
Growing up in NYC, Yahaira was raised Dominican. If you asked me what I was, & you meant in terms of culture, I’d say Dominican. No hesitation, no question about it. Can you be from a place you have never been? (97)
Sixteen year old Camino’s mother died quite suddenly when she was young, and she and her aunt, the community spiritual healer, are dependent on the money her father sends. Not wealthy by any means, they are the considered well-off in the barrio where Papi was raised; Camino goes to a private school and her father pays the local sex trafficker to leave her alone. And then the plane crash occurs. Two months to seventeen, two dead parents, & an aunt who looks worried Because we both know, without my father, Without his help, life as we’ve known it has ended. (105)
Camino’s goal has always been to move to New York, live with her father, and study to become a doctor at Columbia University. Finding out about her father’s family in New York, she makes a plan with her share of the insurance money from the airlines. But Yahaira has her own plan—to go to her father’s Dominican burial despite the wishes of her mother, meet this sister, and explore her culture.
When they all show up, readers see just how powerfully a family can form. my sister grasps my hand I feel her squeeze & do not let go hold tight. (353)
It is awkward, these familial ties & breaks we share. (405)
After the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 just two months after 9/11/2001, it was sometimes a spontaneous reaction for passengers to clap when the plane landed, one of “the many ways Dominicans celebrate touching down onto our island.” (Author’s Note).
As the narrative Elizabeth Acevedo’s new novel progressed, especially after the sister meet, I became even more involved in their lives, and it became a story I did not want to end.
An article about Flight AA587 for pre or post-reading: https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/11/remembering-americas-second-deadliest-plane-crash/248313/ ----------
Falling Into the Dragon’s Mouth by Holly Thompson
Over seventy percent of young people say they have encountered bullying in their schools—as victim, offender or bystander. The Centers for Disease Control and Department of Education defined bullying as unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance and is repeated or has a high likelihood of repetition. But bullying is not a problem only in the United States.
Jason Parker is a fifth grade American boy living and attending school in Japan where he is different—and bullied for being different. He has redefined “friend” as anyone who doesn’t punch or kick him or refer to him as a “stinking foreigner.” Near the end of the school year Jason is placed in a group, or han, with five of the meanest kids in the class. What follows is relentless bullying, and the reader sees the importance of telling an adult, but not just any adult. The teacher has to be aware of what is going on, and Jason is afraid that his parents will make it worse. He is hoping to last until his parents can afford to send him to the international school.
With the support of his little sister, two new friends outside school—an older man with Parkinson’s disease and a teen who quit school because of the bullying, his English group, and aikido, Jason perseveres until the bullies “play” the choking game and Jason’s parents and the school finally become involved. Jason’s aikido instructor explains “…we need to train so that we sense danger in order to avoid it” but also warns him “the world is full of all kinds of people and some of them are a bit lost” (308-309).
In short lyrical free-verse lines, the reader learns about Japanese culture but also the trials of being perceived as different in any culture. The reader experiences the effects of bullying on children and the importance of effectively stopping and preventing bullying but also becomes aware of the dilemmas involved with trying to end bullying. I found myself frustrated that Jason did not tell his parents, but then I am an adult. I also was disturbed that his teacher ignored all the signs, but I have learned that this is too often true. In fact, Jason wants to change the rule that allows teachers to hit students. ----------
Unbound by Ann E. Burg (historical fiction)
Considering history through novels lets the reader experience, and make sense of, history through the perspective of those most affected by historic events. When I studied history through a textbook, I learned dates, names—at least the names those in publishing the textbooks thought important, and events. I never understood what that information meant or appreciated what the persons involved experienced; I felt that I never got to know them as real people—their hopes, desires, ambitions.
Ann Burg’s verse novel Unbound does just that. The story invites the reader into the hearts and thoughts of the characters, especially the main character, Grace, a young slave in the 1860’s. Grace, who has light skin and blue eyes, lives with her Mama, her two young half-brothers and their father Uncle Jim, and old Aunt Sara who helped raise her. When she is called to work in the Big House, her Mama warns her to keep her eyes down, ”to always be good, to listen to the Missus, n never talk back…n not to speak less spoken to first,” (3)
Observing the heartless Master and hateful Missus, Grace can’t help but question why they can’t do anything for themselves “Why do grown folks / need help getting dressed?” (91) She wonders why Aunt Tempie silently ignores the unfairness and abuse, “Things’ll change, Grace / maybe even sooner’n later / but till thy do—‘ (91) and why Anna and Jordon have to bear beatings and mistreatment. Reading the Missus’ words and threats is more chilling than reading about the treatment by slaveowners in textbooks.
Eventually Grace angers the Missus, “You are nothing but a slave / who needs to learn her place.” (204), and when Jordan runs away and the Master needs the money to replace him, the Missus suggests selling Grace’s family. Grace recognizes that they also need to run away (“Not sure where my place is / but I know it’s not / the Big House.” (204), and they leave in the middle of the night.
Helped by OleGeorgeCooper and others, they have to decide whether to go north or go deep. And even though Grace has a chance for passing as white and a chance of escaping for real of livin like the good Lord intended folks to live. [She] has a chance to own herself…(212-3), the family decides to stay together.
They travel through the treacherous swamp, but as OleGeorgeCooper tells them, There’s nothing in the swamp what’s worse’n the stink of bein a slave. (261)
and as they move through, [Grace] feels part of another world, a beautiful world, A world what whispers "Freedom.” (271)
Safe (relatively) and free in a settlement in the Great Daniel Swamp, Grace explains to her new friend and family member Brooklyn, another runaway, Everyone’s got a way of mattering. The only thing what doesn’t matter is what color the good Lord paints us. (336)
Well-researched and written in dialect, this is an inspiring story of the maroons, enslaved people seeking freedom in the wilderness. ----------
Flooded: Requiem for Johnstown by Ann E. Burg (historical fiction)
On May 31, 1889, the South Fork Dam collapsed. Twenty million tons of water from Lake Conemaugh poured into Johnstown [Pennsylvania] and neighboring communities. More than 2,200 people died, including 99 entire families and 396 children. [Author’s Note] The flood still stands as the second or third deadliest day in U.S. history resulting from a natural calamity. And Flooded introduces readers to individual residents of the town.
Readers learn the stories of fifteen-year-old Joe Dixon who wants to run his own newsstand and marry his Maggie; Gertrude Quinn who tells us about her brother, three sisters, Aunt Abbie, and her father who owns the general store. We come to know Daniel and Monica Fagan. Daniel’s friend Willy, the poet, encouraged by his teacher to write, and George with 3 brothers and 4 sisters who wants to leave school and help support them. We watch the town prepare for the Decoration Day ceremony honoring the war dead.
After the flood, readers hear from Red Cross nurse Clara Barton, and Ann Jenkins and Nancy Little who brought law suits that found no justice, and a few of the 700 unidentified victims of the flood.
And there are the members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club—Andrew Carnegie, Charles J. Clarke, Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Mellon, Cyrus Elder, and Elias Unger, the wealthy of Pittsburgh who ignored repeated warnings that the dam holding their private lake needed to be repaired so it wouldn't give way. “They don’t care a whit about the likes of us.” (57)
This is a story of class and privilege and those who work tirelessly to make ends meet. As Monica says, “People who have money, who shop at fancy stores and buy pretty things, shouldn’t think they’re better than folks who scrabble and scrounge and go to sleep tired and hungry.” (111)
Through free-verse narrative monologues, readers experience the lives of a town and its hard-working, family-oriented inhabitants—people we come to know and love, reluctant to turn the pages leading towards the disaster we know they will encounter. We bear witness to the events as we read and empathy for the plights of the people affected by those events.
This is a book that could be shared across middle grade and high school ELA, social studies, science, and economics classes. ----------
How I Discovered Poetry by Marilyn Nelson (memoir)
Growing up through the Fifties, Marilyn Nelson tells her story through fifty sonnet-style free-verse poems. Each poem has a location and year as readers follow Marilyn through her childhood on her quest to become the poet she is today.
Ms. Nelson’s father was one of the first African American career officers in the United States Air Force, and as a military child, Marilyn moved frequently, literally crossing the country, from Ohio to Texas to Kansas to California to Oklahoma to Maine, experiencing the country, sometimes the only black student in an “all-except-for-me white class.” Readers can identify with the universal childhood experiences she shares, but there are also incidents driven by race and the time period providing history that we can learn from this memoir.
This is a memoir of beginnings and endings and the search for identity and changing expectations—our own and that of others—in a confusing, sometimes hostile, world. It is about language and cloud-gathering and discovering poetry and the power of words. ----------
Junk Boyby Tony Abbott
Junk Boy introduces readers to two adolescent outliers, two dysfunctional families, two stories which become intertwined.
there is no putting a tree back up after it’s broken and fallen in a storm maybe with us with people it’s different (336)
Bobby Lang, nicknamed Junk by the bullies at school because he lives in a place that has become a junkyard, spends his time flying under the radar, eyes down, not speaking. His father is drunk, abusive, unemployed, and listens to sad country songs; his mother left when he was a baby and, according to his father, is dead. Bobby has no self-confidence and little self-worth but then he meets Rachel, a talented artist who sees something else in him. her eyes could somehow see a me that is more me than I am that is so weirdly more so better than actual me (273-4)
But Rachel has her own family problems. Her father has just moved out and her physically-abusive mother wants the local priest to “reformat” her when she finds her with her girlfriend, Maggi.
