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In this series of micro-interviews, the authors of new and upcoming novels in verse discuss the difficult, and often very personal, topics that their poetry addresses.
A scan of the new novels in verse and poetic picture books published in 2021 reveals many books, often from #OwnVoices writers, that explore difficult topics with powerful clarity and deep empathy. All of these writers bring their own perspectives to these “tough topics,” as writers do. But as poets, their use of verse to tackle challenges of internal, emotional struggles, to expose external pressures and global crises, and to address issues of trauma, violence, and death is unique and powerful. Through lyrical language, well-crafted structures, and the mindfulness of white space, these poets invite the reader to brave these difficulties virtually and grow in their capacity to understand the pain of others with greater empathy. Read on to hear more from the poets themselves.
Much of the new poetry this year deals with emotional struggles in the context of relationships with friends, family, and community. Characters experience bullying, ostracism, and rejection but grow in strength and find their voices.
Chlorine Sky. By Mahogany L. Browne. 2021. 192p. Crown (9780593176399). Gr. 9–12.In this poignant story, the ending of a deep friendship raises questions for one girl about relationships.
Browne reveals: I began reading very early and could find so much sweet ease in stories, but I rarely found a voice that grappled with the many intersections of growing up a tomboy, brown-skinned, youngest daughter of a single mother’s household. Sure, I read about tomboys or Black girls who were suffering from the effects of colorism. I read about single parenting or the tales of a middle-class family. I even read about fathers in prison and the impact of drugs on a young person. But those stories never existed in one place.
We are in a time when Black Girl Magic is proclaimed, celebrated, and chanted everywhere. We are also facing the reality that Black Lives Matter is a chant. That Black Trans Lives Matter is a chant. That Bring Back Our Girls is a chant. And these chants exist because there is still a structure (be it media or systemic oppressions) in place that reminds us: most of our names will only be remembered because of our untimely deaths or our ability to exceptionally survive the trauma. I didn’t want this to only be about the wounds but the many moments that grow us beautiful, despite the insistence of flattening our experiences and silencing our many tongues.
Home Is Not a Country.. By Safia Elhillo. 2021. 224p. Random/Make Me a World (9780593177051). Gr. 8–12.This powerful exploration of the intersection of identity, culture, country, and family is told by a girl beginning to discover her own strength.
Elhillo shares these insights: My friendships have been the space where I’ve healed a lot of my relationship to identity, to belonging. So many of my questions and crises around identity were wrapped up in this idea of a country, needing one to claim. But a country is such an abstraction, such an invention, and I was basing my whole sense of who I was around this intangible thing. The nation-state doesn’t care about me. And my communities, my friendships, those are the spaces where I get to heal the ways I have been failed by larger constructs of nation and citizenship and allegiance. So, I actually don’t care anymore where I “belong” in the larger geopolitical sense, because I know who I belong to, who I am accountable to, who I feel allegiance to. And I wanted to honor those communities in this book, those small interpersonal spaces that feel like home when the larger questions about where home is feel so unanswerable.
The choice to write the story in verse ultimately comes down to my relationship to verse versus prose. I feel like I am never going to feel quite fluent in English, in that effortless way, and one of the pleasures of verse is that with it, all of the ways in which I am questioning my own sense of fluency, I can lean into verse, and then it becomes part of the syntax of the poem. I feel less at the mercy of external measures of fluency and English and instead feel the language get malleable in my hands, ready to bend to my will, to mutate in order to accommodate the things I need to say. I don’t feel bound by the rules of “proper” English, of “correct” grammar. In a poem, I get to invent my Englishes and handmake my grammars. And I wanted to be able to tell this story with all my tools around me.
The Magical Imperfect. By Chris Baron. June 2021. 336p. Feiwel & Friends (9781250767820). Gr. 4–6.Bullying is the focus of Baron’s latest book, in which the young outcast protagonist, who is selectively mute, befriends a bullied peer, called the “Creature” because of her acute eczema.
