Posts Tagged ‘Verse novels’

Becoming Muhammad Ali

By James Patterson and Kwame Alexander

Illustrated by Dawud Anyabwile

ISBN 9780316498166

Houghton Mifflin

I’m writing this review on a warm autumn afternoon in Christchurch, New Zealand and enjoying memories of the time I met Muhammad Ali and our short but amazing conversation. It was many years ago and I was living in London, doing my big OE; working in hotels for cheap accommodation and experiencing life on the other side of the world.

I was cleaning hotel rooms and working in the Forum Hotel, one of the biggest hotels in London at the time. Ali was no longer boxing but he was still doing the rounds working for charities and trying to make the world a better place. I was lucky enough to clean his room and when I was in the hall he came out and told me he had had an accident. Before I could say much, he stuck his hand out and showed me his finger, cut off and sitting in the palm of his hand. I looked up at him (I’m barely 5 foot) and back at his hand and I screamed. Not the best response, I admit and it wasn’t really that loud but he gently placed his hand on my shoulder and told me it was a fake finger, which you really could tell straight away. We both laughed after that. I think, his fame, his height and the suggestion that he had cut off one of his famous boxing fingers was just a bit much for this young girl from down under. It was and always will be one of my most treasured experiences. Despite his size and fame, there was a gentleness to him that I found quite humbling. So to read this book has been a total delight.

Getting to know the young Cassius Clay before he became famous, before he changed his name is kind of magical. It’s like watching a movie and knowing the ending, but having no idea how it started because you had missed the beginning. Patterson and Alexander have created a beginning that is easy to read. It is a mix of poetry and prose. Kwame does verse novels with impact and perfection and the poems here are beautifully written. Patterson’s writing shows the love and respect of a best friend and we feel it. Ali tells his side of growing up, knowing he wanted to be a champion boxer and just how he set out to achieve that. One of his best friends Lucius, aka Lucky, tells his version of events. His obvious sense of pride in his friend as he watched it all play out is evident as he shares his insights to the young Cassis Clay.

I love the illustrations throughout the book; graphic novel type that suit the tone of the book. I think one of the strengths of this book is that you can feel the love Ali has for his family, particularly his younger brother Rudy, and his friends. His determination and confidence is inspiring. This is not just a book about boxing, or a biographical account of his life; it’s about friendships, belief, faith and courage at a time when black people still had to sit at the back of the bus. I felt many emotions reading this book. Anger; for racism he had to endure in a time when segregation was everywhere. Hope; for his dreams to come through, and relief that he made it. Happiness; that I had the fortune to have been pranked by this amazing man.

I am so glad this book has been published and is out there for everyone to read, enjoy and get to know the young, Muhammad Ali. I don’t want to return the book to the library but I will (reluctantly) as I want others to enjoy it too.

White Rose

By Kip Wilson

ISBN 9780358376699

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company

Sophie Scholl is anti-Nazi political activist. The more she learns about Hitler and his regime, the more she is determined to make others aware of how dangerous he is but the risk is huge and the cost, if caught, unthinkable.

Based on the real life of Sophie, her family and friends, we read back and forth between the the time when Sophie first realised what was really happening to her neighbours, Jews and other innocent people, and the time when she is imprisoned for her own actions.

We learn of her strengths, fears, and those she loves. We learn about the atrocities and brutalities on Jews and anyone who disagrees with Hitler. We learn about the growing group of activists known as White Rose; a group of people who secretly print out information about the atrocities of Hitler’s regime. They are consequently considered as traitors of Hitler and are wanted. The story is well-researched, well written and has impact. I won’t forget about Sophie Scholl.

Sophie’s bravery to go against everything Germans are taught is inspiring and heroic. Along with Hans, one of her brothers, Sophie is eventually caught and imprisoned, yet even then, Sophie remains strong and dedicated to her need to make a difference to try and stop the war. Her belief is that

“…the world will see

and the world will know

and the world

will

make

them

stop.”