As Rachel moves in and out of Bobby’s life, her need helps him figure out what was I going to say do be? (274)
And what he is, or becomes, is a rescuer and protector, a savior. As Father Percy tells him, “It’s what she found in you…” (352) Reading Tony Abbott’s first verse novel, I felt like I was watching a movie unfold as I followed the protagonist on his Hero’s Journey. ----------
Kaleidoscope Eyes by Jen Bryant (historical fiction)
Jen Bryant’s novel in verse is another opportunity for readers to learn history through story, discovering patterns the pieces make.
I lie down on my bed, Point my kaleidoscope at the ceiling light, Watch the patterns scatter, the pieces Slide apart and come back together In ways I hadn’t noticed before. (149)
The time period is 1966-1968 but eighth-grader Lyza’s life is also affected by the years before. She is affected by the “Unwritten Rules” that govern her close friendship with Malcolm Dupree—from tricycle days through now they have “gotten along like peas in a pod.” (11) But it is a friendship that causes Lyza to experience the prejudice of the times and her town. “We sure didn’t make the rules / about who can be friends with whom / and we don’t like the rules the way they are…/ but we are also not fools… And so—/ in the halls, at lunch, and in class / Malcolm stays with the other black kids / and I stay with the other white kids…” (12) And when they meet new people and go to new places, they are wary and watchful in a way adolescents should not have to be.
Her every action is affected by her mother’s leaving two years before when Lyza was in sixth grade and “when our family began to unravel” (5). Her college professor father works all hours, taking on extra classes and leaving Kyza and Denise to their own devices and discipline. Denise gives up college and her dreams of becoming a doctor to work in the local diner and hang out with her hippie boyfriend, Harry.
The town is affected by war in Vietnam which causes Lyza to don her black funeral dress too many times, and “Not coming back” attains a new meaning. So much so, Lyza realizes that her mother is probably never coming back either. And when Malcolm’s brother Dixon is drafted and sent to Vietnam, feelings of helplessness overwhelm her,
When someone you love leaves, and there is nothing nothing nothing you can do about it, not one thing you can say to stop that person whom you love so much from going away, and you know that today may just be the very last time you will ever see them hear them hold them, when that day comes, there is not much you can do, not much you can say. (120)
Lyza’s grandfather dies and leaves her a mystery tied to pirate Captain Kidd, maps—old and current, a key, and a drawer, file, and documents numbers for the Historical Society of Brigantine. Lyza, Malcolm, and Carolann (“…whenever I am with Carolann and Malcolm at the same time…that’s when I feel almost normal.” (15) spend the summer working out the mystery with the help of, surprisingly, Denise, and even more unexpectedly, Harry, Denise’s “strong, long-haired boyfriend” who is smarter, more resourceful, and more trustworthy than Lyza presumed.
It is a summer of spyglasses and kaleidoscopes, letting go, realization that “…my family might be messed up but my friends [a widening circle] are as steady as they come.” (214) A summer that is important to Lyza, her family, and the town. I take my kaleidoscope off the shelf… I turn and turn and turn and turn, Letting the crystals shift into strange And beautiful patterns, letting the pieces fall Wherever they will. (257) ----------
“With any story, with any life, with any event whether joyous or tragic, there is so much more to know than the established, inadequate norm: There will be as many versions of the truth as there are persons who lived it.” (Author’s Note, 121)
Deborah Wiles’ historical verse novel Kent State does just that. It tells the story of the Vietnam War protest held on the campus of Kent State University and the students who were wounded and killed when the Ohio National Guard opened fire, students who may or may not have been actively involved in the demonstration. The novel chronicles the four days from Friday, May 1 to Monday, May 4, 1970.
But what is unique is that this is the story told by all the voices those involved, in whatever way—those readers may agree with, and those they may not. Author Salman Rushdie has told audiences that anyone who values freedom of expression should recognize that it must apply also to expression of which they disapprove. In Kent State we hear from protestors, faculty, and students, and friends of the four who were killed—Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandy Scheuer, and Bill Schroeder. We also observe the perspectives of the National Guardsmen, the people of the community of Kent, Ohio; and the Black United Students at Kent State. The readers themselves are addressed at times. ----------
Loving vs Virginia: A Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Caseby Patricia Hruby Powell (historical fiction)
Loving vs Virginia is the story behind the unanimous landmark decision of June 1967. Told in free verse through alternating narrations by Richard and Mildred, the story begins in Fall 1952 when 13-year old Mildred notices that her desk in the colored school is “ sad excuse for a desk” and her reader “reeks of grime and mildew and has been in the hands of many boys,” but she also relates the closeness of family and friends in her summer vacation essay. This closeness is also expressed in the family’s Saturday dinner where “folks drop by,” one of them being the boy who catches Mildred’s ball during the kickball game and “Because of him I don’t get home.” That boy is her neighbor, nineteen-year-old Richard Loving, and that phrase becomes truer than Mildred could have guessed.
On June 2, 1958, Richard, who is white, and Mildred marry in Washington, D.C., and on July 11, 1958 they are arrested at her parents’ house in Virginia. The couple spends the next ten years living in D.C., sneaking into Virginia, and finally contacting the American Civil Liberties Union who brings their case through the courts to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The documentary novel brings the story behind the case alive, interspersed with quotes, news headlines and news reports, maps, timelines, and information on the various court cases, and the players involved, as the case made its way to the Supreme Court.
Students can learn history from textbooks, from lectures, or more effectively and affectively, through the stories of the people involved. Novels are where readers learn empathy, vicariously living the lives of others. ----------
October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard by Lesléa Newman (historical fiction)
October 12, 1998
Somebody entered this world with a cry; Somebody left without saying goodbye. (35)
On the night of October 6, 1998, Matthew Shepard, a gay 21-year-old college student was lured from a Wyoming bar by two young homophobic men, brutally beaten, tied to a remote fence, and left to die. October Mourning is Lesléa Newman’s tribute in the form of a collection of sixty-eight poems about Matthew Shepard and his murder.
Newman recreates the events of the night, the following days, and the court case and reimagines thoughts and conversations through a variety of perspectives: those of Matthew Shepard himself, the people of the town—the bartender, a doctor, the patrol officers, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney and their girlfriends—as well as inanimate objects, notably beginning and ending with the fence to which Shepard was tied. Many of the poems are introduced with a quote from a person involved in the events.
A range of emotions is shared through a variety of poetic styles: free verse, haiku, pantoum, concrete, rhymed, list, alphabet, villanelle, acrostic, and poems modeled after the poetry of other poets.
The poetry of October Mourning serves to let the reader bear witness to Matthew Shepard and his death but also to the power of poetry to express loss and grief and as a response to injustice. Heartbreaking and moving, but emotional and a call to action, this is a story that should be shared with all adolescents.
"Only if each of us imagines that what happened to Matthew Shepard could happen to any one of us will we be motivated to do something. And something must be done." (Imagine, 90)
From “Then and Now”: Then I was a son Now I am a symbol
Then a was a person. Now I am a memory.
Then I was a student. Now I am a lesson. (40) ----------
Ordinary Hazards by Nikki Grimes (memoir)
Where do memories hide? They sneak into Hard-to-reach crevices, and nestle quietly until some random thought or question burrows in, hooks one by the tail, and pulls. Finally, out into the light It comes Sheepishly. (304)
Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carry, said in a speech, “You don’t have to tell a true story to tell the truth.” In Bridging the Gap, I wrote that a memoir is how the memoirist remembers the events—triggered by sights, smells, conversations, incidents—tempered by time, life, and reflection. Ordinary Hazards is Ms Grimes’ life, as remembered and reconstructed, from 1950 through high school, a life of hazards but also awakenings, the story of the birth and growth and dreams of a writer. “Somehow, I knew writing could take me places.” (230)
Written in haunting free verse, the author takes readers through her story of foster homes, separation from her sister, life with a schizophrenic alcoholic mother and an abusive stepfather, too many residences and schools to keep track of, multiple visits to various hospitals for diverse reasons, and neighborhood gangs, pain and loneliness, as “the ghosts of yesterday come screaming into the present without apology…” (9)
But readers are also introduced to a loving foster family, the refuge of libraries, relatives and girlfriends and God, and finally the black music and dance performances, authors, and speakers who opened her world to possibilities. Grimes was finally reunited with her older sister Carol, her father and his appreciation for the arts, and a teacher who pushed her to write more and better. By high school she has learned, I’ve been tested, though, and already know on my own, that I’m a survivor. (228)
I was honored to witness the memories and reflections of a favorite children’s and YA author; I cannot wait for opportunities to share this memoir with teens and adults. ----------
Starfish by Lisa Fipps As soon as I slip into the pool, I am weightless. Limitless. For just a while. (1)
Eliana Elizabeth Montgomery-Hofstein, know as Ellie or El, was re-named Splash by her older sister at her fifth birthday party when she joyfully cannonballed into the pool, her chubbiness causing a great splash. Since that day Ellie has been bullied by her classmates, her older brother, and, sadly, her mother who puts her on endless diets, posts fat-shaming articles on the refrigerator, decides what Ellie eats, plans to force her to have bariatric surgery at age 11, and referred to her once as “a big ol’ fat thing.”
Her only allies are her father, her best friend Viv and Viv’s mother, and the school librarian. She survives with her Fat Girl Rules—rules that help her to not get noticed, and with poetry and daily swimming. As I float, I spread out my arms And my legs. I’m a starfish, Taking up all the room I want. (41)
Even though her weight does not bother her, the constant bullying from family members, classmates, acquaintances, and strangers does. Ellie has trouble standing up for herself. But every time I try to stand up for myself, the words get stuck in my throat like a giant glob of peanut butter.
