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NPM 2017: 5 Questions for the Verse Novelist, Featuring Shari Green

Happy Poetry Friday, everyone.

My series of interviews with verse novelists continues today with middle grade author Shari Green.

But first, a quick PSA:

This week, I did a guest posting at School Library Journal’s Teen Librarian Toolbox blog. Blog team member Amanda MacGregor invited me to write up this year’s February Poetry Project as a social justice poetry prompt for teens. Check it out at SLJ online!

Shari Green is the author of ROOT BEER CANDY AND OTHER MIRACLES. Her latest book is the verse novel MACY McMILLAN AND THE RAINBOW GODDESS. Welcome, Shari!

Tell us about the most recent verse novel you published or one you are working on now. What is it about the story and characters that led you to write the book as poetry?

MACY McMILLAN AND THE RAINBOW GODDESS is about a Deaf girl whose life is taking a turn she’s not at all happy with—her mom’s getting married, and Macy’s going to have to move to a new house to live with a step-dad and two pesky step-sisters—and it’s about an unlikely friendship that just might turn out to be exactly what Macy needs to face the changes in her life.

It’s written in verse partly because that’s the way Macy’s voice whispered to me when I began to write, and partly because the format allowed me to visually represent the communication challenges of the two main characters. (Their communication is a combination of sign language, spoken dialogue with an ASL interpreter, and handwritten notes and stories.)

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?

The big event in this story is an upcoming wedding. It’s always been just Macy and her mom—a team of two, doing life together—and that’s exactly how Macy wants things to stay. But now everything’s changing. Coming to terms with change and accepting it as part of her story is the most significant arc for Macy’s character.

I wanted to explore both the idea of our lives as stories and the way stories connect us, and I used the obvious metaphor of books—because yay books! Haha. Seriously, though, since Macy is a big book-lover, sharing books and stories with Iris, her elderly neighbor, was the perfect way to help Macy understand and accept the changes in her life as being part of a larger story.

In this poem, Macy begins to recognize the importance of books and stories, but hasn’t yet connected to the idea of her life as a story. Iris has just shared her belief that “if you love something, you should love it extravagantly”. Macy writes back on a fresh page of the notebook they’re passing back and forth:

What is the draw of the verse novel form? What makes you return to poetry as the backbone of how you tell a story?

I came to this form rather accidentally, but in hindsight I know that, by the time I began writing in verse, my prose style had evolved into one that was fairly lean and lyrical, so the transition to verse felt completely natural. I love the economy of words and the imagery and strength of emotion found in verse. I’m also a musician, and that’s maybe part of why I adore playing with words so much, searching for the just-right combination of sounds and rhythm.

(Yes, I do see the irony of telling a Deaf character’s story using a format known for its musicality! But of course, the musicality of verse is only one of its many wonders. *grin*)

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?

Partial, yes. My first verse novel, ROOT BEER CANDY AND OTHER MIRACLES, didn’t start out as verse. I’d written a YA novel before that, and several unpublished manuscripts, all in prose. But when I sat down to write ROOT BEER CANDY, I struggled with the voice of Bailey, my main character. It just wouldn’t click, y’know? After a few false starts in prose, I tried it in verse…and there was Bailey. Finally! So really, I switched to verse because that’s how I heard Bailey’s voice.

If your verse novel 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?

The biggest challenge developing Macy’s voice was that Macy is Deaf and I’m not. In addition to research (including chatting with relatives who are Deaf), there was a lot of imagining on my part—trying to understand a little of Macy’s challenges, of what it might feel like to be left out of communication, of how the communication barriers and attitudes of hearing people might affect Macy’s own attitudes and her responses to the changes she’s facing.

As a writer, this was an interesting and somewhat daunting challenge. No amount of research and imagining would ever be enough for me to truly see the world from Macy’s perspective. But she was the character who presented herself to me, and I set out to portray her as best I could. One simple yet significant consideration was word choice. Word choices and descriptions are always important, of course, but I had to take great care to be true to Macy’s POV in the words and descriptions I used. (For instance, choosing visual and tactile sensory details, rather than auditory.)

Iris, Macy’s elderly neighbor, needed a voice too, to share her stories with Macy. Most dialogue in the book is sign language, but Iris doesn’t sign, so we get to know her voice through notes the same way Macy does—bits of conversation scrawled on a notepad so she and Macy can communicate. There are also times when Iris and Macy share longer, hand-written stories, and for these I chose formal poetic structures to set them apart from the notes and from Macy’s narrative.

Shari Green is the author of two verse novels for children, ROOT BEER CANDY AND OTHER MIRACLES and the forthcoming MACY McMILLAN AND THE RAINBOW GODDESS, a 2017 Junior Library Guild Selection. She lives on Vancouver Island, BC, Canada, with her husband, kids, and the worst watchdog ever. Visit her online at www.sharigreen.com.

My series of National Poetry Month interviews with verse novelists continues next week with Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu.

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.

It’s Poetry Friday! This week’s host is Doraine Bennett. You’ll find links to lots of poetry posts to love at her blog, Dori Reads.