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Six debut writers introduce their upcoming or recently released books and discuss working in verse.
What could be better than new poetry books in time for National Poetry Month? New POETS, too! When I posted my “sneak peek” list of poetry for young people on my blog (PoetryForChildren.Blogspot.com) in January, I was so pleased to see new, unfamiliar names—new poets to discover and new works to love. Please allow me to introduce you to Monica Clark-Robinson, Elizabeth Acevedo, Juleah del Rosario, Katie Hesterman, Joy McCullough, and R. L. (Rachel) Toalson. Each of these poets has a debut book of poetry or novel in verse publishing this year, and there is so much to enjoy and share with students about their work.
Read on to learn more about their poetry discoveries, their diverse backgrounds as writers, and the choices they made in pursuing their poetry publishing dreams.
Monica Clark-Robinson is a writer, actor, audiobook narrator, and children’s librarian working in Arkansas. Her first book, Let the Children March (January 2018), focuses on the 1963 Children’s Crusade. This historical picture book, illustrated by Frank Morrison, focuses on a young African American girl who is inspired by hearing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and volunteers to be part of the children’s march to protest racism in 1963 Birmingham, Alabama.
Monica says: I first discovered poetry through a book my great-aunt gave me when I was quite young. I think it was called Favorite Verses Old and New. It was one of those delightfully old-fashioned collections of poetry made in the early 1900s, full of sweet illustrations and filled with primarily Romantic and transcendentalist poets. Flash-forward to a ninth-grade English teacher who made us memorize and recite lots of poems, which I LOVED doing—especially when it was the poetry of Frost and Dickinson. I loved it so much I became the poetry champion in the state forensics tournament in 1990. Years later, I was getting my MFA in acting and was faced with the task of my final solo thesis performance. I chose to write a free verse–style play, using poetry to portray Belle Starr, Carry Nation, and Abigail Adams. To me, poetry and performance are intricately linked. I feel it comes alive when it’s recited. For my book-launch event, I had nine young students perform a readers’ theater of Let the Children March. It was so moving to hear the story told by the young performers.
I wanted to root this book in the emotions I read about in many first-person accounts from the children who marched and in the interviews I did with them. I wanted heart to take precedence over bald facts, and I know of no better way to get to the emotion of an event than through poetry. I started out with the text of the book being a modified villanelle poem. After many revisions, my agent and I decided the story might be better told in lyrical free verse. But we maintained the rhythm of the villanelle with several repeated phrases in the book, like “Singing the songs of freedom, one-thousand strong we came.” Those lines were the original refrain of the villanelle, and I think they help the book “march” forward, so to speak.
Elizabeth Acevedo hails from New York City, the daughter of Dominican immigrants. She is a poet, performer, and Poetry Slam competitor who has delivered TED Talks and created viral poetry videos aired on PBS and other sites. She’s published poetry chapbooks, and The Poet X` (March 2018) is her first novel in verse. It’s the exploration of a young girl coming into her own through poetry, performance, and finding her voice.
Elizabeth says: The main character of my novel in verse, The Poet X, is a poet. Xiomara has been writing since she got a notebook as a preteen and has kept writing all through high school. I knew from the moment I started the manuscript that I wanted to write her story in verse, not only because she herself was a poet, but because it was important for the story to be as close to the character as possible.
A lot of the issues Xiomara deals with are ones she doesn’t necessarily have a name for: sexism, lust, self-loathing, anger. Verse allowed me to write internal dialogue that explored these themes without being overly burdened by what the other characters were doing, whether or not there was enough dialogue, or if I needed more setting descriptors. I could be patient with the plot unfolding in due course, because the language forced me to be spare enough to maintain the pacing while also letting each conflict have its moment to show its impact on Xiomara and her decisions. In addition to being distinctive, it was also just fun! Through my main character, I could play with form and how the words looked on the page, and because she’s relatively new to poetry, it made it new for me again.
I have a collection of poetry that was published before this novel, Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths (2016), but for this novel in verse, I most want readers to know that it took its time coming together. I was first inspired to write YA when I was teaching eighth-grade English language arts, and my students wanted more books that reflected their cultural heritage. And I began with The Poet X, but I didn’t have the range yet. I had to write two other manuscripts before I could return to this one and finish it. Even though it’s my shortest manuscript at 30,000 words, it took the longest because I needed to teach myself how to write a novel before I could come back to complete it. So this book is an homage to my incredible students, to uplifting their voices and our stories, and also to enduring the process of writing; to not quitting what felt like a most urgent task.