Besides, if they even listened, They’d just snap back, “If you don’t like being teased, Lose weight.” (4)
When Viv moves away, her place is taken by a new neighbor who becomes a second best friend and who shows her what a supportive family looks like. As a Mexican-American living in Texas, Catalina faces her own taunts and stereotype assumptions. Stereotypes stink. They give people an excuse to Hate people who are different Instead of taking the time To get to know them. (76)
At school there are the Mean Girls—Marissa and Kortnee —with lots of followers to do their bidding, like loosening the bolts on Ellie's desk.
Then Ellie gets to know Enemy Number 3, a male classmate who bullies her constantly, and finds that, living in poverty, he has challenges of his own and is probably fighting his own bullies. But I just don’t understand how Someone who’s bullied And knows how horrible it feels inside Turns around and bullies others. That’s pure garbage. (150)
Ellie’s father takes her to talk to Dr. Wood, a therapist, and after her initial rejection (“Dr. Woodn’t-You-Like-to-Know) and many sessions, Ellie learns how to face her bullies, even her mother, and to discover feelings of self-worth and the importance of talk. No matter what you weigh, You deserve for people to treat you Like a human being with feelings. (179)
Ellie is an appealing character, witty and stronger than she knows and a true friend. I cried for her, I cringed for her, I hoped for her, and I cheered for her.
This is not as much a book about bullying but standing up to bullies and the value of not merely tolerance or acceptance, but respect. It is a book that belongs in every library to be read by those who need it—the bullied and the bullies and the bystanders—for empathy, self-worth, and respect. ----------
The Places We Sleep by Caroline Brooks DuBois
2001: the year we moved to Tennessee, the year of the terrorist attacks, the year my period arrived, the year Aunt Rose died, and the year Dad left for Afghanistan. (166)
Twelve year old Abbey is, as the boys in her new school call her, an Army brat. She has moved eight times, but this time she is not living on base with others like her. This time she attends a school where there is only one other new girl, Jiman, a Muslim-American of Kurdish heritage, born and raised in New Jersey.
Abbey is shy, uncertain, voiceless, I worry about people speaking to me And worry just the same When they don’t. (27)
Here’s what I’m used to being: the last to be picked, that girl over there, the one hiding behind her hair counted absent when present, the one who eats alone, sits alone, the quiet type, a sit-on-the-sidelines type, the girl who draws,
and lately “Army brat.” (107-8)
Luckily over the summer before school began, she made a new best friend, Camille, who is athletic and confident and has no trouble standing up to bullying.
As Abbey deals with her new school and the taunts of the other 7th graders and the boys on the school bus, the Twin Towers are hit and Abbey’s Aunt Rose is missing from her office on the 86th floor of the World Trade Center. Was she aware, Unaware, Have time to prepare… Have time to think, to blink, Time to wish, to wonder, Did someone help her, Was she alone, Did she whisper a prayer,… (24)
During this year Abbey contends with her periods, her missing aunt, her mother’s temporary absence to New York to take care of Aunt Rose’s husband and children, the “Trio” of Henley Middle ( the popular Mean girls), the eventual deployment of her father, and, on a positive note, the attentions of Jacob—Camille’s other best friend. Abbey also notices how people are treating Jiman who remains confident, appears comfortable alone, and stands up when her little brother is harassed, but has no one championing her. At times Abbey feels she should speak up on behalf of Jiman, but she continues to keep quiet, losing herself in her art. What I don’t do is tell them to shut up, to leave people alone for once because mostly I’m relieved that they’ve forgotten about me. (120)
Through art, Abbey finally gets to know Jiman and gains strength from her, strength to become an upstander rather than a bystander. With Camille, Jacob, and Jiman as friends, Abbey realizes, Sometimes it takes an eternity to figure things out, Especially when you’re in middle school. (245)
Caroline Brooks DuBois’ debut novel written in free verse and formatted creatively on the pages is a coming-of-age novel, a novel of fitting in, gaining confidence, showing tolerance and kindness towards others and standing up—for oneself and others.
The Places We Sleep joins the novels that illustrate the many ways the events of September 11, 2001 affected our citizens. ----------
Three Pennies by Melanie Crowder "Most of us can rely on something good in our lives. Our parents' love. The constancy of a family pet. A pesky little sister or a know-it-all older brother and the perpetual flip-flop of siblings between affection and annoyance." But for the more than 400,000 children and adolescents living in foster care in the United States, many have nothing to rely on and many of them never lose the hope that a parent is waiting to reunite with them.
When Marin was four, her mother gave her up. By the time she was eleven and her mother had signed away her parental rights, she had lived in three foster homes where she was nothing more than a paycheck and two group homes; she had learned to become invisible; and she had never been loved. Dr. Lucy Chang had survived her own loss and was ready to open her heart to a child. But before she could adopt Marin, Marin had to stop planning to leave good to find her mother, the mother she was sure would want her. When Marin does find her mother and then discovered her mother's paper wishes, she learns that seven years before, not only did she wish …I was free," but more importantly, "I wish better for Marin than me."
The novel by Melanie Crowder, author of the wonderful historical verse novel Audacity, is short and beautifully written. The very short chapters would lend the novel to a fitting teacher read-aloud choice. ----------
When You Know What I Know by Sonja K. Solter
What if I hadn’t gone down to the basement?… What if I hadn’t laughed at first?… What if he thought that’s what I wanted?… What if these What-Ifs are right?… (12-13)
Almost-eleven-year-old Tori is besieged with “What-Ifs” after being sexually abused by her beloved uncle. At first her mother doesn’t believe her. Honey, you must have misunderstood. You know how he plays around, how goofy he is-- just like you. (6)
Her grandmother takes Uncle Andy’s side. And her little sister Taylor is too young to tell, and her father lives across the country with his new family, and Tori doesn’t want to talk about it with her best friend Rhea. So is she to deal with this alone?
In the aftermath of the incident, Tori retreats from school, her best friend, trick or treating, chorus, and My world has gone silent like my voice. (22)
I don’t say anything. My Voice My Brain My Self are still Missing (28)
Tori struggles with anger, shame, and sadness. But when Uncle Andy says that Tori has started lying about things, her mother realizes that Tori has been telling the truth. She informs the school, where her teachers are supportive, and takes Tori to a therapist to work through the trauma. Tori finally shares her secret with her sister and Rhea, and her father comes to visit her, but Tori wonders if she should have known better. I feel like A stupid kid. Who should have known. (62)
When other children come forward with allegations against Andy, Tori is almost relieved, I do feel bad for them, I do. But… But it means I’m not crazy. (169)
As Tori works her way through her trauma with the help of family, friends, and her therapist, she begins to experience a hope of healing, Do you think it’s possible To be happy in the middle of it all, To feel your cheeks ache again with joy? (199)
This sensitively-written short novel is a critical choice to have available for young adolescents to read independently or, more effectively, with a teacher, counselor, or therapist. Every 73 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted. And every 9 minutes, that victim is a child. One in 9 girls and 1 in 53 boys under the age of 18 experience sexual abuse or assault at the hands of an adult (RAINN.org). Most people who sexually abuse children are friends, partners, family members, and community members. About 93 percent of children who are victims of sexual abuse know their abuser (YWCA.org). In writing Tori’s story, the author’s “hope…is that readers will be encouraged to tell their own truths…” (Author’s Note, 208)
When You Know What I Know would group well for book club reading with Barbara Dee’s Maybe He Just Likes You, Jacqueline Woodson’s I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This, Kate Messner’s Chirp, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s Fighting Words, and The Summer of Owen Todd by Tony Abbott. ----------
White Rose by Kip Wilson
But now that I know what Germany has done, what Germany is doing, I’ll never return To being the girl I was All those years ago. My desire to do something To do the right thing Pushes all else aside. (238)
1934: Thirteen year old Sophie Scholl is a member of the Bund Deutscher Mädel even though her father doesn’t approve. She even turns in those girls “who refuse to attend required meetings.” (323) Her older brother Hans hangs a drawing of Adolf Hitler on his wall which his father continues to take down and place in a drawer.
1943: Sophie, Hans, and their friend Christoph Probst are tried and found guilty of treason, propagating defeatist thought, and insulting the Führer and are sentenced to death.
Kip Wilson’s verse novel takes the reader and Sophie back and forth through time as Hans and Sophie form the White Rose, a nonviolent resistance group wherein they write, print, and distribute leaflets.
In the words of Robert Mohr, Gestapo Investigator, Leaflets criticizing the Reich, leaflets calling for resistance, leaflets filled with treason. (150)
1942: When Sophie reads her brother’s first leaflets and realizes that she was excluded for being a girl, she is determined to join him and his friends Willi and Christoph and one of their professors in resistance.
Guilt washes over me over what I’ve done and haven’t done and how I contributed to this reign of terror and I for one refuse to be guilty going forward. (142-43)
Readers follow Sophie though her words and through her letters to her friend/boyfriend Fritz where she proclaims, “Justice is more important than anything.”(80. We read the letters and words of other characters and official documents. We follow Sophie through the injustices of the temporary imprisonments of her brothers and father, her mandatory work detail, and finally when she joins Hans to study at the University of Munich. We are on the train with her as she distributes leaflets from town to town, and when she and Hans are turned into the Gestapo for distributing them to students at the university.
“We may learn about history through textbooks and lectures, but we experience history through novels. We discern the complex issues, and we feel empathy for all affected. We bear witness to the events we read and the plights of the people affected by those events.” (Roessing, “Learning History through Story”) White Rose is an example of experiencing a historical event through the eyes of the participants and examining how heroes develop and what and why they risk.
