Novels in Verse: Two Out of Three Isn’t Bad
This week Roxanne and Sharon both introduced books for older readers with thoughtful arguments for why they should be considered possible Newbery contenders. I’ll start this post on novels in verse with a title that falls clearly on the other side of the line for me. David Elliott’s BULL is one of my favorite books of the year. It’s a fresh, lively retelling of the story of the Minotaur. Characters jumped off the pages, especially Poseidon, with distinct voices and forms for each. It explored multiple themes, jumping nimbly from irreverence to drama and back again with effective and varied use of language and form.
In terms of the Newbery Manual’s questions to consider around age, I think you could make a case that there could be a “14-year-old for whom this book is suitable.” And that it is “distinguished enough to be considered,” with some sense of “exactly what 14-year-olds would respond to it.” You could…but I woulnd’t. I believe this author is clearly writing for older teens and that this is not “a book for which children are an intended potential audience.” The tone, the voice, the language all seem to be aimed older, with no apparent efforts to soften or hold back in recognition of younger sensibilities. I put it in my “Not-for-Newbery-but-I-sure-hope-it-wins-something” pile and move on.
LOVING VS. VIRGINIA Patricia Hruby Powell is subtitled “a documentary novel of the landmark civil rights case.” It uses historical documents, quotations, and photographs to help tell the story of the events that led to the landmark Supreme Court ruling on interracial marriage in 1967. Most of the book, though, is devoted to free verse poems from the alternating points of view of Mildred and Richard.. The poems tell the story of how the two became friends, then romantically involved, married (but not legally in their home state), and finally, after years of legal challenges, married according to the state of Virginia.
I thought the interplay between poems and the other material was very effective. The poems bring us right into the developing relationship. These are interesting characters, in a distinct time and place, and they shine through as individuals that we’d want to know, even if they didn’t have the larger historical impact looming in their lives. Slipping back and forth between their personal stories and the “documentary” words and events results in a powerful “interpretation of the theme,” showing how lives of individuals are impacted by society’s views and laws and how those individuals can help to change both. About half of the book covers Mildred and Richard’s married life, and this could have reduced the appeal to children, but I don’t really think it does. It’s the context of their adult lives and the issues that impacted them so heavily that are really central, and that’s what will keep some 12-14-year-olds engaged. Not all, but that’s okay.
The novel in verse form is a perfect fit for Jason Reynolds’ LONG WAY DOWN. Once you’ve read it, it’s hard to imagine this story, most of which takes place during an elevator ride of about 60 seconds, being told any other way. The brevity, the imagery, and the turns of phrase all serve the terse, tense story just perfectly. There’s careful plotting in there too. We learn things about Will’s brother and father, for example, before we know the details: “…Shawn’s / dead. / So strange to say. / So sad. / But I guess / not surprising, / Which I guess / is even stranger, / and even sadder.”
As Will struggles with the central decision of whether or not to avenge his brother’s death, the verse format kind of slows his thought process down, so we see the new insights as he reflects, remembers, and listens to the visitors in the elevator. At the same time, the plot moves so quickly….if I had stopped to think about it I could have predicted that his father would be a visitor, followed of course by Shawn himself, but I wasn’t even thinking who was next because I was so much in Will’s head that I just sort of reacted along with him. The ending doesn’t answer the question that Shawn’s been struggling with the whole time, and I think that works just fine (as does the similarly inconclusive conclusion to Reynolds’ PATINA: I appreciate the way he trusts readers to think and wonder for themselves, without wrapping it all up for us). Will is fifteen-years-old, but this book will be a great match for middle school age readers as well as high school. Although it does include a word that I’m pretty sure hasn’t appeared in Newbery book to this point (“Them f—ers ain’t even / snatch it”); it shouldn’t be an issue, but that’s what I thought about “scrotum.”
I rate all three of these books highly: I would nominate LONG WAY DOWN, strongly consider LOVING VS. VIRGINIA, and pass on BULL for reasons noted above. Among other novels in verse from this year, I thought WHEN MY SISTER STARTED KISSING by Helen Frost was strong, but not quite at the level of these. I liked much of Kwame Alexander’s SOLO, but was put off by some plot elements; I didn’t think it distinguished enough to look hard at the age level issue. And I hope to get to Margarita Engle’s FOREST WORLD soon.
Filed under: Book Discussion
About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired after 35 years as a full-time librarian. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at email@example.com.
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