by Laura Shovan

NPM 2017: 5 Questions (+1) for the Verse Novelist, Featuring Tamera Will Wissinger

It’s the last week of National Poetry Month. I’ve got three more author interviews lined up for us. They’re part of my NPM17 series on verse novelists.

I met Tamera Will Wissinger last year, at the 2016 ALA conference. We were both in the audience–and both of us were totally fangirling–when Marilyn Singer’s  hosted a wonderful reading by kidlit poets.

I’m a big fan of Tamera’s debut novel-in-verse, Gone Fishing. And I’m thrilled to welcome her to my blog today.

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

Gone Camping is a companion book to my first verse novel, Gone Fishing. I enjoyed that process of poetry story telling so much that I decided to try again. For me it was trickier writing a follow up than the original. The story line, setting, and characters needed to be familiar but not the same – a delicate balance. The poetry aspect was actually easier than getting the story line just right. Since forms are fixed, it’s a matter of selecting those styles that best help tell the story.

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?

There are actually two central events – the setting and plotline are built around a camping trip, and there is also an emotional arc of one of the character’s fear of staying overnight in the tent. Incorporating poetry elements seemed like a natural way to echo the fears that Lucy has from early in the story. I like to use repetitions, refrains, and strong rhythm and end rhyme to drive home those fears, and how Lucy overcomes her fears. One example is in a poem called “To Noises in the Night”. In it Lucy talks directly to Spookiness, Shadows, and Strange Noises, which is personification. Since the whole poem is done in this way it’s a poem of address. I also threw in anaphora, the repetition of a phrase, because it echoes a chant from a favorite story from my childhood. (More on that below.)

TO NOISES IN THE NIGHT 

Poem of Address

Spookiness, Shadows, Strange Noises: Beware.
I’m not so little or easy to scare.

Spookiness, Shadows, Strange Noises: Behave.
I am ferocious: I’m Lucy the Brave.

My shield is this pillow, my sword – this flashlight.
Spookiness, Shadows, Strange Noises: GOODNIGHT.

Illustrations by Matthew Cordell.

 

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?

Yes. I have a full prose novel that I’m rewriting as a verse novel. The topic is sort of heavy for young readers and the prose also felt heavy, so I’m hoping that the switch will give it balance. It’s more free verse than I usually use, so it’s very liberating to give it a try.

I see a similarity between the poems in novels-in-verse and dramatic monologues. Each poem in a verse novel has a character communicating his or her emotions and observations. There is often a realization or shift in thinking that happens in both monologues and in a verse novel’s poems. What do you think about the overlap between a speech for the stage and a poem in a verse novel?

It’s interesting and not something I had thought of before, but I like it and think it makes sense. I have tended to think about musical theater – a sister to dramatic monologues – for my inspiration. If you look at the sample poem above, there is a link to a certain L. Frank Baum-based musical film chant from the 1930s involving Lions and Tigers and…(oh my!)

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?

Yes! I would love to see the form expand to any genre that authors and readers may be interested in writing and reading. It’s probably not that simple, though. Since prose is the standard storytelling format and other forms such as poetry or epistolary add a literary constraint beyond sentences, paragraphs and chapters, it’s not something that everyone is interested in writing. Also, fantasy and sci-fi have the world building aspect which is another constraint that is more integral to the story for those particular genres, than a format choice. If someone does take on all those challenges, though, I will eagerly read it and I bet there are many others who will, too.

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?

Ooh, this is fun! I would choose Samuel Taylor Coleridge because he has a strong grasp of poetic storytelling and he also understands poetic forms: “What is an Epigram? A dwarfish whole, / It’s body brevity, and wit its soul.” I would guess it might be a ballad of some sort, maybe about something or someone at sea, with a boat, maybe fish…

Thank you for including me in your National Poetry Month verse novelist feature, Laura. What fun!

Thank you, Tamera. It was fun to catch up with you!