I did the best I could for my country. I don’t regret what I did and accept the consequences for my actions. (125) ----------
Recommendations and Reviews for Verse Novels read since April 2021:
A Work in Progress by Jarrett Lerner
Life is a journey, and, as Marcus tells Will, he is [we all are] “a work in progress.”
It started in fourth grade when Nick Fisher, a child with his own problems, said/spat, “”You’re FAT.” And as Will says, “Something like that happens to you…and it never leaves your head.” (8)
In free verse (effectively using capitalization and spacing) and drawings, readers follow Will’s progression from self-body shaming to overeating—always hungry—and wearing baggy clothing as he loses his friends and starts to lose himself.
A kid who looks like me…
I can’t just put myself out there. That’s just asking for trouble. (94)
Will spirals to the point where he thinks, “You’re a MONSTER.”(137)
Then he meets Marcus, a boy who moves from school to school and, after making himself fit in in every school he attended, decides one time, “I’m just gonna wear and do and BE exactly who and what I want to be. ME. Right NOW. And even though that might change a whole bunch over time—at least it’s still always ME.” (201)
Even though Will likes Marcus and desperately needs a friend, Will pushes him away. But Marcus doesn’t give up.
When Will decides he needs to first eat more healthy food like his parents and then to not eat at all, How many meals do I have to skip before I look how I want how I need? (160)
he passes out and admits to his parents, “I really…
I really don’t like being me.” (297)
Will finally receives, and accepts, the help he needs from his doctor and a therapist—and from Marcus who gets Will a skateboard, teaches him how to ride, and becomes a friend with his own story to share. …I feel like so often. A work in progress. Not finished. Not yet. Never finished. Always changing whether I like it or not and always having to catch up with myself… And that-- If you look at it the right way there’s something amazing in that. Something really… Powerful. Something FREEING. (322-3)
This admission and his therapist’s help leaves Will open to talking to a girl he likes, thinking about starting a drawing club at school, and All I can do-- What I need to do —is work on changing what I think and feel when I see me. (353)
Will’s story will speak to readers whatever problem they may have—or perceive themselves as having —and will be an important read for many of them. Just as important, reading Will’s story will help others gain empathy for their peers and realize that their words matter, hopefully for the positive. This is a book essential for classroom and school libraries. ----------
All of Me by Chris Baron
Seventh grader Ari Rosensweig is fat, “so big that everyone stares.” (1) He is made fun of, bullied, called names. One time he is beat up, not even trying to defend himself. But he does make one friend, Pick, the only one who tries to learn the real Ari. His parents fight. His mother is an artist, and the family moves frequently, his dad managing his mother’s art business. But when they move to the beach for the summer, Ari’s dad leaves and sees Ari infrequently.
There are times when you feel like you can’t stop eating, because eating is the only way you know how to feel right again. (67-68)
But that summer Ari makes two new friends. And as he has let the haters make him into who he is, he now allows Pick, Lisa, and Jorge help him “to find the real me.” (145) He also receives the support of the rabbi who is training him for his Bar Mitzvah, his conversion to manhood under Jewish law. “’Maybe,’ the rabbi says, ‘it’s as simple as believing that you don’t have to be what others want you to be.’” (225)
His mother suggests a diet, but it seems to be a healthy diet and he sheds pounds. This doesn’t look like me. It can’t be me. I don’t look like this, normal. (209)
On a camping trip with Jorge, Ari discards the diet book. I don’t see a fat kid, not anymore. I simply see myself. (267)
Finally, even though he has gained back some of the pounds (7 of them), he no longer feels like a failure because "it’s not about the weight”; it is about what the summer has brought: adventures, stories, and real friends. Just me moving forward, finding my own way. (311)
Told in lyrical free verse, this is a story that is needed by so many kids. This is not a book about weight; it is the story of identity and friendships—and power over what you can control. ----------
Call Me Adnan by Reem Faruqi
Drowning is the leading cause of accidental death for children one through four. (Author’s Note)
This is Adnan Zakir’s story but it is also a story of family, friends, challenges, loss, grief, guilt, and recovery. Twelve year old Adnan is colorblind, left-handed, and, most important of all, big brother to 2-1/2 year old Rizwan (and younger brother to sister Aaliyah). His best friends are Sufian and his 12-year-old sister Summar (who may be Adnan’s crush).
All of his friends and family members have their own talents. “Aaliyah: If you give her a ball of play dough, she will turn it into the perfect rose. Sufian: If you give him a basketball, he will swoosh the ball in the net. Summar: If you give her a gumball, she will blow a huge bubble. Me: If you give me a table tennis ball and a paddle, I will challenge you to a match.” (46)
Besides expertise in the Aviation Alphabet (a secret code with his mom) and an interest in aviation, Adnan is a passionate table tennis player and hopes to become a champion and maybe a professional. He practices all the time with his coach, his family members, and his friends. The worst thing he can imagine is losing. Losing makes me feel awful. Losing makes me want to hide under the table to never feel this way again.(42)
But when he enters a championship, hoping to make it to finals in Florida where his family can spend Eid with the cousins, tragedy strikes. In Florida, Riz sneaks out of the house and drowns in the pool; Adnan is not only overwhelmed with grief, but with guilt—if he hadn’t entered the table tennis championship and the family hadn’t gone to Florida for the finals, Riz wouldn’t have died. If he had been watching his little brother more closely, Riz wouldn’t have gotten to the pool. His coach helps him move to the last stage of flight (thrust > weight > drag > lift)
Narrated in free verse by Adnan, his thoughts come alive by the intermittent use of typeface that create visual images: o p n And my feet are p p i g like kernels my sweat d r i p p i n g like butter
This is a story that will engage readers and support and acknowledge those who have experienced loss and grief. ----------
Flight of the Puffin by Ann Braden
Four young adolescents on opposite sides of the country; four outsiders who feel alone; four who are connected through one act of kindness that generates multiple acts of support and encouragement that let them, and others, know they are not alone.
Libby comes from a family of bullies—her father, her older brother, and, by all accounts, her grandfather. Her mother and the rest of her family ignore her, making her feel unwelcome in her own home. Her school assumes any actions on her part are acts of bullying, but she is only trying to make her world prettier with paint and glitter. After she finds a rock left by her beloved former art teacher that states, “Create the world of your dreams,” she decides to do just that. I. Will. Not. Be. Like. Them. (11)
When Libby is given some index cards and colored pencils for a class essay assignment, she instead makes cards with pictures and positive sayings, such as “You are amazing.” (13) She decides to pass them out to “to “anybody who needs it…. Like if someone gets bullied and they’re feeling alone, then maybe this can help them remember that the bully isn’t always right.”(103) She makes more cards of encouragement and, grounded by her parents, even climbs out the window to distribute her cards. “What kind of person would sneak out into the rain to leave index cards around town for nobody in particular? A person who doesn’t have a choice.” (176)
Vincent is a seventh grader, across the country in Seattle, who doesn’t fit in, not at school and not at home where his single mother wants him to be more creative. Vincent is interested in triangles and puffins and being accepted for himself. But the boys at school bully him and call him a “girl,” like that is a negative thing. “I’m not trans, and I’m not gay. And I’m not a girl. It’s like T said. I’m just me.” (161)
T also lives in Seattle where they and their dog Peko live on the streets, having run away from a family who does not accept them. It’s possible to keep going. Keep going for longer than what anyone else would expect. (79) But flying away doesn’t solve everything. (143)
Also living in rural Vermont in a town near Libby, Jack, a 7th grader, is still grieving the accidental death of his younger brother Alex—Alex who loved glitter and butterflies. Jack has become a big brother to the younger students and a helper to the administrators of his 2-room school and, when the grant that is keeping his school afloat is threatened, he vows to save it. But he does not understand the state’s insistence on a gender-neutral bathroom, and he finds himself standing up for something that begins to feel wrong. When he becomes embroiled in a public debate, he finds his supporters to be those people he does not admire, and he begins to question his views and those of his family. Finally discussing Alex with his mother, Jack says, “What if a boy doesn’t want to do boy things? Or doesn’t always feel like a boy? Or even…doesn’t feel like a boy or a girl?” (194)
Libby hears about Vincent and mails him one of her notes. Vincent meets T on the streets when T helps Vincent who then brings food to T and Peko. As Vincent learns more about them , he receives advice on how to stand up to bullies (”I don’t have to be scared. I don’t have to feel bad. I don’t have to feel like I am less than them.”).
And when Vincent sees Jack on the news, he “reaches out from across the country” by mail to tell him about T and advises that there may be kids in Jack’s school who are transgender “but don’t say.” When Vincent offers his support, Jack realizes, as do all four, I am simultaneously understanding two things… That I have been alone. And that I don’t have to be. (171)
Ann Braden’s new novel is a story about the importance of communication and validation as the four young adolescents connect with each other but also with their own family members, changing perspectives and values. It is a compelling, simply-told story of identity and the power of being oneself. Many readers will recognize themselves in these characters and their families and communities, and other readers will learn about those they may someday meet or might already know, hiding in plain sight in their classrooms or neighborhoods. This is a wonderful, much-needed novel about empathy, support, and standing up for ourselves and others. ----------
Garvey in the Dark by Nikki Grimes
March 11, 2020: After more than 118,000 cases in 114 countries and 4,291 deaths, the World Health Organization declares COVID-19 a pandemic. It was Spring Break. We were in DC, and I was nervously meeting a college friend for lunch in a restaurant, my husband received an email that his law classes would be taught on line after Break, and our son was teaching a university class in Spain. We were glued to the news and afraid to encounter strangers and strange places. And that was just the beginning…
No one can doubt that the last few years—COVID years—presented an especially traumatic time for our students. While children were not becoming sick from the coronavirus in the same numbers as adults, the impact—present and future—of the pandemic on our students cannot be measured. Children have been worrying about sick and vulnerable relatives and friends and suffering grief over the death of loved ones. For a long time, they were isolated from friends, relatives, and their communities and were learning through long-distance without a teacher’s supportive presence—a hand on the shoulder, a smile, some personal words—to encourage them.
