NPM 2017: 5 Questions for the Verse Novelist, Featuring Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu

April is one of my favorite times of year. Looking out my window this morning, the dogwood and redbud trees are in bloom. A carpet of purple phlox greets visitors at our door. And, of course, it’s National Poetry Month.

My series of interviews with verse novelists continues today with middle grade author Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu.

Welcome, Annie! Tell us about your debut novel, SOMEWHERE AMONG. What is it about the story and characters that led you to write the book as poetry?

Somewhere Among is a middle grade novel set in Japan 2001. Ema, 11, is a bicultural, binational girl living in Japan with her American mom and Japanese father. Her mom is having a difficult pregnancy so they move in with her Japanese grandparents. Her grandmother  hasn’t spent much time with her and wants to make sure she knows Japanese culture. She is persnickety and creates a lot of stress for everyone. Ema is a peacemaker and doesn’t complain or confide, even when she is confronted by a bully at the school she has to attend temporarily.

I love the way that historical verse novels communicate a time and place without feeling weighed down by background information. Why do you think verse pairs so well with historical narratives?

I think verse pairs well with everything! Somewhere Among is a historical novel and it is a bicultural novel. The grandmother was trying to make sure her grand-daughter knew how to be Japanese, so it was imperative to include many cultural details. I was able to reveal culture in glimpses to illustrate the grandmother’s sensibilities.

Does your story spin on one central event and how it impacts the characters in the book? If so, how did you incorporate poetic elements such as metaphor and symbolism to show the echoes of that event through the novel? Would you share an example of this from your book?

Somewhere Among spins on the sinking of The Ehime Maru, a Japanese teaching vessel, on February 9, 2001 and the falling of the Twin Towers on September 11. The main character’s grandfather had witnessed the bombing of Nagasaki and her grandmother had experienced the bombings of Tokyo. The focus of the story is not these events, but memorializing the dead and moving on is. The characters are working on their hearts.

Images, poem titles, scenes and words of depth and elevation, water and space (stars, moon), grounding and lightening, burdening and brightening (hearts), and seasons changing are woven throughout.

The lotus is a symbol of change. In Great-grandfather’s garden in the past, lotus leaves reached up through muddy water. A dried lotus pod became Papa’s souvenir. At the New Year’s meal for 2002, the grandfather looks through the lotus root (like my father-in-law always did) and says “I see a better year ahead.” We are left with the hope that their hearts will blossom in time.

Like the Flow of the River

The molasses time of day

sakura leaves

pedal the wind at my feet.

I am going too fast
for Jiichan.

Waiting,
soles on the ground
in leaf drifts, I watch

a constellation,
dark and light
dull and sparkling
deep and shallow,

glide past me–

the river’s kimono
of autumn amber sun
flowing.

A dragonfly clings
to a waving pampas grass.

Most of the middle grade and YA verse novels I have read are contemporary or historical. Id love to see a fantasy or science fiction novel-in-verse for kids. Do you think the form is flexible enough to stretch into other genres of fiction? Why or why not?

Yes! It may be a challenge to ground a whole novel so readers don’t totally escape (the storyline.) Less white space between the fantastic and the tangible may be the key, I think. I have toyed with Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale (but not it being all a dream.)

Imagine one of your favorite poets has just written his or her first verse novel for children or teens. Which poet is it? Why do you think this person would be a great fit for a kidlit novel-in-verse? Any guesses as to what the book might be about?

I would love to see Naomi Shihab Nye write a midddle-grade verse memoir set in the US. We share the same childhood decades, growing up in the 1960s and 70s. I would love to hear her bicultural story. Her prose novels and poetry for children are wonderful.

That’s a great idea. I read Naomi Shihab Nye’s beautiful MG novel THE TURTLE OF OMAN recently (read a review at Notes from an Islamic School Librarian here). Like you, I’m part of a bicultural family and love that aspect of her work.

Thanks for being part of my National Poetry Month project, Annie! It’s been great to hear from you and Leza Lowitz this month, and how living in Japan has influenced your writing. Visiting Japan is an important item on my bucket list. Someday.

Somewhere Among is Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu’s debut novel. It won the 2013 Writers’ League of Texas award in the middle grade category and is listed on Bank Street College of Education’s Best Children’s Books of 2016. Annie is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in Tokyo, Japan. She taught reading and English for Academic Purposes at university programs in the United States, Malaysia, and Japan before marrying and raising two children in a multi-generational home in Japan. Her author website includes resources and bilbiographies for teachers. Her photoblog for children, Here and There Japan, provides cultural background. The paperback edition of Somewhere Among will be available on April 25.

My series of National Poetry Month interviews with verse novelists continues on Thursday with debut author Ellie Terry.

Here is the full list of posts:

4/3 Jeannine Atkins, STONE MIRRORS: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis (Find the post here.)

4/6 Caroline Starr Rose, BLUE BIRDS (Find the post here.)

4/10 Leza Lowitz, UP FROM THE SEA (Find the post here.)

4/13 Shari Green, MACY McMILLAN AND THE RAINBOW GODDESS (Find the post here.)

4/17 Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu, SOMEWHERE AMONG (Find the post here.)

4/20 Ellie Terry, FORGET ME NOT (Find the post here.)

4/24 Margarita Engle, MORNING STAR HORSE and FOREST WORLD (Find the post here.)

4/25 Tamera Will Wissinger, GONE CAMPING (Find the post here.)

4/27 Debut novelist Amanda Rawson-Hill (Find the post here.)

4/30 Holly Thompson, FALLING INTO THE DRAGON’S MOUTH (Find the post here.)

You can find a list of National Poetry Month blog projects at Jama’s Alphabet Soup. And check out this great list of recommended MG verse novels from educator Cassie Thomas at the blog Teachers Who Read.