Baron writes: The ideas for The Magical Imperfect are rooted deeply in my own experience: my Jewish grandparents who arrived through Ellis Island and my wife’s family who emigrated from the Philippines and the challenges, both hidden and on the surface, that we have faced as a family.
Etan and Malia are outcasts and gentle souls in a diverse community of immigrants from a small town in Northern California. Together, the kids endure earthquakes, illness, and challenges beyond their control. They also discover the magic that helps them through it. My hope is that through their adventures, light will shine on the challenges that are often hidden: mental health, chronic illness like severe eczema, and intergenerational family relationships. Now more than ever, we need stories to inspire empathy and hope.
The One Thing You’d Save. By Linda Sue Park. Illus. by Robert Sae-Heng. 2021. 72p. Clarion (9781328515131). Gr. 3–7.Newbery medalist Park built this novel in verse upon sijo poems in the voices of students contemplating their priorities during a class assignment. “If your house were on fire,” it asks, “what one thing would you save?”
Park explores the genesis of this work: I got the idea for this book maybe 15 years ago. It came out of the writing process itself: when I’m developing a character, I always think about their stuff—the actual physical objects that are important to them. I wondered if it would be possible to write some kind of story that focused on things, rather than people.
I’d also been wanting to write another collection of sijo (a traditional Korean poetic form) ever since Tap Dancing on the Roof was published in 2007. So I submitted a collection in 2012. Two rejections. I put it away, but every so often, I would get it out and revise. It was finally accepted in 2017, and then it took a while to find the right illustrator (Robert Sae-Heng, whose work was worth the wait!). The result was a publication date during a worldwide pandemic, when people have had to spend way more time at home than usual. And maybe some of us are getting a different perspective on our stuff: the things we surround ourselves with, how we find comfort, what we value. I was often frustrated by how long it took this book to come out . . . but sometimes things happen for a reason. And of course, it ended up being about people after all.
Starfish. By Lisa Fipps. 2021. 256p. Penguin/Nancy Paulsen (9781984814500). Gr. 5–8.In Fipps’ debut, the young protagonist is bullied about her weight and tries to go unnoticed, living by “Fat Girl Rules.” Gradually, however, she comes to accept and celebrate herself.
Fipps shares the personal story behind the novel: I wrote Starfish because it’s the book I needed as a child. Merciless, relentless bullying because I was fat began when I was a toddler. It’s never stopped. I just have better coping mechanisms as an adult. People’s eyes have always scanned me from head to toe before fixating on my stomach. People point and laugh at me. When you’re fat, people say and do unspeakably cruel things to you. But it was my mother’s words about my weight that nearly destroyed me. They cut me to the core. I think she loved me and just wanted me to be okay. I thought no one else had ever been treated like I was being treated, and that it was all happening because there was something seriously wrong with me. I had no one telling me there’s something seriously wrong with those who hurt others. Kids are fatter than ever. So now’s the time for Starfish. The book’s message is clear: no matter what you weigh, you deserve to be treated like a human being with intrinsic value and worth.
Also ConsiderMiles from Motown. By Lisa Sukenic. Aug. 2021. 224p. Fitzroy (9781646030644). Gr. 4–7.Unsettled. By Reem Faruqi. Illus. by Soumbal Qureshi. 2021. 352p. Harper (9780063044708). Gr. 3–6.
Some of these forthcoming novels in verse see characters dealing with external pressures, crises, and global events. Here, the context is wider, with a look at a dystopian future, hunger and starvation, and war and refugees.
D-39: A Robodog’s Journey. By Irene Latham. May 2021. 448p. Charlesbridge (9781623541811). Gr. 4–6.Latham conjures a future world with a corrupt government, a country at war, and no domestic animals. When the young heroine meets a robodog, the two are thrust into a journey for survival.