This is written in verse form which is the perfect way to tell Sophie’s story. It offers brevity and clarity and with all the white space on the page the poem and language becomes the focus. Powerful, haunting and insightful. This book and Sophie’s life will stay with me a long time.

The Poet Slave of Cuba

A biography of Juan Francisco Manzano

By Margarita Engle

Illustrated by Sean Qualls

ISBN 9780805077063

Henry Holt and Company

A verse novel is the perfect format for telling the story of the famous poet slave Juan Francisco Manzano.

The account of his life is horrendous. His treatment as a slave to the wealthy slave owner is told with deliberate, careful choice of words. The impact on the reader is gut-wrenching. The fact that the young slave survived such a harsh life is amazing and credit is given to his own courage, strength, and determination.

Juan was taken from his family and kept as a slave. His parents were freed but a wealthy slave owner kept him, even demanding that he call her mama. He was treated like a pet animal, worked hard but punished severely, cruelly, and beyond anything we could imagine.

Juan had the special ability to learn poems from other poets, sonnets, verses, all by heart. He could recite so much of what he heard and this gave him hope. It was not until many years later that he learnt to read himself and then write his own poems.

This is a harsh book but beautifully written. My stomach turned many times as I read this. The story is told in alternating voices from Juan and other people in his life, including his mother and father’s point of view, and even the slave owner, La Marquesa de Prado Ameno. What I find very interesting is how the slave owner tries to justify her actions in Juan’s life, making excuses for the treatment he receives at her command. Unbelievable! I wanted to shout at her, “leave him alon”e, wanted to yell at him to “run, escape”.

This is not a new book, but it is new to me and it has left me wanting to read more about the poet, and read more by the author.

One of my favourite extracts is right at the beginning (page3-4).

My mind is a brush made of feathers
painting pictures of words
I remember
all that I see
every syllable
each word a twin of itself
telling two stories
at the same time
one of sorrow
the other hope

I love the words
written with my feathery mind
in the air
and with my sharp fingernails
on leaves in the garden

When my owner catches
a whiff
of the fragrance
of words
engraved in the flesh
of succulent geranium leaves
or the perfumed petals of alelí flowers
then she frowns because she knows
that I dream
with my feathers
my wings

Black Flamingo

By Dean Atta

ISBN 9781444948608

Hodder Children’s Books

I loved this book and the verse novel format is just perfect for telling Michael’s story. It begins with Michael as a very small child and progresses through his childhood and into his teens.

There is a sweetness to Michael which makes him likeable. He values his friends and loves his family, although his father in not part of the equation. At school, his best friend is Daisy and they spend so much time together. Daisy understands him and listens to him as he talks about his crushes but there comes a time, when even best friends fall out.

This is not just a book about his realisation and acceptance of being gay, it is about his courage and being honest enough to stand up for himself and be who he wants to be. Michael is a poet and through his poetry he is able to share his thoughts.

One of my favourite parts is the poem titled I come from which is in part, a summary of everything he has experienced, felt, seen and heard. It is his past and his present with hope for the future. It is powerful and an excellent insight to Michael and his internal thoughts.

It is also an excellent look at the LGBT life and we can see how difficult it is at first for Michael who is not just gay, but black and gay. Michael is British, black, Cypriot and Jamaican and this adds so many aspects to his life and his identity.

There are so many themes running through this book; gender identity, racism, sexuality, homophobia, self-acceptance and Drag queens and they are all part of this very good, realistic, authentic coming-of-age story. The significance of the black flamingo becomes clear as you read through this novel and when you see Michael and how far he has come, it leaves you smiling.

Punching the air

By Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam

ISBN 9780062996480

HarperCollins

 

Punching the air is a profound book that left me thinking of the characters long after I turned the last page. I’ve been left with so many questions about fairness, justice, racism, white privilege, poverty and so much more.

