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Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Novels in Verse

If you are familiar at all with juvenile or young adult fiction you may have noticed that novels written in verse are a current trend. For those of you not as acquainted with youth literature a novel in verse is exactly what it sounds like; a novel length story told through poetry rather than prose. Unfortunately, even when these books are beautifully written and get rave reviews they are slow to check out.

One of the main reasons that readers are wary of novels in verse is probably because poetry seems so inaccessible.  Most of us have an incorrect assumption that poetry has to be difficult to understand. I cannot be the only one who has nightmares of analyzing Wordsworth in high school English class. (If you are a huge Wordsworth fan please don't send me angry messages. I really do think that his poetry is beautiful I just don't want to agonize over what every metaphor means.)

Boys especially seem to avoid novels in verse like the plague because they believe that poetry is not a "boy" thing. Well, obviously this is complete nonsense. I think that the word poetry brings up images of sappy love sonnets written in Shakespearean English for a lot of boys (and girls). Of course, men and women can be poets and poems and novels in verse can be about any subject from sports and music to history and current events.

Sadly, I have also seen parents deter their children from picking up a novel in verse because it is "not a real chapter book". I totally get wanting your kid to be challenged when it comes to reading and all of that empty white space in a novel in verse makes it look too easy. Also, novels in verse tend to have low AR levels and points because they are usually shorter and have unusual sentence and paragraph structure compared to traditional chapter books. I am not going to get into AR (Accelerated Reader) right now other than to say that these numbers are only meant to be a guiding tool and (in my opinion) should never be used to discourage a kid from picking up book.

So, I have given you a few reasons why I think people may bypass novels in verse. Now, let me tell you why you should give one a whirl. First and foremost, many are just fantastic stories with amazing characters, settings, etc. (even though they are not written in traditional prose). Secondly, all that white space (that makes some parents say no) is a huge selling point for reluctant readers. Even if you are an avid reader sometimes you  need something that isn't a huge time commitment. Especially if you are a student with a ton of homework, practices, lessons, etc.  Finally, we all get into reading ruts. I have seen kids who will read nothing but Goosebumps and teens who won't touch anything that isn't a paranormal romance. I myself prefer fantasy. Trying an unfamiliar genre may be difficult but you also just might discover something incredible! That being said here are a few of my favorite novels in verse.

For middle grade readers I highly recommend Love That Dog by Sharon Creech (even though they will probably cry). The story is told in free verse by a boy named Jack who doesn't want to write a poem for his teacher, Miss Stretchberry, "because boys don't write poetry.  Girls do." Gee, I think I have heard that sentiment before.  Anyways, Jack discovers that poetry is not just for girls and it gives him a wonderful way to express his feelings. The back of the book contains several of the poems that Miss Stretchberry introduces in her class as well as a sneak peak of Hate That Cat, the sequel to Love That Dog. Even struggling readers will be able to finish these sweet stories in less than a day, but they are sure to think about them much longer.

Karen Hesse is another juvenile/young adult author who has written several novels in verse including the 1998 Newbery Medal winner, Out of the Dust. The novel is set in Oklahoma during the dust bowl years of the depression.  I know. Kids are probably screaming right now that they are not going to read poetry AND history.  However, Out of the Dust is an amazing way for kids to learn about the depression and dust bowl because it is more about the people and emotions they experience versus dry dates and facts. I cannot imagine any reader not being moved by 14 year old Billie Jo's tragic yet ultimately hopeful story.

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander is one of my absolute favorite novels in verse. Twelve year old twins Josh and Jordan excel at basketball, but life off of the court is not always so easy. Sports fanatics will appreciate the basketball setting, but The Crossover is so much more than a sport book; it is about growing up, choices, change, and consequences.
My daughter and Kwame after he autographed her copy of The Crossover!