Latham explains: This book is a combination of many things—which feels appropriate as main character Klynt is quite a tinkerer and enjoys working with small parts to restore old machines like a typewriter, a printing press, and robodog. I’m particularly attracted to what I call “writing on the edge,” which, for me, means writing from that place of sharpest emotion, like we experience in life-or-death, dire, or dystopian scenarios. Check the newsfeed today, this moment, and you’re likely to find such scenarios right here in the U.S. Also, I have something of an obsession with the Middle East—no doubt from the time I lived there as a child—so I follow news about the area’s arts, culture, politics, and war. The war in the book is loosely based on the Syrian civil war, and I realize now that the book is in part an exploration of freedom—what freedom means and why it’s important to me. The robodog came to me in a dream, fully formed and nearly bzzflopped, begging for m-fuel, just as it first appears to Klynt in the book. I suspect the many times my siblings and I watched the Star Wars movies might have had something to do with it! All of this creates rich, intoxicating writing space for a poet, and I’m grateful for all this book has taught me about love, heroism, and acceptance.
Samira Surfs. By Rukhsanna Guidroz. Illus. by Fahmida Azim. June 2021. 416p. Penguin/Kokila (9781984816191). Gr. 3–7.Samira and her family make a traumatic journey from their home in Burma to Bangladesh, where Samira is inspired by the Bengali surfer girls.
Guidroz gives this backstory: Several years ago, I read an article about a group of girls who surf in Bangladesh. They were breaking with cultural traditions, and this act of sheer bravery struck me. Among the surfers was a Rohingya girl. When I researched her ethnic background, I learned about the persecution and targeted violence Rohingya have faced in Myanmar for decades. In 2017, approximately 742,000 Rohingya fled to neighboring Bangladesh during what many have called genocide attempts by the Myanmar military and police. After reading about their harrowing escape, I felt compelled to explore a story that shows a family rebuilding a life despite hardships. In Samira Surfs, 11-year-old Samira faces her fears, makes new friends, and discovers her voice. Surfing and sisterhood pave her way to peace and empowerment.
Your Heart, My Sky: Love in a Time of Hunger. By Margarita Engle. 2021. 224p. Atheneum (9781534464964). Gr. 8–10.Engle places a time of great starvation and food shortages in Cuba in the context of a poignant love story.
Engle shares: During trips to Cuba, I am always saddened by the way relatives still reminisce about the trauma of waking up to nothing but sugar water during the ’90s. At the same time, I am encouraged by the way they persisted in the uniquely Cuban arts of inventando y resolviendo (inventing and resolving). El período especial (the special period) was a tragic era when I felt compelled to visit often, carrying suitcases filled with food. Some of my cousins fled on rafts. Others stayed and managed to survive. I had written about the hunger of the ’90s while it was happening, but adult readers in the U.S. did not care about the suffering of islanders. A few years ago, I decided to try again, this time writing for young readers who will soon be voters, free to choose candidates who might dare to lift the six-decades-old trade embargo against Cuba, one of several complex factors that still contribute to food rationing, long lines, and desperate shortages. The pandemic has shown all of us that no one in any country is immune to disastrous economic events. Your Heart, My Sky is a love story, but it is also a cautionary tale. I hope it will be read with empathy and compassion.
Also ConsiderAlone. By Megan E. Freeman. 2021. 416p. Aladdin (9781534467569). Gr. 5–8.
TraumaSeveral new novels in verse deal with very difficult issues of personal trauma and sexual assault, mental and physical abuse, drug addiction, death and loss, and murder and racial violence.
Everywhere Blue. By Joanne Rossmassler Fritz. 2021. 256p. Holiday (9780823448623). Gr. 3–7.Issues of anxiety, mental illness, and personal loss are at the forefront of this novel in verse as a family struggles with finding their missing son and brother.
Fritz reveals: I’ve dealt with anxiety for most of my life, so I knew I was ready to write about an anxious protagonist. Maddie started out very much like me (I played the oboe; I was the youngest of three siblings, I was a nervous kid who constantly worried about vomiting), but as I revised and revised (and revised some more!) she took on a life of her own. She became a real person to me, not just a character in a book. She needed some of her own characteristics, and that’s where the research came in. This book began with one poem I wrote in 2013 (about oboe lessons and early darkness). As a teen, I lost all four of my grandparents within a few years, so those memories stayed with me for a long time. But I never experienced a missing person in my own life. Strum came to me soon after my son’s childhood friend vanished in 2014 (and, sadly, to this day has never been found). I wanted some kind of closure for that family. So, I wrote hope into the situation.