Amal Shahid has always been an artist and a poet. But even in a diverse art school, he’s seen as disruptive and unmotivated by a biased system. Then one fateful night, an altercation in a gentrifying neighborhood escalates into tragedy. “Boys just being boys” turns out to be true only when those boys are white. 

Suddenly, at just sixteen years old, Amal’s bright future is upended: he is convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and sent to prison. Despair and rage almost sink him until he turns to the refuge of his words, his art. This never should have been his story. But can he change it? 

Amal is a teen, imprisoned for something he did not do. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong colour! The prison world he finds himself in is absolutely awful.  He is taunted and beaten by guards and other prisoners. He is reminded that this is his life and where he belongs, society expects nothing from, or of him. At times you can feel Amal believes this too. He struggles to cope in a society of systemic racism. It is a cruel, unforgiving world for Amal.

I don’t know if I’ll change

I’ve been so broken

too many times that I

have turned to dust.

 

Eventually Amal finds poetry and a way to cope.

Yusef Salaam, co writer of this powerful book, was one of the Exonerated Five, a group of young men who were wrongly imprisoned for a rape they did not commit. They were eventually exonerated and paid out. This is not that story but it is similar. Together the writers have written Amal’s story, one, which is sadly, repeated too many times.

Told as a verse novel, the writing is powerful, at times gut-wrenchingly raw.  This format was perfect for Amal and his story. Every word matters. It is beautifully written with an honesty that at times left me stunned and so sad. This is not a world we should be accepting.

It is no wonder that this book is a best seller. No doubt at all, it will be an award winner too.

It is well worth checking out the teacher notes here.

Blood Moon

By Lucy Cuthew

ISBN 9781406393446

Walker Books 

Periods, sex and online shaming. How is that for an introduction to this compelling debut novel by Lucy Cuthew. The author holds nothing back in topic or her language. The voices of her characters ring true. Their actions even more so.

Caught up in the heat of the moment, Frankie has her first sexual experience with Benjamin but her period starts at the same time. Somehow news gets out and Frankie finds herself the centre of an awful meme and continued hateful and spiteful messages. The news of her experience goes viral and everyone knows about it. Reaction is cruel and swift. Online shaming takes over her life and we see the impact of this awful aspect of living in a digital world. Once something is out there, it’s everywhere and almost impossible to stop.

Written as a verse novel, the language is sharp, emotive and real, allowing us to totally connect with Frankie and her thoughts. Her anguish, despair, sense of shame and betrayal are real. Frankie has no control of her life, nowhere to hide and everything is overwhelming.

When things spiral out of control and every internet post seems to have Frankie’s meme plastered all over it she struggles to cope. Falling out with her best friend creates further turmoil and Frankie is on a rollercoaster of emotions and we are on the ride with her. Lucy Cuthew captures the voices of teens with authenticity. Discussions about periods is often taboo but here, they are very much part of the story. Natural and part of everyday life for females, periods are often shunned and in Frankie’s case, shamed but as Benjamin and Frankie know, periods are just blood, that’s all.

The consequences of online shaming and misuse of the internet can have a devastating impact and the author demonstrates this extremely well. Even after all the happens, Frankie discovers she is stronger than she thinks.

For teens, this is one of those books that needs to be read and read widely.

Worse things

By Sally Murphy

Illustrations by Sarah Davis

ISBN 9781760651657

Walker Books Australia

 

When you’re part of the team the sideline is a place of refuge of rest of reprieve. But when you’re out of the team the sideline changes. Suddenly it’s the loneliest place of them all.

Cool, sporty kid Blake finds himself on the sideline of his football team after an accident. It is not a place he wants to be. He misses the action and the friends who seem to be more focused on their team playing rather than any children sitting out of the game. While Blake sits on the sideline, someone else is watching him, also sidelined. Amed watches everyone and wishes he could fit in but his lack of English leaves him afraid. His life has been difficult and even now that he is safe and away from the refugee camps he grew up in, he still has hurdles to overcome. Language, or lack of knowing English is now his new barrier.