If you think that The Crossover is just for boys or basketball players YOU ARE SO WRONG!!! My daughter, Zoe, read The Crossover (because I made her). She was reluctant since it had a basketball player on the cover, but she ended up loving it.  Her comment was that it had basketball, but it was so much more than that.

If you enjoy The Crossover check out Kwame Alexander's other juvenile novels in verse, Booked and Rebound. Last year he also came out with Solo, which is a spectacular novel in verse for teens!

Speaking of novels in verse for teens Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds was the BEST book that I read last year. I know, I know that I have talked about Jason Reynolds in multiple posts. What can I say? I think he is an absolutely amazing author, speaker, activist, inspiration, role model, etc. Long Way Down is the story of Will, an inner city kid determined to avenge the murder of his older brother. With a gun in his waistband, Will boards the elevator of his apartment building. Instead of heading straight for the lobby, though, the car stops at every floor and a new passenger gets in the elevator. Each of these passengers is someone from Will's past who was a victim of gun violence. Are they ghosts or just figments of Will's conscience and will they be able to convince him of the futility of vengeance and violence? Long Way Down is an incredibly powerful story told in a fascinating way. I cannot recommend it enough!

Jason Reynold's latest book for teens is also in verse but it is almost more of a letter than a novel. It was originally performed live at the Kennedy Center at the unveiling celebration at the new Martin Luther King Jr. monument in Washing D.C (how cool is that!). For Every One is just that; something that everyone, young and old should read and I am so happy that it was published in book form. The poem is all about the importance of dreams and not just big dreams like being a rock star or an award winning author. Your dream may be to be a parent or a teacher (or a librarian) and those dreams are just as beautiful and significant. I actually cried while reading For Every One and I made my kids read it too. Honestly, I plan on buying copies for all of the graduates that I know because I cannot imagine more inspiring words to carry them through the next stage of their lives.


A more recently published novel in verse is Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. The story was so compelling that I couldn't put it down and ended up reading it in one sitting. That is another great thing about novels in verse is that you can read them in one sitting and it isn't going to take you all night. I loved how sassy and strong the protagonist, Xiomara, was and I also appreciated being introduced to the Dominican culture which I had no previous knowledge of . Through Poet X Acevedo stresses the importance of creative writing and and especially poetry as an outlet for kids who do not feel heard and want to express themselves. I hope that lots of young people want to give slam poetry a try after reading Poet X and listening to Acevedo perform.

I hope that you are encouraged to check out a novel in verse after reading this post. Here are a few more outstanding selections.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Adventures in Angst



So, this past year I was one of ten Michigan Librarians serving on the Thumbs Up committee. Most of you have probably never heard of the Thumbs Up, but it is an award given by the Michigan Library Association to the most outstanding teen book of the year. The MLA also gives out the Mitten and YouPer Awards for the best picture book and juvenile chapter book of the year. Obviously, Michigan librarians are really into super corny state puns. What sets the Thumbs Up apart (besides being for teens) is that the targeted audience actually gets to vote. Rather than outright choosing the winner the committee selects a top ten and then teens are encouraged to read those books and vote for their favorites. Personally, I think that this is awesome because what is the point of giving an award to a teen book that no teens will actually read. I think that too often with literary awards librarians, teachers, parents, etc. choose winners that they think kids should be reading rather than what they would actually enjoy. That being said the committee still strives to select a top ten that exhibits quality story telling with exceptional setting, characters, style, and plot.

I have to confess that reading books for the Thumbs Up was not always easy. Sexual assault, homophobia, gang violence, suicide, eating disorders, drug abuse, racism and that was just in the first five books I read. Throw in a whole lot of angsty, hormonal, and often whiny teen protagonists and there were days that I wanted to scream "Can I just read something happy????" All joking aside, I really did enjoy being on the Thumbs Up committee and it forced me to read some spectacular books that I probably never would have picked up on my own. Here (in no particular order) are the top ten nominations for the 2018 Thumbs Up Award.

1. Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
All I can really say about Long Way Down is WOW!!!! Jason Reynolds has written a novel in verse that is so unique and powerful you will feel like you have been punched in the stomach (but in a good way). There are three rules in 15 year old Will's neighborhood: don't cry, don't snitch, but always get revenge. When Will steps into his building's elevator with a gun in his waistband, he has every intention of shooting the boy who killed his older brother, Shawn. On the way to the lobby, though, the elevator stops at every floor and someone from Will's past gets on. Are they ghosts, angels, or figments of imaginations created by Will's conscience? All we know is that they are all dead victims of gun violence. Long Way Down is a beautifully written story that uses the supernatural to convey the futile and tragic nature of gun violence.

I absolutely adore Jason Reynolds!!! Seriously, I had the privilege of hearing him speak last year and he is just a phenomenal human being and such an amazing ambassador for writing, reading, and children. I have blogged about a few of his other books so please check out Long Way Down and also some of his other books (his track series for middle grade readers is awesome and he even wrote the new Miles Morales Spiderman book!). I couldn't help but including a couple of videos. The first is an excerpt of Long Way Down read by Reynolds with stunning illustrations by Chris Priestly and the second is an episode of Meet the Author in which Reynolds is interviewed by a librarian and a group of middle school kids.




2. One of Us is Lying by Karen McManus
The Breakfast Club as written by Agatha Christie. What better hook could I give you. Five kids are put into detention: the jock, the beauty, the trouble maker, the future valedictorian, and the outcast who knows everyone's secrets. Would Cooper, Addy, Nate, or Bronwyn really kill Simon, though, to keep him from divulging information that could ruin their lives on his notorious gossip website? I love a good mystery and there are not a lot of them targeted at teens. This classic locked room whodunnit was immensely entertaining while also tackling modern teen issues.




3. Who Killed Christopher Goodman? by Allan Wolf
This one may sound like a murder mystery but it really isn't since you already know who dies (Christopher Goodman) and the killer is one of several narrators. I know it sounds so anticlimactic to even read it now, right? Who Killed Christopher Goodman? is unlike anything I have ever read before, though. Allan Wolf actually based the book on a real murder that occurred in his hometown when he was a teenager.The story is set in the seventies, the author repeatedly mentions the title character's bodacious bell bottoms. In addition to the murderer the story is narrated by multiple teens that all have peripheral interactions with Christopher Goodman the hours surrounding his death. Each teen wonders if they had done something differently, if the timeline had been altered even slightly would Christopher have not been in the wrong place at the wrong time and been spared? The book uniquely examines the ripple effects that a murder has on an entire community.



4. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Angie Thomas's debut novel, The Hate U Give, is probably one of the most talked about books written last year. It has already won a ton of awards and with good reason. The book is an unabashedly honest look at police violence, gang culture, racism, and inner city life. Okay, I am going to mention Jason Reynolds again. One of the things that Reynolds has mentioned in multiple interviews is the importance of "all the stories". Starr's story is one that has not been told in a teen book before and that is what makes The Hate U Give so incredibly important. Not only for kids that can relate to her circumstances but also for those who cannot. Patrick Rothfuss is a fantasy author who stated: Reading can almost be viewed as empathy training. Movies have better action scenes, sure. But books are uniquely suited to showing you the inside of another person's head. That is the root of empathy.  That's the first step to understand that you are not alone in the world.  Let me jump on my soap box for a second and say that a lot more reading or as Rothfuss puts it empathy training could solve a lot of the world's problems.

5. Bull by David Elliott
I have heard Bull described as Hamilton meets Greek mythology. This ingenious retelling of the myth of Asterion the Minotaur is hilarious, tender, and also heartrending. The story is told in verse with each of the characters being given their own individual poetic form. It makes my head spin to imagine how difficult it must have been for Elliott to write the novel in seven different meters but the effect is absolutely fantastic. When you are reading Bull you can hear the sarcastic wit of Poseidon and the desperation and loneliness of Asterion.




