Three Things I Know Are True by Betty Culley (9780062908025)
This verse novel for teens tells the story of two families shattered by one gun shot. Jonah had always been a daredevil, but that ended one day at his best friend Clay’s house when he was playing around with a gun. Now Jonah is bedridden, unable to do anything for himself. Most people don’t believe that he can understand things, but his sister Liv knows that he’s still in there. She spends most of her nights awake with Jonah and his nurses, since she’s often the only one who can calm Jonah down. Meanwhile, there’s a trial unfolding to see who is at fault for Jonah’s injuries and if his ongoing care will be paid for. Liv tries to protect her mother from the editorials in the newspaper and finds herself also making an unlikely connection with Clay’s mother in the center of the road between their homes. Liv also speaks to Clay, who has left school after the accident and given up his phone. She is drawn to him as they avoid talking about Jonah and find both new and old ways to communicate together. As Jonah’s trial goes on, the town becomes divided over the case, but Liv becomes all the more focused on her brother and Clay.
Culley’s verse is written with the tautness of a violin string. Her words stretch and hum, resonant with meaning. She doesn’t use any extra words, her poetry spare and rich with emotion that goes unstated but fills the pages. Beautifully, she manages to reach beyond the arguments about gun control to tell a deep story about the impact of a single gun on two families. That alone is a feat while still not ignoring the politically charged atmosphere entirely.
Liv is the voice of the book, her feelings and struggles crossing the page with her actions speaking of so much more pain than she can express even to the reader. She is a protagonist caught in a river current of grief and loss that she can’t find a way to process other than to just go through it. Again, Culley gives her the space to just be on the page, speak in her voice, and experience what her family is going through.
Tragic and profoundly moving, this verse novel is something special. Appropriate for ages 14-17.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by HarperCollins.
Redwood and Ponytail by K.A. Holt (9781452172880)
This verse novel takes a heartfelt look at a high school romance between two girls. Beginning with a fire being set, the book then takes readers back to the beginning as Kate and Tam first notice one another. Kate is a cheerleader with a perfect ponytail. She is angling to be squad captain, but when she agrees to fill in as mascot at the first few games, she discovers she loves being in costume and being funny. Her mother though has high expectations for Kate and isn’t amused. Tam is a tall volleyball player who moves through life being exactly who she is, never veering from that. Her mother is supportive and warm, sometimes too much so. When Kate and Tam admit what they feel for one another, it feels easy and simple, but it’s not for everyone else.
Holt’s verse is expertly written. She gives each of the main characters their own unique voice and feel. Their words at times dance and overlap with one another on the page, but the characters are distinct from one another always. Holt also adds in a Greek chorus of sorts, watching along with the reader and commenting on the story in just the right tone and verse. Holt gives the romance time to really grow, not jumping forward quickly to a full relationship, but allowing them time to linger in liking one another first. It’s a tender way to explore a new relationship on the page.
I love any LGBTQIA+ book for teens that allows love to win in the end. This book is full of hope, brimming with acceptance even as it explores having family members who don’t understand. It is not saccharine or sweet, offering clear reality but also managing to surround our protagonists with the support they need.
A book to cheer for! Appropriate for ages 13-17.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Chronicle Books.
A Slip of a Girl by Patricia Reilly Giff (9780823439553)
This verse novel tells the story of a girl surviving the Irish Land Wars between the English landowners and the Irish tenant farmers. Anna has grown up on their family farm, but their family struggles to make the required payments to stay. Around her, she sees other families being forced from their homes, the houses themselves knocked down to prevent them from staying. After her mother dies, Anna and her father sometimes have to poach fish to keep the family fed. Their potatoes are not thriving either due to too much rain. When an encounter with the English Lord’s rent collector turns violent, Anna and her father are arrested. Anna manages to escape, taking her baby sister with her to find her aunt in a distant town. Anna must draw on her own resilience and courage to save her entire family.
Giff’s verse is well-written and evocative. She brings the world of Ireland after the Great Famine to life. Giff stresses the dire problems facing the Irish farmers as they struggle to make enough from their farms to feed their families much less pay the landlord. By showing Anna as a member of a larger community, Giff is also able to show the various results of not paying rent. The use of historical photos is key, because one can hardly believe that they would use a battering ram to decimate a home rather than let it stand. The brutality of that act among others shows the merciless nature of the situation in rural Ireland in the 1890’s.