Juleah del Rosario was born and raised in the Seattle area and now works as a university librarian in Colorado. Her first book is the YA novel in verse 500 Words or Less (September 2018).
Juleah says: Using verse as the format through which to tell a story is a decision that a writer makes similar to the decision of selecting point of view, tense, or structure. I did not set out to write a novel in verse, and I had zero formal training in writing poetry. I took one class in college on reading twentieth-century American poets. But what has always drawn me to writing and language is the way in which words can manipulate readers’ emotions. Alliteration, assonance, rhythm, and metaphor. Poetic devices are there to make us feel something.
The first draft of 500 Words or Less was written in prose, but when I reread this early draft, the emotional quality, the complexities, the untidy feelings I wanted to capture weren’t there. The novel wasn’t working. I had recently read a few verse novels, and the emotional qualities of these novels resonated with me. So I took a very scary risk and rewrote the novel in verse. I told myself it was an experiment. I told myself that if it didn’t work, I could always go back to the original draft.
It wasn’t until after I landed an agent that I finally took a poetry class, a half-day workshop where I first heard the word enjambment and didn’t know what anyone was talking about. I still have very little formal training, but have since picked up Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook and now browse the stacks at the university library where I work, for poets whose work resonates with the emotional quality I want to invoke. I will always be on “the pathway to poetry,” as there is no end to what we can learn about embodying emotions in language.
The title 500 Words or Less is a reference to the grammatically incorrect usage of the phrase sometimes found in college application essay prompts. The title is flawed and so is the protagonist, Nic Chen, a highly ambitious senior, branded for cheating on her loveable, charismatic boyfriend, who tries to salvage her reputation by writing her Ivy League–obsessed classmates’ college admission essays. 500 Words or Less also is a story that explores the complexities of life that can’t be tied into a neat little bow. Nic and the characters in this novel have messy relationships with each other and with themselves.
This is the type of story that I would have loved to have had during many moments in my teenage and adult life. There were complex relationships, experiences, and emotions that I felt but didn’t have the language to express adequately. Verse novels allow for complexities to exist in layers, with some on the page and others existing in the white space, and for emotions to exist as they are, in ways we don’t have language for.
Katie Hesterman is a nurse, tutor, author, and poet. She lives in Fort Wayne, Indiana, with her husband and daughter. Her poetry for young children has appeared in Ladybug magazine. Her debut picture book, A Round of Robins (March 2018), is a lively and engaging collection of 16 poems about a pair of robins and their brood of bossy babies.
Katie says: Poetry has always had a home in my heart. I love alliteration, and what could be better than the anticipation that comes with great rhyme and meter? When I find myself challenged by a poem, nothing is more exhilarating than discovering the perfect verse with tongue-tripping alliteration and rhythm so strong that it nearly spills onto the page. For me, simply put, writing poetry is playing with words!
When it comes to picture books, less is often more. Poetry allowed me to tell the robins’ tale in a tight and tidy manner. In A Round of Robins, wordplay, alliteration, rhyme, and meter work hard to make the robin’s plucky personality pop.
A Round of Robins was inspired by a nesting pair of robins that took up residence in a blue spruce outside my kitchen window. I hope that my fresh and fun interpretation of the robin’s nesting cycle will open children’s eyes to nature and encourage exploration and appreciation of the natural world.
Joy McCullough writes books and plays from her home in the Seattle area, where she lives with her husband and two children. She studied theater at Northwestern University, fell in love with her husband atop a Guatemalan volcano, and now spends her days surrounded by books and kids and chocolate. Blood Water Paint (March 2018) is her debut novel.
Joy says: Though I’m debuting with a novel in verse, I struggle to even identify as a poet! I don’t have a background in reading or writing poetry. But over the last several years, I’ve worked with some middle-grade writers on their novels in verse, critiquing the stories, the character development, and so on. I found I really loved how verse cut right to heart of a story.
I was a playwright for many years before I started writing fiction, and I also found verse appealed to my playwright’s sense of economy of language, of stripping everything away but the heart of the story. After writing several prose novels, I wrote a manuscript in partial verse. That book didn’t sell, but it got me my agent, and it built my confidence. When I was trying to figure out what to work on next, one of the pitches I gave my agent was the idea to adapt a play I had written about Artemisia Gentileschi into a YA novel. He gave me a green light, and that’s how I came to write Blood Water Paint.
This is an emotionally difficult story—it’s about sexual assault; there is torture, a beheading. I think writing and reading this story in prose would be brutal. It could certainly be done, but not by me. Verse allows the reader to make emotional leaps with just a nudge, rather than having a horrifying scene described in full detail.