Tamera Will Wissinger writes poetry and stories for children. She earned her B.A. degree in English from Sioux Falls College (now the University of Sioux Falls, and her M.F.A. degree in Writing from Hamline University. She is the author of GONE FISHING: A Novel in Verse, GONE CAMPING: A Novel in Verse, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers) THIS OLD BAND and THERE WAS AN OLD LADY WHO GOBBLED A SKINK (Sky Pony Press).

My series of National Poetry Month interviews with verse novelists continues on Thursday with Amanda Rawson-Hill, who will tell us about her debut verse novel!

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 (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

4/27 Debut novelist Amanda Rawson-Hill

4/30 Holly Thompson, FALLING INTO THE DRAGON’S MOUTH

NPM 2017: 5 Questions for the Verse Novelist, Featuring Margarita Engle

It’s the last week of National Poetry Month. I’ve got four great author interviews lined up for us. They’re part of my NPM17 series on verse novelists.

The community of authors who write novels-in-verse for children and teens is a small, supportive one. One of the widely published verse novelists who gives tireless support to newer authors is Margarita Engle.

I’ve been a fan of Margarita’s historical verse novels for many years and we’ve done several interviews together. (We talked about SILVER PEOPLE at my old blog.) I was thrilled when Margarita wrote a blurb for my own debut verse novel.

Welcome, Margarita.

Tell us about your verse novels publishing in 2017. What is it about the stories and characters that led you to write these books as poetry?

My newest verse novel is Morning Star Horse/El caballo Lucero (HBE Publishers), which will soon be followed by Forest World (Atheneum).  Both are middle grade. The first is historical magical realism, while the second takes place in Cuba in 2015, a time of change. I wrote both in verse simply because poetry makes me happy.  For years, I have struggled to pinpoint the source of my preference for verse novels, and in the end, I realized that it is not a complicated decision.  I choose poetry for the sheer beauty and comfort of rhythmic language. Even when I write about a sad topic, I can feel happy if the vessel for my sorrow is verse.

Why do you think verse pairs so well with historical narratives?

I realized long ago that poetry allows me to distill complex historical situations down to their emotional essence. What did it feel like to live in a particular time and place? Most of my verse novels have been historical, and most have been about Cuba, but Morning Star Horse/El caballo Lucero actually follows a young refugee girl from the island to an unusual school in San Diego, California, where Spanish American War orphans became known as the Raja Yoga Cuban Kids. By using first person and present tense, I hope to offer young readers a sort of time travel experience, eliminating the distance found in academic history books.

Morning Star Horse is published by an innovative small press which has made it available in a choice of English, Spanish, or bilingual editions.

Forest World is an environmental-themed verse novel about the reunion of estranged siblings in rural Cuba, during the summer of 2015.  The boy grew up in Miami, and doesn’t even know he has a sister. Once they get to know each other, they end up having adventures, in an effort to save endangered species.

Forest World will initially be published in English in August, 2017, and will become available in Spanish the following year.

Have you ever written one of your verse novels in prose, only decide to switch?

For ten years, I struggled to write a traditional adult prose version of my first children’s verse novel, The Poet Slave of Cuba.  The clue that I needed to rethink the form came in the form of a knock on the head from my subject, Juan Francisco Manzano, who reached down from heaven to remind me that he was a poet, and needed his story told in poetry.  The clue that I needed to write about him for children instead of adults was the simple fact that only the first half of his autobiographical notes survived the era’s censorship.  In order to have his first person narrative as my primary source, I had to focus on his childhood and youth.

Many of your verse novels are written in more than one voice. How do you develop the vocabulary and the rhythm for each character? What methods did you use to differentiate the characters’ voices?

I often use many voices in young adult novels, but for middle grade ones I tend to limit the text to one or two voices.

Morning Star Horse/El caballo Lucero alternates between the free verse voice of a girl and the prose poem voice of a magical horse.

Forest World alternates between the free verse voices of two siblings. Because one grew up in the U.S. and the other in Cuba, their experiences are extremely different. The life style of the boy will be more familiar to American readers.  His sister has grown up without WiFi, a cell phone, dependable transportation, electricity, or adequate food rations, but she knows a lot more about nature, wilderness, agriculture, and art.

