NPM 2017: 5 Questions for the Verse Novelist, Featuring Caroline Starr Rose

This week is the first Poetry Friday of National Poetry Month, 2017.

I’m thrilled to welcome middle grade author Caroline Starr Rose to the blog today. Caroline’s got a new prose novel out, JASPER AND THE RIDDLE OF RILEY’S MINE. But today, she’s joining my month-long series of interviews with verse novelists.

Caroline, tell us about your most recent verse novel. What is it about the story and characters that led you to write the book as poetry?

Blue Birds is set in 1587 on the island of Roanoke and is about England’s first (doomed) colony in the New World. More specifically, it’s the story of a forbidden friendship between two girls — one Roanoke and one English. Verse felt like the right fit for this story for two reasons.

First, I love how verse strips away the unnecessary and gives a feeling of immediacy, which really helps in making historical fiction accessible to young readers. Second, because the story is told in two voices, verse allowed me to visually communicate the girls’ relationship in a way prose never could. Through line and stanza breaks as well as dual-voice poems, I was able to move readers from one perspective to the other, could contrast in “real time” each child’s reaction, thoughts, and emotions, and could show the slow drawing together they experienced. What verse did for this story was magical, plain and simple.

(Note from Laura: You can read more about this at my 2015 blog post about BLUE BIRDS.)

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?

Verse is unique in that it is both direct and intimate. That directness cuts through layers that could bog down a historical novel by its straight-forward presentation, but also because it gives us access to intimacy with the main character. With verse, we climb into the skin of the point-of-view character and see the world as she does, experience it in time with her. Ideally, this helps the history not become an obstacle for the reader to unravel but the normal, everyday life of the character we are experiencing the story through.

Have you ever written a full or partial draft of one of your verse novels in prose (or vice versa), only to decide to switch? How did you go about making that change? What were some of your clues that you needed to rethink the form?

I wrote a very partial draft of my first novel, May B. (a historical novel set in 1870s Kansas), as prose but was frustrated with the distance I felt between the ideas in my head and the words on the page. The option of verse wasn’t even on my radar. I’d read all of two verse novels before writing May and had no plans to write my own. But when I set the draft aside and went back to my research, I found the stark, careful, spare ways pioneer women used to communicate in their personal writing as key. If I could mimic their style, I would have direct access to this character and her world.

I remember a few weeks later my mom asking what I was working on. I couldn’t really describe what I was doing (I was nervous to use the word “verse,” as I knew nothing about it at all), but I told her it was the most close-to-the bone, honest thing I’d ever written. I held to that conviction till the end of the draft (and avoided all verse novels so as not to feel inferior and give up part way through!).

That’s exactly why I encourage people who don’t consider themselves to be poets to try the verse novel form. There’s nothing like it for communicating first-person voice. 

BLUE BIRDS is written in more than one voice. How did you develop the vocabulary and the rhythm for each character? What methods did you use to differentiate the characters’ voices?

With Blue Birds, I tried to the best of my ability to see the world as both Alis and Kimi would and to translate that into the word choice, thought processes, observations, and perspectives each girl would have. One of the biggest differences would be who these girls are culturally. Both have been shaped by the people they come from, and this is evident in the way they make sense of the world. The dual-voice poems, where the girls are observing each other, is where the the contrast is most evident.

One of my favorite poems reflects their cultural differences but also shows a slow movement toward mutual respect for the other.

I also like how your book’s designer used font to differentiate the two voices.

Most of the middle grade and YA verse novels I have read are contemporary or historical. I’d 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?

I feel form should always follow function. I’ve learned to listen to a story to get a sense of the best way to tell it. No piece should be shoehorned into any form — prose included! If an author has a story that is begging to be told in verse, then that’s the way it should be written, plain and simple.

Well-said, Caroline. Thank you for stopping by today! 

Caroline Starr Rose is an award-winning middle grade and picture book author whose books have been ALA-ALSC Notable, Junior Library Guild, ABA New Voices, KidsIndie Next, Amazon’s Best Books of the Month for Kids, and Bank Street College of Education Best Books selections. In addition, her books have been nominated for almost two dozen state awards lists. In 2012 Caroline was named a Publishers Weekly Flying Start Author for her debut novel, May B. She spent her childhood in the deserts of Saudi Arabia and New Mexico and taught social studies and English in four different states. Caroline now lives with her husband and two sons in New Mexico. You can find her at www.carolinestarrrose.com.

It’s Poetry Friday! This week’s host is Irene Latham at Live Your Poem.

My series of interviews with verse novelists continues next week with Leza Lowitz. Here is the full schedule 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

4/10 Leza Lowitz, UP FROM THE SEA

4/13 Shari Green, MACY McMILLAN AND THE RAINBOW GODDESS

4/17 Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu, SOMEWHERE AMONG

4/20 Ellie Terry, FORGET ME NOT

4/24 Margarita Engle, MORNING STAR HORSE

4/25 Tamera Will Wissinger, GONE CAMPING

4/27 Debut novelist Amanda Rawson-Hill

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.