Thursday, October 20, 2016
Lesser Known Novels-in-Verse: Make Lemonade, Witness, and Carver: A Life in Poems
Kwame Alexander and Ellen Hopkins have made novels in verse explode across the YA universe in recent years. Alexander is truly a phenomenal writer, and if I am not a huge fan of Hopkins' work, I am a huge fan of the way she lures reluctant readers into book love.
I've been a novels-in-verse fan since before I'd heard the term. Something about the way the sparseness of words on the page forces the writer to boil down what they are saying, while still using a richness of language and imagery. Something about the way the characters' voices shine through differently than with prose narration. Something about the way the reader is called to pause and reflect on what's not being said. Of course, it only works if the writer a) tells a good story and b) writes good poetry. Here are a few backlist books that do exactly that.
Make Lemonade was the first novel in verse I ever read, way back in 1997. (Were you born yet?) It is set in Portland, although you have to pay attention to figure that out. The main character, LaVaughn, lives in the projects with her mom. LaVaughn is a studious, serious girl who plans on going to college, but her family doesn't have much money. She takes on a job as a babysitter for Jolly's two kids. The interesting thing is, LaVaughn is a freshman in high school, and Jolly is 17, so they are nearly the same age, come from similar backgrounds, but are on very different paths. Both young women have a lot to learn from each other. There are two sequels to this book, but you could also just read this one by itself and feel satisfied.
This next book is one of my all-time favorites, regardless of genre or target audience. Karen Hesse wrote a more famous book called Out of the Dust, but I find Witness to be a more interesting story. Witness is set in the 1920s in a small town in Vermont. Vermont is still a very white state, and in this book, the only "different" people in town are a black father/daughter family, and a Jewish father/daughter who are visiting from New York. Things are tough for them...and then the KKK comes to town. The book is told from many different points of view, and the author starts off with actual photographs from that time period of people who represent each of the main characters. You can use that for reference if you get confused. The book has some tragic scenes and some infuriating ones, but it is also an encouraging look at how people can change and grow, and how hate can be defeated with love. (Bonus question: I never understood the cover until I mentioned that to a class that was reading it with me, and one of my students explained it to me. Read the book and let me know if you figure out what the deal is with the cover!)
Carver: A Life In Poems is a little different from the first two books I've mentioned. It is non-fiction based on the life of George Washington Carver, a scientist and botanist. He was born a slave, and became one of the most famous and respected researchers and professors of his time. This book tells the story of his life using poems that explain major and minor events along the way. The poems go in chronological order from his birth to his death, but they don't tell every little thing, so you kind of have to read between the lines sometimes to understand what must have happened between one event and the next. I especially admire Carver because he invented many things that could have earned him a fortune, but he didn't sell his ideas, he gave them away because he wanted them to benefit everyone. I don't know if I would be generous enough to do that!
Here are the covers of some bonus novels in verse that I just had to include. I have a longer review of yet another novel in verse here, and my Goodreads Novels-In-Verse shelf is linked here.