The choice of format; a verse novel, works perfectly here. There are a number of children all telling their own stories each with concerns about fitting in, loneliness, connections or lack of connections. They have fears, but they also all have strengths which help them through. The most powerful strength they have is of learning to connect, unite together in friendship and respect each others differences.

For many children, English is not their first language. Children arrive in their new countries because of parents work, family reunification; many are refugees escaping war. Whatever their reason for immigrating, English is a tough language to learn and adapting is hard. We forget sometimes, but this short novel is a powerful reminder that kindness, patience and acceptance can make life easier for people like Amed.

Loved meeting all the characters here.

Clap when you land

By Elizabeth Acevedo

ISBN 9781471409127

Hot Key Books

 

Elizabeth Acevedo knows poetry. She knows how to make words sing and dance on the page. Knows how to make those words haunt you and leave you in awe. I loved her book Poet X and now I’m in love again, with her latest verse novel Clap when you land. 

All these lies that we’ve all swallowed,

they’re probably rotting in our stomachs.

Camino Rios lives in the Dominican Republic with her aunt; her mother long since passed away, while her father lives in New York. He returns each summer to spend time with her but this time his plane crashes and Camino is left an orphan. He sent money for her schooling but now that he is gone, she worries what will happen to her and her dreams of being a doctor seem pointless. There is also an unwanted male and danger not far from her door.

Yahaira Rios lives with her mother in New York and her father is also killed in a plane crash on his regular summer trip away. The father, is the one and the same. Neither girl knew of the other’s existence but the fate of that plane crash draws them together after secrets are revealed that they are in fact sisters.

Beautifully written in verse, each daughter tells their own story, their own fears, and struggles to cope with loss, grief, and the secret that shatters their worlds but ultimately draws them together.

The language flows beautifully and is succinct.

Tio Jorge knows how to listen.

                Even if all he hears is silence. 

There is so much to unpack in this novel, so many thoughts and feelings.  The girls share many physical features of their father but live in totally different worlds. I love how the author draws us into Camino and Yahaira’s worlds and inner thoughts. Their shared story is moving, gritty and powerful. I am so glad the sisters find each other. Loved this book!

 

I would love to listen and watch Elizabeth Acevedo live. Poet and performer!

Rebound

By Kwame Alexander

ISBN 9780544868137

HMH Books for Young Readers

 

 

I love verse novels but I’m not particularly a fan of sports so I was very pleasantly surprised to find myself totally absorbed with this book. Rebound is a coming-of-age story where Charlie/Chuck learns to deal with his grief over the loss of his father and to deal with the consequences of his own actions. Unless something changes, Charlie could very well find himself in a heap of trouble, from which there is not always a way back. And yes; there is a girl in there. I loved reading his gradual realisation that she might just be more than his best friend.

Grief does hang heavy for Charlie and he spends his summer with his grandparents, giving him and his mother some time apart. Relationships is a strong theme throughout the book; the good and the bad. Communication is also a strong theme. On and off the court, Charlie learns to deal with life.

The writing is full of energy and keeps you turning those pages. I was so caught up in Charlie’s life that suddenly I was wiping away a few tears. It was one of those moments that sort of just creep up behind you and take you by surprise. And as for the basketball, I was very much on his side, fingers crossed as he played.

Try it but also look out for The Crossover to fully get the picture. Check out the book trailer too and for more info check out the author’s website.

Death coming up the hill

By Chris Crowe

ISBN 9780544302150

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing

It’s summer break on this side of the world at the moment and I’m on a bit of a roll reading verse novels and this one is another one to shout out loud about.

Written in the form of haiku, each syllable in this young adult book represents each “soul”  of the 16,592 American soldiers who died in Vietnam in the year 1968. Apart from the absolute hard work to produce these haiku, and keep the story flowing, the research and historical background is very much evident.

It’s 1968, and war is not foreign to seventeen-year-old Ashe. His dogmatic, racist father married his passionate peace-activist mother when she became pregnant with him, and ever since, the couple—like the situation in Vietnam—has been engaged in a senseless war that could have been prevented.