Blood Water Paint is the tenth book I wrote, but it’s my debut novel. I endured quite a staggering number of rejections on the road to publication, but ultimately I’m debuting with the book of my heart, with the perfect team behind it, at the perfect time. So for anyone frustrated in creative pursuits, keep going. Keep telling the story only you can tell. It will bear fruit eventually.
Specifically for readers of Blood Water Paint, the subject of my book, Artemisia Gentileschi, was a storyteller. She used paint and canvas, but she told her story and made her voice heard, and centuries later, her story spoke to me. I hope her story encourages other young women to speak up and make their voices heard as well. And for anyone who is not able to tell their story, I hope they take comfort from Artemisia in knowing that they are not alone.
R. L. (Rachel) Toalson is a poet, author, and essayist who lives in San Antonio, Texas, along with her husband and six sons. The Colors of the Rain (September 2018), a middle-grade novel in verse, is her first novel. It’s a historical story about a boy who is struggling with the changes in his hometown of Houston, Texas, in 1972, as it deals with a historic desegregation order.
Rachel says: When I was a kid, one of my favorite books to read was Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. I loved the rhyming, the silliness, the way Silverstein “got” children. I read it again and again and again. Then I discovered Jack Prelutsky’s “Homework! Oh, Homework!” poem, and here was yet another poet who understood what it was like to be a child (who hated homework). That poem still speaks to me today, as I watch my elementary-school children hate their homework as their mother did in her time.
So poetry feels like it has always been in my life. I fell in love with Emily Dickinson when I was 11, and I read—over and over and over—a huge volume of her poetry that my mother kept on her bookshelf. I moved on to Rilke, W. H. Auden (my favorite), E. E. Cummings, Maya Angelou. Oh, Maya Angelou. I loved everything she put on paper. My development, in retrospect, feels like it has been sort of a mentorship. Not that I ever worked under these poets in any formal capacity, but I read their poetry every single day. When you read these poets—and others who turn the beauty of the world into poetry—every single day, you can’t help but develop as both a poet and a writer. Poetry is the foundation for writing; poetry takes the everyday moments of life and helps you see them clearly. It makes you an observer, a philosopher, a recorder of the human condition. I still read poetry every day. Sometimes it’s Shel Silverstein, sometimes it’s Alfred, Lord Tennyson (currently the poet on my shelf). I read a poem aloud to my children every day. That’s how important it is to me.
The Colors of the Rain contains, at its heart, two very difficult stories. The first is the segregation that still existed in the South during the early 1970s, after the bulk of the civil rights movement had finished its most significant work. The second is the story of a broken family. Neither of these subjects is easy for children to understand. But poetry can say what needs to be said in a way that children can both understand and process through. There is so much that can be left unsaid in poetry; so much that the reader can bring with his or her own imagination. Poetry can be interpreted in any way the reader wants, and this story felt like it needed that open-ended interpretation. Paulie’s story is not just his story; it is the story of every kid who has lost a mother or father in one way or another. It is the story of every kid who wonders who they are when their first family falls apart. Poetry offers children the opportunity to sink into that reality and really feel the hope of who they are now: imperfect and yet still so very loved.
Every book I write contains so much of me, I think, but this one feels very personal. Though I was not even born in the seventies, I was a fatherless kid who had to come to terms with who I was without my father. When Paulie first came to me and asked me to write his story (it sounds very mystical, but this story was written because of a child’s voice in my head), I immediately agreed to it; I could write his story because I had lived parts of his story. I think that makes it much more emotional for those reading it. It is hard, but it is hopeful, too.
500 Words or Less. By Juleah del Rosario. 2018. Simon Pulse, $18.99 (9781534410442). Gr. 9–12.
Blood Water Paint. By Joy McCullough. 2018. Dutton, $17.99 (9780735232112). Gr. 10–12.
The Colors of the Rain. By R. L. Toalson. 2018. Yellow Jacket, $16.99 (9781499807172). Gr. 4–8.
Let the Children March. By Monica Clark-Robinson. Illus. by Frank Morrison. 2018. HMH, $17.99 (9780544704527). Gr. 2–4.
The Poet X. By Elizabeth Acevedo. 2018. HarperTeen, $17.99 (9780062662804). Gr. 9–12.
A Round of Robins. By Katie Hesterman. Illus. by Sergio Ruzzier. 2018. Penguin/Nancy Paulsen, $16.99 (9780399547782). PreS–Gr. 2.
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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