6. Solo by Kwame Alexander
Ok, this is another novel in verse. You may think that no teens want to read poetry, but novels in verse can be a great option for reluctant readers or kids (or adults) who have too much homework or too many other books to read. In Solo Kwame Alexander tells the story of 17-year old Blade Morrison, the beleaguered son of an aging rock star. Wealth, fame, and endless parties may seem like a dream come true to most teens but life has not always been easy for Blade. His mother died when he was nine and his life-of-the-party father has been in and out of rehab more times than he count. When Blade discovers that he was adopted he sets out to Africa to find his birth mother. Music is such a significant component of Solo so having story told in verse makes it read more like lyrics. Alexander also peppers the story with multiple classic rock lyrics that music lovers are sure to appreciate.


7. Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia
This one got the vote of  my teen daughter who spends 99% of her free time drawing anime fan aft.  Unbeknownst to her family, classmates, teachers, etc. reclusive teenager Eliza Mirk is the anonymous creator of the hugely successful web comic Monstrous Sea. Nearly crippled by social anxiety (unless she is at her computer) Eliza is petrified of anyone learning her identity. When she falls for Monstrous Sea fanboy, Wallace, though, maintaining her anonymity becomes more like lying. Eliza and Her Monsters is a great spin on the traditional coming-of-age book. I would definitely recommend it to your manga or graphic novel readers or any fandom obsessed teen. My one criticism of the book is that the illustrations were not very dynamic. It just seems that since Monstrous Sea is so successful (in the novel) that the brief glimpses we are shown of it should be more extraordinary.


8. The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee
I will confess that of the top ten nominees for the Thumbs Up The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue was probably my least favorite. It was not bad in any way it is just historical romance is not really my favorite genre and that is what this reads like.  Henry (Monty) Montague is going on a grand tour of Europe before returning to England to assume his responsibilities on his family's estate. Determined to make the most of his time away from his disapproving father and in the company of his best friend and longtime crush, Percy, Monty's reckless decisions get them into all sorts of mischief.  I did love the humor in the novel. Lee's characters all have a witty snarkiness that was incredibly entertaining.


9. Landscape with Invisible Hand by M.T. Anderson
Some of my fellow Thumbs Up committee members thought that Landscape with Invisible Hand was a bit too weird. That is probably why I loved it so much. The story is set in the future and aliens called Vuvv (that look like walking coffee tables with lots of suckers) have come to earth with advanced technology that has eliminated most jobs (scary). With no money and few prospects Adam and his girlfriend, Chloe, sign up to make their relationship a reality show for the human-culture obsessed Vuvv. Since the Vuvv prefer the idyllic era of fifties doo wop Adam and Chloe spend a lot of time strolling hand in hand and saying things like "swell" and "golly gosh" all for the viewing pleasure of the Vuvv. When the couple breaks up they can either pretend to still be madly in love or be sued for breach of contract. I am probably doing an incredibly bad job of explaining Landscape with Invisible Hand but, like I said, it is more than a little bit strange. If you enjoy black comedies or eccentric science fiction I would give it a try.

10. Warcross by Marie Lu
All you have to do to get kids to read Warcross is ask them if they liked Ready Player One. Not saying that Warcross is an exact copy. It is definitely a unique story but it has that gamer/virtual/dystopian vibe that Ready Player One fans will love. Similar to the Oasis in Ready Player One Warcross is not just a game, the virtual world has become a way of life for most people. Orphan, Emika Chen, is a gaming and computer prodigy that accidentally hacks her way into the opening game of the International Warcross Championships. Instead of being arrested Emika is asked by the creator of Warcross, Hadeo Tanaka, to go undercover and and investigate a sinister plot within the game. This book was just a blast to read and I cannot wait for the sequel, Wildcard, to come out next September (why do authors have to take so long between books in a series????).