Nikki Grimes’ sequel, or more accurately, companion novel to Garvey's Choice, shares the first six months of the pandemic in the lives of Garvey and his family and friends in southern California where the first case was diagnosed on January 25, 2020.
Readers will identify with Garvey and feel comforted that they were not alone in their experiences. They will empathize with him when his father contracts COVID and applaud when he uses his musical talent, discovered in Garvey's Choice, to give hope to hospital patients, as he did with his COVID-stricken father.
Like his teacher-mother, Garvey worries about the children on the school lunch programs, he commiserates with his sister who is missing her sports (not really Garvey’s thing), he comforts his best friend whose grandmother is in the hospital, and he waits for “normal” to return.
I rip off my mask-- two months into lockdown—and glare at Mom, thinking “Remember how you said we’d Get back to normal? When? WHEN?” (75)
In the midst of this time period, George Floyd is killed, and Garvey knows, “Our black skin makes us all kin.” (132, ARC) And then Breonna Taylor “and way too many others.” (142, ARC) Because of their family quarantine, Garvey and his sister can’t join the protests and marches for justice, but his mother points out that there will be other protests. “sadly, injustice isn’t going anywhere.” (143) and his father says,
Son. Marching’s not the only way to let folks know our lives matter, too. We can show the world that each day in how we live, what we
say; the dignity we carry ourselves with, and the respect we show one another. Then, when there are protests again, we’ll go. (163-4)
Garvey in the Dark, again told through tanka poetry, recounts Garvey’s story which is all our stories, and lets our readers know they were, and are, not alone. ----------
Golden Girl by Reem Faruqi I know what you’re thinking-- ‘Aafiyah Qamar, just STOP!’ Believe me, I’ve tried. But I can only stop when the thing I want —Need-- is safe in my hands or even better… my bag. (59)
Aafiyah Qamar, a Pakistani-American seventh-grader, lives with her Abba (father), Mom, and little brother Ibrahim. She is healthy, has money, and is happy— “aafiyah” (well-being) in Pakistani. “Everything good. Just like me. (3). She only has one friend, the more sophisticated Zaina, who is a neighbor and classmate, and one friend is enough for her. Fia also plays tennis, collects “Weird but True” facts, and has an unusual habit she cannot control—kelptomania, a recurring drive to steal that the person cannot resist, stealing items for the sake of stealing, not usually because the items are wanted or needed, or because they cannot afford to buy them; it is rare in children.
When Aafiyah turned 13, she realizes she has become pretty. That’s when the trouble started. People were so busy looking at my face, my curled eyelashes (it’s Vaseline), they forgot to look at my hands. (27)
She is guilty about her habit. Sometimes when I borrow things and guilt swirls in my mind, I feel like a r k n b o e piece of my family. (33)
Told in verse, this the story of a challenging year in a young adolescent’s life. Aafiyah experiences mild hearing loss. Her Dada Abu (grandfather) has cancer and needs to come to the United States for treatment. On a trip to Pakistan to bring back Dada and Dadi Abu, Fia’s father is charged with embezzlement from his company, and he and Dadi have to remain in Pakistan until his name can be cleared. In the U.S. Fia tries to help with their decreasing finances but devises a less-than-perfect Plan which costs her the friendship with Zaina and Zaina’s family, her phone, her position on the tennis team (Mom’s decision), and shame.
But readers become witness to Aafiyah’s growth. I’m not that girl anymore, The one who gives into her whims. (304) ----------
Jordan J and the Truth about Jordan J by K.A. Holt I let the music fill me up with its rhythms and feelings, like I’m the only person in the whole world who can really understand what it’s trying to say, like the music itself trusts ME, Jordan J, to use my super-sweet dance moves to translate the story it wants the world to know, like the music and I are dance partners, but also storyteller partners, and everything else in the whole universe, even my own feelings and thoughts, pauses, so that for two minutes I am the music And the music is me And together we just…tell a really awesome story. (79-80)
In K.A Holt’s BenBee and the Teacher Griefer readers met four rising 7th graders: Ben Bellows, Benita Ybarra, Jordan Jackson, and Javier Jimenez. All video gamers. Divergent thinkers who met and became friends through an assigned summer school class. And their teacher, Jordan Jackson (no relation to student gamer Jordan Jackson). Benbee was essentially Ben Bellows’ story as the sequel, Ben Y and the Ghost Machine, was Benita Ybarra’s story.
In Jordan J, we become much better acquainted with Jordan Jackson who has been diagnosed with ADHD and is obsessed—to put it mildly—with a television dance contest show, Fierce Across America. As passionate as he is about dance, he cannot help but criticize the Hart Rocketeers in his column for the Hart Times encouraging them to take it up a notch with “fierce energy and better dance routines” to beat their competition, although he is impressed with one of the dancers, Casey Price.
When Jordan discovers that his city, Freshwater, Florida, has become an audition site for the 15th season of Fierce Across America, he prepares to dance for his life. His audition fails to go as he planned. Veronica Verve is overwhelmed with his Dance Vision, YOUR DANCE VISION IS… I’VE GOT NO WORDS FOR IT, NUMBER 1313… LIKE PRODIGY-LEVEL I’VE-GOT-NO-WORDS-FOR-IT, KID. I’VE HONESTLY NEVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE THIS. IN MY ENTIRE DANCING CAREER. (84)
Unfortunately, she also tells him that his “DANCING SKILLS ARE SIX OUT OF TEN, AT BEST,” which means no callbacks. Not knowing what ‘prodigy’ means and devastated, Jordan “think[s] about going home and digging a giant hole in the backyard and living in that hole forever.” (92) But with the help of Ben Y and Mrs. J (who is now the school librarian), some of his confidence returns and he choreographs a routine—full of his super-sweet dance moves—for Casey, who did make it to callbacks and considers Jordan is part of her ”team.” While this helps Jordan to feel a small part of FAA, he still is jealous and sad: “It’s weird to feel so happy and excited but also feel kind of…the opposite of that, all at the same time.” (191) It also takes time away from his art classes with Javier (and Carol and Carole) and their Bro Time, which makes him less of a friend, something else he needs to repair.
Although events do not play out as expected, Jordan has a plan to fix what he can—and plenty to tell Mo, his therapist.
This is a story for kids who have a passion, kids who may need to become a little more sensitive to the needs of others, and kids who are unique in their own ways, and it is KA Holt telling another “really awesome story” in a multi-formatted text. ----------
Ode to a Nobody by Caroline Brooks DuBois
I know [Ms. Koval’s] talking about writing but I start to wonder if you can revise yourself too. See yourself in a new light and not through the lens of a forever-more-successful brother, forever-joking maybe former best friend, and forever fighting mom and dad. (214)
A novel of identity and self-development written in lyrical verse, Ode to a Nobody is the story of becoming your own somebody.
THE BEFORE Quinn a/k/a Quinnie a/k/a Quinn(ie) worries that she is “Good for nothing.” Her eight-grade year becomes filled with voids. Forrest, her straight-A perfect brother is away at college. Her best friend Jack has invited Jade into their partnership and Jade is even better at skating than Jack and just as mean; eventually they defriend Quinn. And her Dad lives sometimes with them but often with her grandmother. Quinn’s grades are mediocre, and she is behind in her school work.
And then two things occur. The first is the tornado which hits Quinn’s area of the neighborhood. She and her mother temporarily move into the run-down Ivy Manor where she meets the “Weird Old Man” who owns the house; his grandson Ian, a freshman at the arts high school; and Freddie, the friendly dog.
Quinn notices how some people, like Jade and Jack who were not affected by the tornado, treat the victims but also how neighbors come together to help each other, and she re-evaluates her idea of friendship. Did it take a tornado for people to come together like this? I lean into the moment, listen to their versions of the night. (141)
THE AFTER Besides her new friendship with the thoughtful and kindhearted Ian, The differences between Jack and Ian make me feel something I can’t explain—like crying and laughing tumbled together, and like everything I’ve ever known is about to change. (210)
Quinn discovers her writing talent. Maybe writing could be my expertise. I’ve begun to feel more like Quinn than Quinnie or Quinn(ie) when I’m writing, like a better, more capable me. (211)
“Some writers,” [Ms. Koval] says, ‘let their readers’ imaginations finish the story, fill in the void With their own interpretation.” (223)
A good reason for our readers to read Caroline Brooks DuBois’ newest novel. ----------
Red, White, and Whole by Rajani LaRocca
I listen to my mother. Always. But I am an American, I was born here, it’s the only home I know. So I’m caught between the life I want to lead And the one she thinks I should. (4) ---- Thirteen-year-old Reha was born in America. Her parents married in India and moved to America for a better life, and Amma is very traditional and has strict expectations for their only child. Reha is sent to a private school where… At school I swim in a river of white skin And blond hair and brown hair And blue eyes and green eyes and hazel, School subjects and giggles about boys, Salad and sandwiches. (1)
When you are different You constantly compare… My mother-made clothes are funny My jeans are not the fashionable kind. They notice that my hair is black and thick My eyes are darkest brown And my skin is different from everyone else’s. (33)
But also … on weekends, I float in a sea of brown skin and black hair and dark eyes, MTV music videos and giggles about boys, Samosa and sabjis. (1)
Reha lives in two worlds. She has two best friends, Sunita (“Sunny”) whom she has known since age two but whose Indian family is more modern than hers and Rachel, a Jewish girl who is as serious about her studies as Reha. And she visits her relatives in India in the summer. But she does hope to fit in better in school and be permitted to go to the school dance and even dance with her new friend Pete.