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? 

Writing Morning Star Horse/El caballo Lucero was a wonderful experience that allowed me to return to my magical realistic Latin American roots.  When I was writing for adults in the 1990s, magic realism was at the heart of every story.  Of course, in Spanish it’s a much more beautiful term, lo real maravilloso, marvelous reality.  Gabriel García Márquez described it as Caribbean reality, because strange things happen during the daily lives of people who live in places that seem to be lost in time, with a natural blend of modern life, traditions, superstitions, and legends.

In Forest World, only the Cuban sister understands magical realism, and uses it in her art.  Her American brother has grown up with so many technological distractions that his view of the term magic would lean toward the dragons and trolls of video games, rather than the marvelous aspects of culture and nature.

Thanks for joining my National Poetry Month project, Margarita! 

Margarita Engle is the Cuban-American author of verse novels such as The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor winner, and The Lightning Dreamer, a PEN USA Award winner.  Her verse memoir, Enchanted Air, received the Pura Belpré Award, Golden Kite Award, Walter Dean Myers Honor, and Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, among others.  Margarita’s books have received multiple Pura Belpré, Américas, International Latino, and Jane Addams Awards and Honors, the Claudia Lewis Poetry Award, and an International Reading Association Award.  Her picture book, Drum Dream Girl, received the Charlotte Zolotow Award.

Margarita’s 2017 verse novels are Forest World and Morning Star Horse/El caballo Lucero.  Her 2017 picture books are Bravo!, All the Way to Havana, and Miguel’s Brave Knight.  She lives in central California, where she enjoys helping her husband train his wilderness search and rescue dog. You can find her at www.margaritaengle.com

My series of National Poetry Month interviews with verse novelists continues tomorrow with Tamera Will Wissinger.  

And we’ve added a bonus interview! Holly Thompson will be here on April 30 to wrap up the series. 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 (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

4/25 Tamera Will Wissinger, GONE CAMPING

4/27 Debut novelist Amanda Rawson-Hill

4/30 Holly Thompson, FALLING INTO THE DRAGON’S MOUTH

NPM 2017: 5 Questions for the Verse Novelist, Featuring Ellie Terry

Happy Poetry Friday! I’m excited about today’s interview.

A few years ago, my PitchWars mentor, Joy McCullough-Carranza, was working with a new mentee on another middle grade novel-in-verse. Joy asked me to read the manuscript and share some feedback.

This story has two happy endings! The manuscript Joy sent me became Ellie Terry’s debut novel, FORGET ME NOT. And then Joy sold her own young adult verse-novel, BLOOD/WATER/PAINT which will be out in 2018.

Congratulations on your debut, Ellie! Tell us about FORGET ME NOT. What is it about the story and characters that led you to write the book as poetry?

FORGET ME NOT was released last month from Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan. It is the story of a girl named Calliope June who is desperate to hide her Tourette syndrome from her new school, while trying to convince her mother not to move them yet again, especially after she makes friends with Jinsong, the boy next door, who also happens to be the school’s popular student body president. It is told in two points of view. The MC, Calli’s, POV is in free verse and her neighbor Jinsong’s POV is in regular prose.

I did not set out to write the novel in (mostly) poetry. When I first began drafting Calli’s story, I heard her voice a certain way and I typed it into the computer that same way. When I looked it over, I realized I was writing a verse novel. Although I’d had plenty of experience writing free verse poetry, the thought of combining poetry with an actual PLOT really scared me. I’d never done it before. But I knew it was the way the story needed to be written.

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?

Yes! Both with my debut novel and a manuscript I am currently working on. With FORGET ME NOT, both Calli and Jinsong’s POV were originally in verse. But in order to differentiate between the two voices, I switched Jinsong’s to regular prose. (And I’m REALLY glad I did. His voice really came alive after that switch!) Besides wanting to differentiate between the two voices, Jinsong’s voice in verse felt . . . forced somehow. Stilted, perhaps? Whereas if felt completely natural for Calli.