Anna herself is a dynamic heroine. Desperate to learn to read, she meets with the local school teacher in the evenings, reading the book she found outside as well as his books. She never sits idly by, always helping her family and trying to improve their lot. She even joins in with the Irish protests to secure their own land, another act of bravery and defiance.
A strong historical verse novel with a great Irish heroine. Appropriate for ages 8-12.
Reviewed from copy provided by Holiday House.
Soaring Earth by Margarita Engle (9781534429536)
The award-winning author returns with a companion book to her memoir Enchanted Air. In this book, Engle writes in verse about her time in high school. Margarita thinks often of her time in her childhood spent in Cuba, but now that world is entire inaccessible to her and her family. As she attends high school in Los Angeles, Margarita dreams of traveling the world. She is also involved in the unrest of the 1960s as the issues of war, peace, civil rights, and freedom cause protests. Engle finishes high school and goes on to find her own winding path through college on her own terms. It is a memoir filled with hope, longing for peace, and a discovery of personal identity.
Engle is the national Young People’s Poet Laureate, a well-deserved honor given her body of work for children and teens. This second memoir takes a long look at the 1960s in America and the tensions between war and peace. She doesn’t shrink away from topics such as drug use. Her own path to a college degree will also help young people who may be wondering whether they have to go to Ivy League schools to succeed. The joy of finding teachers who are passionate and supportive eclipses the need for the school to be acclaimed.
As always Engle’s writing is exceptional. Here with the personal lens, it is all the more powerful and moving. There are poems that are intensely personal and others that take a less immediate and more philosophical view. The play of the two together allows the book to give a real look at her time growing up and the times of her youth.
Another amazing read by Engle, a poet to be celebrated. Appropriate for ages 13-17.
Reviewed from copy provided by Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
The Moon Within by Aida Salazar (9781338283372)
Celi loves to dance, especially when her best friend is drumming. She’s danced since she was a toddler, but now everything else seems to be changing. Her body is changing into a woman’s body. She has a crush on a boy. She has to figure out how to support her best friend being genderfluid. Meanwhile, her mother is pressuring her to have a moon ceremony when Celi gets her first period. Celi can’t imagine anything more embarrassing. Celi has some difficult decisions to make, and she makes mistakes along the way. As Celi pushes people she loves most away, she will need to figure out how to be the person she wants to be before she loses her best friend forever.
Written in verse, this novel is dazzling. Salazar combines themes of feminism, connection to one’s culture, self expression, and gender fluidity into one amazing novel. Her verse is well written and just right for young readers without being overly simplistic. Comparisons to Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret are apt with its focus on menstruation and growing up as a young girl.
Celi is a marvelous character. She is a character who makes mistakes that are bad enough that readers will get angry at her as she makes certain decisions in the novel. Still, she is always likable and the book shows the flawed reasons she has for making the choices she does. Celi’s connection to her mother is strained in most of the novel and one of the most important parts of the novel is when they finally start communicating and working together.
A great verse novel for middle grade readers that takes classic themes and makes them fresh again. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Arthur A. Levine Books.
Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough (9780735232112)
This strong and intense verse novel tells the story of Artemisia Gentileschi, a painter born in sixteenth-century Rome. This fictional account is based on her true story of working in her father’s art studio and becoming more skilled than him in her late teens. As her father brought in a teacher for her, Artemisia first enjoyed his company and then it became something else entirely. Raped by her teacher, Artemisia has to decide whether to stay silent or try to fight back in the limited ways that she could. With her dead mother’s stories of two strong women from history to inspire her, Artemisia did accuse her rapist and found justice hard to come by but worth fighting for.
Told in Artemisia’s own voice, this verse novel is entirely captivating. Firmly feminist in tone and content, the reader learns not only of Artemisia but also of Judith and Susanna, two historical figures who found their own way to justice. Perfectly timed with the #MeToo movement, this novel calls for women to understand their own strength and find their own voices.
Throughout the book, even with the anger and aggravating unfairness of the time, the book has beautifully soft moments filled with art and creativity. Yet it is firmly footed in reality and doesn’t sugarcoat or turn away from impossible choices, horrible violence, and the importance of strength even when you feel weakest.
A necessary and vital call to action, this book shows that women have stood up all the way through history and their voices will not be ignored. Appropriate for ages 14-18.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Dutton.