Unfortunately, after the dance Amma becomes very ill with leukemia. Since Amma works in a laboratory, Reha, who faints at the sight of blood, knows all about its components:
[Amma] counts the red cells, that carry oxygen, the platelets. that stop bleeding, and the white cells, the warriors protecting us from invaders. At least If they’re doing what they’re supposed to do. Cells and plasma together are called whole blood, which is what flows inside us. (27)
Unfortunately Amma’s blood is not doing what it is supposed to, and neither her older sister, who is pregnant, nor Reha are viable bone marrow donors. She does discover that her school friends do care about her.
…all the other girls, the ones who seemed too caught up with their clothes and hair and nails reach out to squeeze my arm pull me into hugs murmur words of encouragement. And it turns out I have yet another family, one I never thought to call my own. (111)
Reha hopes that if she is the best and most virtuous she can be, Amma will heal. But, sadly, that is not to be. I have two lives. The one Before and the one After. (193)
Reha now has her father, Sunny, Rachel, Pete, her Indian community, and her school community and her aunt and uncle and baby Chandra in India. And unexpectedly a letter arrives from her mother, written before her death.
She believed I didn’t need to be split in two, that I could be whole. and now I start to believe it, too. (206)
I have one life, where I try to merge all the places I’m from, India and America, mother and father, past, present, and future. (209)
With characters who became so real, I cried with them like a member of the family, this is a story of being a part of two worlds—as are many of our readers—and feeling that you are different—as do most of our adolescent readers at one time or another. ----------
Rima's Rebellion by Margarita Engle I dream of being legitimate My father would love me, society could accept me, strangers might even admire my short, simple first name if it were followed by two surnames instead of one. (53)
Twelve-year-old Rima Marin is a natural child, the illegitimate child of a father who will not acknowledge her.
I am a living, breathing secret. Natural children aren’t supposed to exist. Our names don’t appear on family trees, our framed photos never rest affectionately beside a father’s armchair, and when priests write about us in official documents, they follow the single surname of a mother with the letters SOA, meaning sin otro apellido, so that anyone reading will understand clearly that without two last names we have no legal right to money for school uniforms, books, papers, pencils, shelter, or food. (11)
Rima, her Mama, and her abuela live in poverty, squatting in a small building owned by her wealthy father. Her mother is a lacemaker and her abulela—a nurse during the wars for independence from Spain—works as a farrier and founded La Mambisa Voting Club whose members are fighting for voting rights, equality for “natural children,” and the end of the Adultery Law which permits men to kill unfaithful wives and daughters along with their lovers.
Taking place from 1923 to 1936, Rima also joins La Mambisas; becomes friends with her acknowledged, wealthy half-sister, keeping her safe when she defies their father, refusing arranged marriage and becomes pregnant by her boyfriend; falls in love; and becomes trained as a typesetter, printing revolutionary books and posters for suffrage.
Over the thriteen years she grows from a girl who cowers from bullies who call her “bastarda,” finding confidence only in riding Ala, her buttermilk mare, to an adolescent, living in the city and fighting dictatorship with words—hers and others:
absorb[ing] the strength of female hopes, wondering if this is how it will be someday when women can finally vote. (43)
to a young married woman and mother voting in her first election: Voting rights are our only Pathway to freedom from fear. (167)
Rima joins author Margarita Engle’s other strong women, real and fictitious, in their fight for the people of Cuba—Liana of Your Heart My Sky; Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda or Tula, The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba's Greatest Abolitionist; Rosa of The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom; and Paloma of Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba, all in verse format. ----------
Singing with Elephants by Margarita Engle Poetry is a dance of words on the page. (1)
Poetry is like a planet… Each word spins orbits twirls and radiates reflected starlight.” (10) “Poetry, she said, can be whatever you want it to be. (25)
And poetry is what connects a lonely girl with a new neighbor who turns out to be Gabriela Mistral, the first Latin American (and only Latin American woman) winner of a Nobel Prize in Literature. Poetry also helps this young girl to find her words and her courage to face a grave injustice. Oriol is an 11-year-old Cuban-born child whose veterinarian parents moved to Santa Barbara where the girls at school make fun of me for being small brownish chubby with curly black hair barely tamed by a long braid…” …call me zoo beast” …the boys call me ugly stupid tongue-tied because my accent gets stronger when I’m nervous, like when the teacher forces me to read out loud (7-8)
Oriol’s friends are her animals and the animals she helps with in their clinic and on the neighboring wildlife zoo ranch. She learns veterinary terminology from her parents and poetry terms from her new friend.
When the elephant on the zoo ranch owned by a famous actor gives birth to twins and one is taken from her family by the actor and held captive, Oriol, with the help of her mentor, her family, and her new friends, fight to reunite the baby with her mother and twin.
Readers learn Spanish phrases and quite a lot about poetry, animal rights, Gabriela Mistral, xenophobia, and courage. courage is a dance of words on paper as graceful as an elephant the size of love (99)
I read this beautiful book, a must for grade 3-8+ classrooms and libraries, in an afternoon. I feel it is Cuban-American poet, the national 2017-19 Young People’s Poet Laureate, Margarita Engle’s, best writing although I have enjoyed, learned from, reviewed, and recommended a great many of her verse novels. As part of a poetry unit or a social justice unit, Oriol’s story will speak to readers and help move them to passion and action. ----------
The Order of Things by Kaija Langley
Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda said something, told somebody, if I hadn’t made that stupid promise. (139)
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 2,000 young, seemingly healthy people under age 25 in the United States die each year of sudden cardiac arrest (SCA). (Author’s Note)
Eleven-year-olds April and Zander Jr (Zee) are best friends and fellow music lovers. Zee plays the violin and has just transferred to a school which can take his playing to the next level. April yearns to become a drummer but is just beginning lessons with Zee’s father.
April lives with her single mom (“single by choice”) and Zee lives with his postman father, a former musician. Zee’s mom was a woman with music in her bones who went searching for a melody, a song only she could hear, and never returned. (94)
When Zee works day and night, hoping for the solo in the school concert, he faints and confides in April that his heart sometimes races but makes her promise not to tell anyone, a promise that April takes seriously. When he experiences SCA and dies April is tormented by guilt.
In her grief April is struggling with the idea that her mother has a serious girlfriend and that Mr. Zee is not handling his son’s death—April finds undelivered mail in his closet which she then takes upon herself to deliver.
When doing so, she finds out why her classmate, and possibly new friend, Asa misses so much school and is always hungry. After experiencing the dire consequences of keeping Zee’s secret, she knows that this is not a secret she should keep. I only know that I didn’t let what I knew go unspoken. Not this time. (257)
Written in verse, Kaija Langley’s new novel will provide a map to help preteens—and teens—navigate the hard decisions in life. ----------
The Magical Imperfect by Chris Baron
A golem is a creature formed out of a lifeless substance such as dust or earth that is brought to life by ritual incantations and sequences of Hebrew letters. The golem, brought into being by a human creator, becomes a helper, a companion, or a rescuer of an imperiled Jewish community. --------- Stan Lee once said, “If you don’t care about the characters, you can’t care about the story.” And I do look for characters I care about; in fact; sometimes I just want to take care of them. Even though I fell in love with them, there is no need in Chris Baron’s new verse novel; the two main characters, Etan and Malia, take care of each other quite well.
Etan is part of a close community of emigrés from Prague, the Philippines, China, and other countries who, with his grandfather, sailed on the Calypso and entered America through the Angel Island Immigration Center in 1940. Etan needs the support of his community when his mother goes to a mental hospital and he loses the ability speak—except sometimes. In addition, his father appears to have lost his Jewish faith, and the community Sabbat dinners end. Etan finds comfort in his religious grandfather and his jewelry shop which appear to be the heart of the community.
Etan doesn’t play with the other boys at school since his mother left, and, when on a delivery errand, he meets Malia who has been homeschooled since she was bullied and called “the creature.” Malia’s severe eczema keeps her in the house or covered up from the sun with her Blankie. However, as he becomes friends with her, Etan believes that his grandfather’s ancient muds will cure Malia’s condition or bring a golem to help them out.
Etan, there are many things from the old world from your ancestors that we carry with us always. It’s our fire. Our light. But there are somethings from those times that are still with us. (114)
When the mud doesn’t work permanently, Mrs. Li tells Etan, Your friendship for this girl is the oldest and strongest form of medicine you can ever give her. Remind her that she is not alone. (161)
His grandfather agrees, …each of us has his own story. You have a chance to be the light, to help a friend. (178)
Etan helps Malia find her voice, and, when the earthquake nearly destroys the city, the community joins together, and Etan former friend Jordan and the bully Martin also contribute.