We are caught up in Ashe’s life, his fears, the impact of the Vietnam War, his parents marriage breakdown, and a time of strong racist actions. Ashe is loyal to his parents but he is soon faced with choices; choices that will change his life forever.  There is much political unrest with the assassinations of both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. Throughout it all, Ashe is worried he will be drafted to join the soldiers and fight.  Ashe and his girlfriend connect, both sharing the belief that peace is a far better option than war. A good insight to a different time with good solid characters with real flaws. I was completely drawn to Ashe and his situation. The format is easy to read and has a beauty with its mix of haiku and white space on the page. Very sobering numbers and facts. A powerful read.

We need books like this to remind us of the past and to keep moving forward towards peace, no matter who we are or where we live.

The language of fire: Joan of Arc reimagined

By Stephanie Hemphill

ISBN 9780062490117

Balzer + Bray

 

The Language of Fire is a lyrical, dark, and moving look at the life of Joan of Arc, who as a teen girl in the fifteenth century commanded an army and helped crown a king of France.

Most of us are aware to some extent of the story of Joan of Arc, perhaps we’ve seen movies or were taught about her in school, but here in this novel from Stephanie Hemphill we are inside the head of Joan and are privy to her thoughts.

Joan, or Jehanne as she is known, hears the voice of God who tells her to build an army and lead France to victory. Told as a novel in verse form, it is easier to capture the moments of doubt, dismay, fear and loneliness, but also success, that Joan feels. We feel it all with her, every step of the way.

As a young, illiterate peasant girl Joan struggles at first with the idea that God has spoken to her and commanded her to do his will. In time, she understands it is her destiny, and with grit and determination as a teenage girl in a man’s world, Joan takes up the challenge, knowing the price she will eventually pay.

I don’t tend to read historical novels but this was a very good read and I was right into the story of Joan and loved seeing her mature into the brave leader she became.

We know how things ended for Joan but it still hits you as a reader when you get to there but Joan was very courageous right up until the end. However, her fight was more than physically brandishing a sword. It was a fight to be understood and to be treated with respect; for women back in the 1400’s were easy prey for men with horrid intentions. A great read, if somewhat dark at times, but that is the reality of the life of Joan of Arc.

“I am just a lowly peasant girl.

Who am I to be chosen

to save France?

The idea is surely folly

fueled by my longing

to be more than I am.”

Poet X

By Elizabeth Acevedo

ISBN 9781405291460

Egmont Books

I am and always will be a huge verse novel fan. My latest read is Poet X and it gets a five out of five from me.

Xiomara lives in Harlem where often it is easier to use her fists for talking. She longs to be understood and to understand the world around her. She has a twin brother and they are tight and always look out for each other. They understand each other far more than anyone else. Their Mami is incredibly strict, demanding and hugely religious and X, as she now calls herself, struggles with the whole concept of church, God and Holy Communion. Twin, as she calls her brother, is bright and seems to do everything right while X continually ends up in some sort of trouble.

X begins a relationship with a boy from school and the consequences, lies and secrets have a huge impact on X.

I love how X discovers poetry and then finds her voice and the strength to stand up and be heard. Her poetry is a powerful tool for self-discovery.

I love the language, the poetry, the cultural voices coming through and X. Her relationships are strained and difficult but they are real. I hear it in their voices; the things the characters say and do. I can hear X’s thoughts. X is both strong and vulnerable, feisty and afraid, but she is real and I wish I could meet her in person and tell her to believe in herself just a little more.

There are many links to hear the author read poems from this novel on her website and on Youtube. They sound even better read aloud which makes me think this would be perfect for high school English teachers to use on many levels.

Loved it.

Elizabeth Acevedo has another book coming out later this year, With the Fire on High and I will be hunting it down as soon as it is published.