Thirty Talks Weird Love. By Alessandra Narváez Varela. 2021. 198p. Cinco Puntos (9781947627482). Gr. 8–12.Anxious, stressed-out Anamaria, growing up in Mexico, is visited by her future self, who tries to guide her.
Varela writes: One sleepless night, I started writing Thirty in my notebook, inspired by a recent journal entry in which I had wondered if telling a young adult story would help recapture memories from my teenagehood. I worked as a high-school tutor for five years, and interacting with students made me feel like I had been “born old at heart,” as Anamaria (the main character) puts it, because at that age I only cared about school and seldom had fun. I have dealt with depression since I was a teenager and attempted suicide when I was 17, but I never took the time to talk to anyone about this because my thinking was, “I’m OK. I can’t stop. I’m going places.”
It was not until my mid-twenties that I asked for help and started treatment. As a lecturer of creative writing at UTEP, I became more comfortable sharing my experiences with students as I encouraged them to write openly about their own challenges. My conversations with amazing high-school and college students led me to conceive of Thirty, a character who visits Anamaria from the future and says “you’re not alone.” The form emerged organically, shifting from prose into verse as I transcribed my original draft. It soon became obvious that Anamaria had to talk to the reader in verse because she’s a poet herself!
Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre. By Carole Boston Weatherford. Illus. by Floyd Cooper. 2021. 32p. Carolrhoda (9781541581203). Gr. 3–6. 976.6.Weatherford has brought many important events in Black history to life in her award-winning poem picture books. Her most recent, Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre, may be the most powerful and personal of all.
Weatherford shares: I wrote Unspeakable as a lamentation for Black Wall Street and a testament to the people who perished in, or survived, the massacre. The topic is personal for me. According to my family’s lore, one relative was lynched—burned to death. Another had his store torched by a white merchant. I was also inspired by the late illustrator Tom Feelings, who gave me a sneak-peek at a work-in-progress on lynching. When I embarked on this project, the massacre’s 2021 centennial had not dawned on me. What I did know was that hate crimes persist.
We Are the Ashes, We Are the Fire. By Joy McCullough. 2021. 400p. Dutton (9780525556053). Gr. 9–12.McCullough juxtaposes a contemporary girl’s struggle to support her sister, a rape victim, with fifteenth-century figure Marguerite de Bressieux.
McCullough reveals: When I first learned about Marguerite de Bressieux, I was immediately intrigued by the questions around her. Was she truly a French noblewoman who trained herself as a knight to avenge the brutal siege on her family home? Or was she a legend created by a world that needed a story like that? I wanted to write Marguerite’s story in verse because verse allows me to strip away extraneous historical detail that can be distancing, allowing readers easier access to these stories that happened a long time ago but are still achingly relevant. It also allows me as the writer (and the reader!) to access the deep emotions of intense events without having to play out gruesome details. Because I wanted to examine the questions around Marguerite rather than pick a side, I created a contemporary character who could discover her and grapple with those questions as a way to get through her own trauma. That character’s point of view came out naturally in prose, which allowed me contrast and a more modern voice.
Also Consider Fix. By J. Albert Mann. May 2021. 288p. Little, Brown (9780316493499). Gr. 9–12.Me (Moth). By Amber McBride. Aug. 2021. 256p. Feiwel & Friends (9781250780362). Gr. 10–12.Muted. By Tami Charles. 2021. 400p. Scholastic (9781338673524). Gr. 9–12.
Sylvia M. Vardell, a professor of children’s and young adult literature at Texas Woman’s University, is the author of the Poetry for Children blog and coeditor (with Janet Wong) of the Poetry Friday Anthology series for children, middle-schoolers, science study, holidays, and more.
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