At the same time, his grandfather acknowledges that Etan is nearing the age of thirteen, the age of Bar Mitzvah and becoming a man, and he gives Etan family artifacts that he had brought from Prague to “connect you to the old world like a bridge, to remind you of where you came from and who you are, and that anything is possible.” (298) This gives Etan the idea of how to help put things back together. The old and the new mix together, making something completely new, making something together. (323)
Set during the October 17, 1989, San Francisco earthquake and the legendary Game 3 of the World Series between the Giants and the A’s, this story is magical but certainly not imperfect. It is a memorable story of friendship, community, Jewish traditions, Filipino culture, and healing. ----------
The Road to After by Rebekah Lowell
1 in 15 children are exposed to intimate partner violence each year, and 90% of these children are eyewitnesses to this violence. (The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence)
Other facts and statistics (Domestic Violence Services, Inc.):
5 million children witness domestic violence each year in the US.
Children from homes with violence are much more likely to experience significant psychological problems short and long-term.
Children who’ve experienced domestic violence often meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD and the effects on their brain are similar to those experience by combat veterans.
Children of domestic violence are 3 times more likely to repeat the cycle in adulthood, as growing up with domestic violence is the most significant predictor of whether or not someone will engage in domestic violence later in life
Daddy has many rules But Mama has rules too. We have to do exactly what Daddy says-- stay quiet, stay inside, and if he wants to play, play along If we follow these rules, everything will be fine. Leaving breaks Mama’s most important rule about how to stay safe. Mama changed the rules and didn’t tell me. (4)
Lacey, Jenna and their mother suffered years of abuse and being held as captives by their father, but We knew what to do. we knew how to do things right. And if we messed up, we knew how to fix it.
But when Daddy crossed the line, Lacey and Jenna’s mother takes the bold step to leave. Luckily, she has what many abused women don’t, supportive parents who give them a place to stay and then an apartment in a place called Caring Unlimited, where they receive an advocate, counseling, and schooling—and a community garden. The father is now in jail, but Mama still lives in fear of being seen by his family and [Lacey] can still feel him in the corners of my mind, telling me what I should say and do. A bird sings outside my window, And I envy her carefree song Because even though I am free, My thoughts are not. (40)
It is a journey, and Lacey is helped by her love of nature and her nature drawings. “Looking out the windows at the green mountains, blue skies, and sunshine fills me with sweetness and warmth‑maybe this is what hope feels like?” (73)
Mama receives a scholarship to an art school in Virginia.
They rent a house. After a few false starts (Jenna refusing to leave her mother), Memere joins them. And “the road to after” continues:. And their road is bumpy and full of doubts and turns, but Water bends, Water flows, Water goes where it needs to go. Mama, Jenna, and me—we are like water Finding our way. (103)
Divided into three parts : Sprouting, Reaching for the Sunlight, and Blooming, this verse novel is sorely needed by too many of our children and adolescents to show them that there can be an “after” and by those readers who can learn to support others to their after.
There are resources and a note from an author who has experienced her own before and after. __________
Unsettled by Reem Faruqi
In my last school, I always knew where to sit and with who. In my last school, my name was known. In my last school, my voice was loud. In this school, I am mute. In this school, I am invisible. (91-92)
Nurah, her older brother Owais and their parents move from Karachi, Pakistan, to Peachtree, Georgia, for better schools and job security, leaving behind her three grandparents and her best friend Asna. The transition is not easy. In America they live in a hotel; Nurah’s mother seems to be fading, and her brother begins rebelling. When Nurah and Owais find a swimming pool at the Rec Center, they regain a bit of home. But Owais is an expert swimmer, appearing to fit in more effortlessly.
It is important to note that my skin is dark like the heel of oatmeal bread while Owais’s skin is light like the center of oatmeal bread. We do not look alike are not recognized as brother and sister. (225)
The water is Nurah’s only friend, until
“Do you want to eat lunch with me?” 8 words that change my life. (110)
Nurah’s new friend Stahr also wears long sleeves, but not from Muslim modesty, and her secret bring the two girls and their mothers together.
And one day when Stahr is not at school at lunchtime, and Naurah is being bullied,
“I’m Destiny. You can eat with us…” (216)
And then Owais is beat up by two of the boys on the swim team, jealous of his success, and Nurah feels guilty for not warning him to not go into the locker room. After his hospitalization, he gives up swimming.
he is always in his room lately, because he is safer on land than in water (265)
And Nurah discovers another type of bullying when the boy she likes and his friends make fun of her visiting grandmother whose “mind becomes so tangled.”
I remember when my tongue Betrayed me. I remember I need to say something. I go back in to their laughter. I find my voice and spit it out “It’s not funny.” The store gets Very Quiet and I feel light again. I grab Dadi’s ice cream. I remember what hope tastes like… (273)
When Nurah decides to begin wearing her hijab,
In the beginning the looks of others spear me but the more I wear it the easier it becomes. the more I wear it the looks seem to soften. (284)
Finally, at the masjid with Owais and his new friend Junaid
Today I wear my hijab , Tightly wrapped, shimmery light blue,… today when I look in the mirror, I think-- “Not bad.” I feel prettier than I have In a long time And exactly where I’m supposed to be. (305)
A story of transition, new beginnings, the importance of friendship, and finding one’s voice and our “something unexpected,” Reem Faruqi’s verse novel is based on her childhood experiences as an immigrant living in Georgia. ----------
Warrior Girl by Carmen Tafolla
Freedom isn’t a 'thing' you can stick in a box and say, 'there it is.’' It’s a living struggle we keep protecting every day, Each one of us a warrior, defending Freedom’s way. (ARC 194)
Through her story and her poetry, readers learn about Celina Teresa (Tere), last name (misspelled on the birth certificate by the nurse) Guerrera which means “a Woman Warrior,” and we watch her grow into her name as she learns about the power her words and actions can have.
Tere has a wonderful family—her mother who is training to be a nursing assistant and has the dream of becoming a nurse; her grandmother, a rebel in her own teenage years; and her father, already deported once, who moves the family from place to place, trying to find work so he can afford ”the right papers.”
And excited about starting school, readers will cringe as teachers change young Mexican-American Tere’s name to Terry, stop her from speaking Spanish and coloring Cinderella’s hair black, and teach a racist view of the Alamo. Felt like Life had slapped her hard hand over my mouth and tried to shut me up, tried to keep me from being me,… (ARC 1)
But finally she has a teacher who tells his students that their voices matters.
And when, in a final move in middle school, the family moves in with Gramma near her tia and cousin, she decides No matter what, they will not silence me. They will not take my story or my joy away from me. (ARC 18)
And in this school with three new best friends—Liz, Cata, and Chato, Celina Teresa, now called Celi, begins to write poetry—thanks to her English teacher, Ms. Yanez, and learns real history from Mr. Mason who learns some history from Celi herself. …so history gets retold in different ways by different people, and sometimes legends and heroes turn out t to be no-so-heroic. (ARC 58)
Celi learns to deal with people, like classmate Heather, who make uninformed comments by explaining Mexican customs to them and obtaining another friend who shares her culture.
And she learns the power her words can have. “Wow! It’s amazing how many people you can reach with a poem!” (ARC 114)
When Ms. Yanez talks about social justice, Celi thinks, I was named Guerra, warrior, for a reason. Because I was meant to be a warrior too. Meant to be. And AM! Fighting with my weapons—paper and pen. Using my courage to speak up. Using celebration spirit to keep me strong, so I never give up. Because guerreras never stop fighting for what they believe in. (ARC 125)
Through the sadness of her father’s second deportation and then COVID, Celi and her friends never stop making “this place better.”
What an important novel for our readers to show them that everyone matters, every has a voice, and everyone can be a warrior to make this place we live in better. Carmen Tafolla’s verse novel should be in every upper elementary and middle grade classroom and school library—and would make an effective mentor text for writing lessons. ----------
What about Will by Ellen Hopkins
Twelve-year-old Trace’s world changes when his older brother Will is injured in a high school football accidental collision with another player. Luckily, he was not paralyzed,
But his brain had volleyed Between the sides of his skull So hard it was swollen. (14)
Will is left with rages, headaches, and a “wrecked” facial nerve leaving him with no expression except for a facial tick. Their mother blames their father for letting Will play football and their already-fragile marriage dissolves when she leaves for a permanent tour with her band. “When you’re scared, blame comes easy.” (13)
Will changes, dumping his loyal girlfriend and hanging out with new friends—a seemingly bad crowd who he sneaks out to join at all hours, and Trace is left without the big brother he remembers. Probably what I miss most of all, though, is having a big brother to talk to. Some things you can’t tell just anyone. (18)
Luckily Trace has Bram, his best friend, and a new friend, Cat, the newest member and only girl (and maybe best player) on Trace’s Little League team and his new partner in the Gifted program at school. Cat has a troubled older brother and empathizes with Trace. When Cat’s father, the famous baseball player Victor Sanchez, signs Trace’s glove, Will steals and pawns it. In fact, Will has stolen all of Trace’s saved money, and Trace becomes suspicious of Will’s “activities” but is hesitant to bother his father who works hard and has a new girlfriend.
Also I keep thinking if I keep his secrets don’t tell Dad don’t bother Mom he’ll trust me enough to tell me why he hardly ever leaves his room, and where he goes when he ducks out the door the minute Dad’s back is turned.
I miss the original Will. (25)
As things become worse, Trace realizes, I need someone here for me…” I feel like a kite Come loose from its string And its tail tangled up In a very tall tree. No way to rescue it Unless a perfect w Whisp of wind Plucks it just right, sets it free. (333)
When Will overdoses (mistake? suicide attempt?), everyone—Dad, Lily, Mom, Mom’s boyfriend, their neighbor, Cat, and Bram—comes together and support not only Will but Trace.
