Monday, April 6, 2015

April is poetry month – Novels in free verse

I’m thinking they should rename this Poetry Awareness Month as I find that I do become more mindful about reading more poetry – at least, in the short term.

For someone who doesn't consider herself a strong reader of poetry, I don’t do badly when I revisit blogs I've written or check back on Goodreads.  Some of my favorites this past year included Poisoned Apples, God Got a Dog, and Forest Has a Song.  

Novels written in verse are plentiful and I do read a fair number of these.  My most recent reads included the Newbery winner, brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson and Crossover by Kwame Alexander.  Loved both of them. My all-time favorite is still Love that Dog by Sharon Creech.

But I did notice that there were a few titles that I hadn't blogged about that I think are worth bringing to your attention.

For the middle grades, I’m recommending The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney.  Situated in Darfur, we meet Amira and her family where life is fraught with uncertainties; farming in areas plagued by drought, few nearby water sources and the potential threat of Janjaweed militants are all factors that make life difficult. Amira is an interesting girl who looks to be an obedient daughter living up to her mother’s views on traditional values but still desires to go to school. An attack on the village that kills Amira’s father forces the family to flee their village and they end up living in a refugee camp. The violence and heartbreak Amira has experienced causes her to withdraw, shutting herself off until an aid worker gives her a red pencil and pad of paper. Once again Amira is determined to fulfill her dream of going to school.  The tone of the narration is a little lyrical but terse, too.  It captures the nature of life in Sudan without being too overwhelming for this age group. The reader yearns for the same things as Amira hoping that her struggle won’t be in vain. Though there is no happy-ending, the novel does end on a hopeful note.

For a slightly younger grade level (grades 3-6), Words with Wings by Nikki Grimes will offer reassurance to daydreamers and kids who struggle in school.  Gaby is daydreamer-extraordinaire, a coping mechanism that helps her deal with the discord and divorce of her parents. Unfortunately, this becomes a problem at school when the teacher notices Gaby ‘zoning out’ too much.  The story, then, is one of learning how to channel Gaby’s attention and powers of imagination in a way that helps her realize her strengths and resiliency.  In a word – poetic.

A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman will appeal to those in grade 7 and up.  As Veda studies traditional Indian dance she dreams of becoming a dancer defying her parent’s ambition for her to become an engineer. After losing part of a leg in an accident, she remains determine to continue dancing but studies with a new teacher who takes her in a new direction. Challenges abound beyond the obvious one of learning to adapt to a prosthetic limb as she learns the ‘art’ of dancing, continues to defy her parents, navigates her feelings about a young man, and copes with the loss of her beloved grandmother. This novel is very atmospheric, capturing family dynamics and Veda’s growth.

Another book about Sudan and a family seeking a more secure life is The Good Braider by Terry Ferrish.  For older readers (grade 9 and up), there is more intensity in the tone of this narrative compared to The Red Pencil mentioned above.  Viola and her family live in constant fear of the militants who occupy their town. Viola has caught the eye of a soldier who inevitably rapes her.  The family leaves behind a beloved grandmother when they make a perilous journey that eventually lands them in Cairo. After an interminable wait, they are able to settle into a large Sudanese community in Portland, Maine. Life maybe more secure but is far from uncomplicated.  When Viola begins school and meeting Americans, she runs up against her mother’s extremely narrow views on proper behavior and appropriate roles.

Each of these novels has beautiful language, taking us into the stories and connecting us with the characters. The succinctness of each ‘chapter’ captures the essence of significant moments and thoughts. I often promote free-verse novels to student-teachers, as useful with reluctant readers and that if done well they can be brilliant. These have all brilliantly told their tales.


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