Mary’s Monster: Love, Madness, and How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein by Lita Judge (9781626725003)
The daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, an early feminist author, Mary never knew her mother except through her writings. Sent away as a child to live in Scotland, Mary eventually returned to her family where her stepmother rejected her. Believing firmly in free love and the right for a woman to choose her own life, as a teenager Mary ran off with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who left his wife behind to be with her. But things are not that simple and their lives were filled with Percy’s madness and womanizing. Soon Mary is a pregnant teen, unmarried and disowned by her family. But she does not give in and begins to write her masterpiece of a novel, Frankenstein. She pours all of her grief of losing several children, her love for a man who is unable to commit to anyone, and the wound of the loss of her mother.
This verse novel is pure wonderment. Judge illuminates each page with her illustrations, capturing the emotional anguish that filled many of Mary’s days. A few of the pages are voiced by the monster himself, the typeset crooked and voice uniquely that of the creature. It is beautifully handled, the words crafted to evoke emotion and to show the desperate choices that Mary was forced to make.
In my undergraduate thesis, I read the works of the early feminists and Mary Wollstonecraft was one of those writers. It is fascinating to see how her ideals shine in Mary’s life and yet played out into tragedies at times. The fact that Judge read Mary’s diaries is evident on each page of this book, since Mary’s voice rings so clearly on them and her passion for change, love and creativity shines through the darkness of her life.
A masterful look at one of the greatest works of literature and the woman behind it. Appropriate for ages 14-18.
(Reviewed from copy provided by Roaring Brook Press.)
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (9780062662804)
Released March 6, 2018.
Xiomara feels completely unheard and smothered by her mother’s high expectations, particularly those around church and confirmation. She knows how to use her fists to settle arguments, often coming to the defense of her twin brother. She ignores the lewd glances of the men around her who react to her curves far too often. Xiomara’s mother refuses to allow her to date, so when she catches her daughter kissing someone, there are real consequences. Still, Xiomara continues to find her voice. She asks questions at confirmation and eventually joins the school’s poetry club. Xiomara’s passion for words, slam poetry and speaking out won’t stay hidden from her mother for much longer.
Written by a famed slam poet, this book is ferociously written, taking life and putting it on the page with an honesty that almost hurts. The entire verse novel is beautifully written and each poem is a study in how to capture a moment in time with clarity. There are some poems that shine, the anger burning so brightly that they can’t be ignored. They beg to be read aloud into a microphone.
Xiomara’s character is complex and amazing. She is a girl just finding her voice, emerging from the huge shadow her mother has cast and finding her own way forward. She is a mix of sensuality, verse and anger that is completely intoxicating.
One of the best verse novels I have ever read, this one deserves a standing ovation. Appropriate for ages 14-18.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Edelweiss and HarperTeen.
Solo by Kwame Alexander (9780310761839, Amazon)
Blade has grown up with all sorts of privileges as the son of a rock star, but the big house and huge parties come at a cost. His father is always humiliating him, like when he crashes (literally) Blade’s graduation ceremony where Blade is meant to give a speech. His father tries to clean up his act regularly, but it never seems to stick and he returns to drugs and alcohol. Blade also misses his mother terribly after her death. When Blade finally confronts his father about his behavior, a family secret is revealed that changes Blade’s perspective permanently. He sets off to discover his own history, a journey that takes him to Ghana, a place entirely different than the one he has been living in.
Newbery-Medal winner Alexander has crafted another amazing verse novel here. He moves firmly into teen territory here, with a 17-year-old protagonist who is truly on a journey to discover himself. Alexander starts the novel with the excess of a rock legend’s life and then beautifully changes the novel mid-course to Ghana and people who live as a strong community with few luxuries. The two settings could not be more different nor could what Blade feels while he is in each. Ghana is vividly depicted as is Blade’s reaction to it, rich with people and place.
Alexander’s poetry writing is superb in both settings. Yet it truly comes alive in Ghana, particularly with Joy, Blade’s guide and inspiration while there. Just as Blade cannot look away from Joy, neither can the novel nor the reader since she is so captivating. Throughout the book, there are questions asked that are deep, about wealth and poverty, about privilege and race, about addiction and recovery, about parenting and failure. This is a rich book filled with lots to discover and discuss.
A great read that will be enjoyed by even those teens who may not think they’d like a verse novel. Appropriate for ages 15-18.
Reviewed from ARC received from HarperCollins.