For those of you interested the teen vote for the 2018 Thumbs Up will continue through May 31st. I know that it is not a lot of time but whether you vote or not be sure to check out some of the exceptional books on this list. I really feel like the committee chose a great variety of books from science fiction and realistic drama to fantasy and mystery.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Serpent King: It Isn't Really About Snakes!

Recently, I attended Spring Institute, which is a yearly conference for Michigan youth librarians. One of the key note speeches was given by Jeff Zentner, who spoke about his burgeoning career as a young adult author in addition to being a full time prosecutor in Nashville, Tennessee. Zentner was invited to speak at Spring Institute because his debut novel, The Serpent King, was the recipient of the 2017 Thumbs Up Award. This award is given by the Michigan Librarian Association to the best young adult novel of the year. Unlike many awards of its kind, the Thumbs Up also includes a teen vote, which I think is truly important. After all, what is the point of giving an award to a book that is only liked by librarians and not appreciated by its intended audience? I figured that I should read something by Zentner before hearing him speak so I checked out The Serpent King about a week before the conference. Even though teen drama is not my preferred genre (I am more of a sci-fi/fantasy chick), I devoured The Serpent King in less then 24 hours.

The story is alternately told by three high school seniors in a rural Tennessee town. Dill lives in constant shame as the only son of a defrocked, snake-handling pastor who was sent to prison for pornography. Lydia is Dill's best friend, and also the girl that he secretly loves (it wouldn't be a young adult novel without some unrequited love). Sardonic, creative, and uber smart Lydia has achieved national fame as a fashion blogger, but remains a pariah in her own high school. Rounding out their trio of outcasts is Travis, a 6'5" gentle giant who spends the majority of his time inhabiting the fantasy world of Bloodfall (a fictional facsimile of Wheel of Time or Lord of the Rings).

The Serpent King beautifully tackles such issues as abuse, bullying, faith, friendship, and first love. The novel also really spoke to me as a parent. Dill, Lydia, and Travis come from three vastly different homes that exemplify how a child's life can be influenced by a parent's unconditional (or lack there of) love, protection, and support. Lydia's parents come across as being perfect: nurturing, understanding, trusting, and fun. As a result Lydia is a strong and happy individual who seems almost destined for success. On the flip side, Dill's parents encumber their son with crushing guilt, debts, and other adult responsibilities. Sweet and kindhearted Travis lives in the constant shadow of his older brother, Matt, who was a soldier killed in Afghanistan. His father, overcome with grief, has become a malicious alcoholic and his mother, despite her obvious love for Travis, does nothing to protect her son from his father's physical and mental abuse. Obviously, these are three rather extreme examples of parenting (how many of us know snake-handling preachers?), but they made me think about what expectations I have for my kids and what kind foundation I have laid for them . As a mom I aspire to be like Lydia's parents. I want to to not only love and care for my kids but I also want all four to discover their dreams and have the fortitude to turn those dreams into reality. It is also my responsibility to be that soft and safe place for my children to land when calamity, sorrow, humiliation, or disappointment occurs. I know, this is probably not what most teens would take from The Serpent King, but, hey, I am a mama first.
 
Of course, it would not be a young adult drama without some soul-crushing tragedy. Be forewarned that I bawled uncontrollably for a good hour and a half while reading The Serpent King. I purchased a copy and had Jeff Zentner sign it for my 16 year old daughter, Zoe, at the conference. When I gave it to her she asked with a certain amount of trepidation "Isn't this book that you were crying about last week?" Yes, The Serpent King will break your heart but I promise that you will also laugh, rejoice, and, most importantly, feel hopeful that no hardship is insurmountable.

I am excited toread Zentner's second young adult novel, Goodbye Days, but I am slightly apprehensive since it says "heartbreaking" right on the cover. I may have to wait till I emotionally recover from The Serpent King:) Zentner's third book, Rayne and Delilah's Midnite Matinee comes out in spring of 2019.