Long way down

By Jason Reynolds

Illustrated by Chris Priestley

ISBN 9780571335114

Those who follow this blog probably know how much I love verse novels. I love everything about them, especially the language and how it can pack a punch.  Long way down  knocked me sideways. William Holloman’s brother has just been murdered. He wishes he had laughed more at his brother’s dumb jokes because he won’t ever get the chance again. His brother is dead. Tragedy seeps through every page of this book. The language is real and gritty. It is powerful, beautiful and haunting.

After his brother’s death Will knows one thing for sure. He must follow the rules.

  1. Don’t cry
  2. Don’t snitch
  3.  Get revenge

It is raw and dark and I will think about Will for a long, long time. After reading this book I had to just sit awhile and reflect on the lives of the characters. The reality is that there are many William Hollomans in this world and we need to change this. How? I don’t know the answer, but something must change for people like William. They get caught up in the world of poverty, gangs, hardship and anger. This book takes us in to Will’s world, and his thoughts. It is a dark and scary world and as tough as he is trying to be, we see his vulnerability. We hear his thoughts and we find ourselves caring for him in a way only good writing can make us. An amazing insight into the sad and desperate life of a young man looking for revenge. Loved it so much. Need to read again.

Listen to the first few pages being read by the author. 

Saving Red

By Sonya Sones

ISBN 9780062370280

Epic Reads

 

bk_savingred

 

I love how verse novels have the ability to pack a punch using few words. Saving Red, Sonya Sones latest verse novel packs many punches. The old saying that less is more is never more true than in Sone’s novels.

Molly is almost 15 years old and filled with guilt as she begins suffocating in a family on a down-hill slide to nowhere. Molly’s guilt eats away at her and it is this guilt that compels her to help Red, a teenage runaway with problems of her own. The unlikely pair form a strong friendship.

Red is quirky yet delightful, brave yet fearful, alone, yet not alone, as she has the Duke and Lana for company. Molly soon realises the truth about Duke and Lana and so begins a gutsy, determined effort to help Red and return her home to her family for Christmas. And of course there is a boy in there too, for good measure. I must confess, if I was quite a bit younger, I too would be very keen on the cute Cristo.

The characters are real, their dilemmas are real, creating an honest and thought-provoking novel which I couldn’t put down. So caught up in their world, I just wanted to hug them both and make sure they were okay. 

 

One

By Sarah Crossan

ISBN 9781408872345

Bloomsbury Children’s

 

One

 

“Grace and Tippi are twins – conjoined twins.

And their lives are about to change. 

No longer able to afford homeschooling, they must venture into the world – a world of stares, sneers and cruelty. Will they find more than that at school? Can they find real friends? And what about love? But what neither Grace or Tippi realises is that a heart-wrenching decision lies ahead. A decision that could tear them apart. One that will change their lives even more than they ever imagined…”

I have always been a fan of verse novels. The power of a novel written in verse is magical. Words are sparse and carefully thought out and hit the reader with impact. This is no exception. One by Sarah Crossan creates a realism around Grace and Pippi. I was intrigued with the girl’s ability to deal with the issues of living everyday as conjoined twins.

“It really isn’t so bad.

It’s how it’s always been.

It’s all we know.

And actually,

     we’re usually

     quite happy

     together.”  (pg 12- 13)

 

Never having the ability to do things without each other must be the toughest things to deal with – or so I thought.

Having always had the protection of being home-schooled the girls have been sheltered but now with things changing they have to face the public eye, attend public school and learn to deal with what people think of them and their situation. Their transition to public life is unique but well written. We are given enough information to understand the girls plight but not enough to be intrusive or insensitive. The girl’s mother is trying to hold it all together while the father struggles with drink.  Part of their world is crumbling but the other part is beginning to taste the joys and trappings of teenage life. Younger sister Dragon has her own issues to deal with as well. Don’t let the fact that it is a verse novel put you off. It is a smooth, easy read with a powerful impact that will want you looking out for other verse novels and just as importantly, looking for other works by Sarah Crossan.

This book hits home with a punch. A good one for teens to sink their teeth into.