Reading straight through in two days, What about Will has become my favorite Ellen Hopkins’ verse novel with cherished characters. The story tackles hard topic in an appropriate way for middle-school readers and belongs in all classroom and school libraries. I would suggest that books with similar topics to combine for book club reading would be Kate Messner’s The Seventh Wish, Donna Gephart’s Abby, Tried and True, and Where We Used to Roam by Jenn Bishop. ----------
Wild Dreamers by Margarita Engle
…if we don’t rewild half of the Earth, we’ll lose biodiversity, millions of species gone forever… (ARC 56)
They first stopped at a cavern where Amado and Liana (YOUR HEART-MY SKY) gave them food, life jackets, a compass and a singing dog, Cielo, who became Leandro’s therapy dog after his father drowned trying to rescue him when he fell from the raft. After that Leandro fainted especially at water.
Ana’s mother won a US Immigration lottery and a pathway to the United States. Her American-born Cuban father has become a extremist and is in hiding. Ana and her mother are living “unhoused” in a feral park in the Golden Gate Recreation Area even though her mother works as a government botanist at the airport,
Two 17-year-olds meet in the path of a puma where Cielo makes the match between humans matchmaking is every singing dog’s greatest challenge and most satisfying task. (ARC 15)
After Ana meets Leandro, she and her mother work for Leandro’s uncle who is a friend from Cuba and buys a nursery so her mother has a new job and, finally, a home.
A novel told in free, verse, two-voice poetry, and concrete poetry, follows the relationship between the two as they fight to rewild animals, elude Ana’s father who tries to kidnap her, help Leandro lose his fear of water, run a nursery and a Cubano bakery (Leandro and his family), and help the puma keep her cubs and be rewilded to a place where there will be no more inbreeding.
imagine a time when there are wildlife crossings over or under every highway on Earth. (ARC 215)
Beautifully lyrical, this is a romance and eco-fiction that reflects important connections, dependencies, and interactions between people and their natural environments, a novel about “teenagers who are rediscovering the natural world and their place in it.” (Author’s Note).
Readers learns about rewilding along with Ana and Leandro. The Trans-Canada Highway has forty bridges and tunnels to help animals migrate and find mates.
In Kenya there are underpasses for elephants, in Singapore, bridges for pangolins, in Australia, tunnels for penguins, and in Costa Rica, ropes between trees so sloths and monkeys can travel high above roads, even in places where the forest has been logged. (ARC 181)
Ten years before, Leandro’s family escaped Cuba on a lashed-together jumble of inner tubes, balsa wood, and fear (ARC 1)
Wild Dreamers can be read in Book Clubs with YOUR HEART- YOUR SKY and WINGS IN THE WILD in high school Language Arts or Science classes. ----------
Wings in the Wild by Margarita Engle
2018: Teen refugees from two different worlds. Soleida, the bird-girl (La Nina Ave), is fleeing an oppressive Cuban government who has arrested her parents, protesters of artistic liberty, their hidden chained-bird sculptures exposed during a hurricane; she is stranded in a refugee camp in Costa Rica after walking thousands of miles toward freedom. Dariel is fleeing from a life in California where he plays music that communicates with wild animals but also where he and his famous parents are followed by paparazzi and his life is planned out, complete with Ivy League university. When a wildfire burns his fingertips, he decides to go with his Cuban Abuelo to interview los Cubanos de Costa Rica for his book. And then he decides to stay to study, hopefully to save, the environment.
When Soleida and Dariel meet, he helps her feel joy—and the right to feel joy—again, and they fall in love, combining their shared passions for art and music, artistic freedom, and eco-activism into a human rights and freedom-of-expression campaign to save Soleida’s parents and other Cuban artists and to save the endangered wildlife and the forests through a reforestation project.
This soulful story, beautifully and lyrically written by the 2017-19 Poetry Foundation's Young People's Poet Laureate Margarita Engle is not as much a story of romance but of a combined calling to save the planet and the soul of the people—art. Soleida and Dariel join my Tween and Teen Justice & Change Seekers whose stories are reviewed in https://www.literacywithlesley.com/justice--change....
Wings in the Wild also reintroduces two of my favorite characters, Liana and Amado [see my review of Your Heart-My Sky below], who “became local heroes by teaching everyone how to farm during the island’s most tragic time of hunger.” (5) ----------
Your Heart-My Sky by Margarita Engle
This story introduced me to a different, more contemporary era, “el period especial en tiempos de paz.” The government’s name for the 1990s is “the special period in times of peace,” but in reality is a period of extreme hunger resulting from the loss of Soviet aid, the US trade embargo, and the government prohibition of the growing, buying, and selling of agricultural products. Even though the 1991 Pan Am Games are being held in Havana, where visitors and athletes are sure to find food, the people in the towns face starvation, their food rations reduced even more.
No witnesses. We are like an outer isle Off the shore of another island. Forgotten. (3) My parents quietly call it tourist apartheid. Everything for outsiders. Nothing for islanders. (Liana, 6)
Readers are introduced to the disastrous effects of these policies on the citizens through the three narrators: Liana, Amado, and the Singing Dog who serves as a matchmaker between, and a guard of, the two adolescents.
Liana and Amado are both rebels in their own ways: Liana skips la escuela al campo “a summer of forced so-called-volunteer farm labor,” possibly giving up college or a government-assigned tolerable job, spending her days looking for food. Amado has made a pact with his brother who is in jail for speaking against the government. He is worried that he won’t be able to keep his promise to avoid the mandatory military service—“men have to serve in the reserves until they’re fifty”—and promote peace, possibly joining his brother in prison.
Maybe I should let myself be trained to kill, become a soldier, gun-wielding, violent, a dangerous stranger, no longer me. (Amado, 24)
In beautiful lyrical verse, lines that caused me to re-read and savor, Liana and Amado meet and fall in love,
The pulse in my mind wanders away From hunger, toward something I can barely name. A spark of wishlight on the dark horizon’s oceanic warmth. (Liana, 35)
Liana meets Amado’s grandparents who are growing vegetables and fruits in hidden gardens, and she is given seeds to start her own gardens. She dreams of starting a kitchen restaurant.
Everything has changed inside our minds So that we are intensely aware of our ability To seize control of hunger, Transforming food Into freedom. (110)
Amado and Liana help fleeing refugees, even though Leaving the island is forbidden by law And it is equally illegal To know that someone is planning to flee. (95)
When Amado receives a note from his brother releasing him from their pact, he secretly plans their rafting escape. But the indecision brought about by the precariousness of the trip cause them to reconsider.
All we have in our shared hearts is one imaginary raft-- How shall we use it? Climb aboard or set it loose, Let that alternate future drift away? (Liana and Amado, 197)
A beautiful story of a terrible time in Cuban history and two resilient families connected by love (and a singing dog). ----------
The Road to After by Rebekah Lowell
1 in 15 children are exposed to intimate partner violence each year, and 90% of these children are eyewitnesses to this violence. (The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence) Daddy has many rules But Mama has rules too. We have to do exactly what Daddy says-- stay quiet, stay inside, and if he wants to play, play along. If we follow these rules, everything will be fine. Leaving breaks Mama’s most important rule about how to stay safe. Mama changed the rules and didn’t tell me. (4)
Lacey, Jenna and their mother suffered years of abuse and being held as captives by their father, but as Lacey says, We knew what to do. we knew how to do things right. And if we messed up, we knew how to fix it.
But when Daddy crossed the line, Lacey and Jenna’s mother takes the bold step to leave. Luckily, she has what many abused women don’t, a support system: supportive parents who give them a place to stay and then an apartment in a place called Caring Unlimited, where they receive an advocate, counseling, and schooling—and a community garden.
The father is now in jail, but Mama still lives in fear of being seen by his family and Lacey is still not completely free. I can still feel him in the corners of my mind, telling me what I should say and do. A bird sings outside my window, and I envy her carefree song because even though I am free, my thoughts are not. (40)
It is a journey, and Lacey is helped by her love of nature and her nature drawings. Looking out the windows at the green mountains, blue skies, and sunshine fills me with sweetness and warmth maybe this is what hope feels like? (73)
Mama receives a scholarship to an art school in Virginia where they rent a house. After a few false starts (Jenna refusing to leave her mother), Memere joins them. And “the road to after” continues. Their road is bumpy and full of doubts and turns, but Water bends, water flows, water goes where it needs to go. Mama, Jenna, and me—we are like water finding our way. (103)
Divided into three parts : Sprouting, Reaching for the Sunlight, and Blooming, this verse novel is sorely needed by too many of our children and adolescents to show them that there can be an “After” and is equally needed by those readers who can learn to support others to their After.
The book includes resources and a note from an author who has experienced her own Before and After.
Verse Novel Book Clubs Verse novels can be employed in Topic Book Clubs where two Book Clubs may be reading prose novels and one reading a graphic novel and the other one or two Clubs can be reading verse novels all on the same topic. See the drop-down menus of prose, graphic, verse, and multi-formatted novels on different topics under BOOK REVIEWS.
Verse novels are written in most genres, such as historical fiction, memoir, biography, humor, and realistic fiction. Below are some example of verse novels for Genre Book Clubs, such as Historical Fiction and Memoir.
Multicultural Reading Verse novels feature culturally-diverse characters and are written by culturally-diverse authors.
Using Verse Novels to Teach Poetry and Writing Many verse novels are written in a variety of poetic forms which lead to lessons or study of the different types of poetic formats. Leslea Newman’s October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard is written as 68 poems about Matthew Shepard and his murder. A range of emotions is shared through a variety of poetic styles: free verse, haiku, pantoum, concrete, rhymed, list, alphabet, villanelle, acrostic, and poems modeled after the poetry of other poets, thereby, not only introducing to the “what” of those formats but the “why.”