The all-verse draft was the version I read. I’m excited to see what you did with Jinsong’s voice.

As a first time verse novelist, how was the experience different from writing prose fiction? What draws you to poetry as the backbone of how you tell a story?

My experience writing the verse for FORGET ME NOT felt like a very natural extension of how I feel and think inside my own heart and head. And having been writing poetry nearly all my life, it felt very natural for me and therefor seemed to flow from my fingers a bit easier than writing in prose. In fact, sometimes when I’m having trouble getting feelings out with my prose, I write it in verse first, then switch it over.

I see a similarity between the poems in novels-in-verse and dramatic monologues. Each poem in a verse novel has a character communicating his or her emotions and observations. There is often a realization or shift in thinking that happens in both monologues and in a verse novel’s poems. What do you think about the overlap between a speech for the stage and a poem in a verse novel?

I think the purpose of poetry is twofold:

  1. To be seen on the page
  2. To be spoken out loud

Really, you need to do both to get the full experience of a poem. If I may quote the first two lines of a poem I wrote when I was twelve . . . It’s titled, POEMS (really original, huh?) “Poems are meant to be read aloud / over and over again to a crowd.”

Also, as my children and husband will attest, I regularly read my verse out loud over and over again, to test the flow of words and catch bumpy syntax, to make sure the lines are conveying the emotions correctly, and to just enjoy hearing the words spoken aloud. So, I definitely see dramatic monologues and free verse poems as being related. Something like cousins, I imagine.

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 think verse novels in general seem to be more character driven, rather than plot driven, so that may be one reason why verse lends itself more easily to contemporary and historical fiction. Lots of exploring of character feelings and such and less explosions and intricate conversations. However, I think it can work with fantasy and sci-fi, as long as the writing is good, it just may be slightly trickier to accomplish. I critiqued a friend’s fantasy verse novel a few years ago, and thought it worked very well. I personally would love to see a good fantasy or sci-fi verse novel published! (You hear that readers? Get your pens out and start writing!)

Thanks for being part of my National Poetry Month project, Ellie! 

Ellie Terry writes heartfelt contemporary fiction for middle-grade readers. Her middle-grade debut, FORGET ME NOT, was published March 14, 2017 by Feiwel & Friends, an imprint of Macmillan. She lives in southern Utah with her husband, three kids, two zebra finches, and a Russian desert tortoise.

My series of National Poetry Month interviews with verse novelists continues next week with Margarita Engle.  

And we’ve added a bonus interview! Holly Thompson will be here on April 30 to wrap up the series. 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 (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

4/24 Margarita Engle, MORNING STAR HORSE

4/25 Tamera Will Wissinger, GONE CAMPING

4/27 Debut novelist Amanda Rawson-Hill

4/30 Holly Thompson, FALLING INTO THE DRAGON’S MOUTH

My dear friend Tabatha Yeatts-Lonske is hosting Poetry Friday this week. To find poetry posts from around the blogosphere, visit The Opposite of Indifference.

Writing Diverse Characters in The Last Fifth Grade

I recently recorded a podcast with my friend and neighbor Matthew Winner of All the Wonders. Matthew is a school librarian just a few miles up the road from me.

Although his children are much younger than mine, Matthew and I talked about how we value the culturally, ethnically, and socio-economically diverse schools here in Howard County, Maryland. For both of our families, it’s been a gift to be part of culturally rich schools, where diversity just is.

Matthew asked me, as others have, how I — as a white woman — was able to write about children of so many different backgrounds. In the podcast, we talk about my own experience growing up in a multicultural (and interfaith, though I don’t mention that in the interview) family and being a first generation American. The feeling of unease, of being split between two cultures and countries, was my own point of connection with many of the characters in FIFTH GRADE.

As my critique partner Timanda Wertz says, “We don’t live each other’s specific experiences, which is where the research comes in, but we all have points of connection and shared human/ developmental experiences.”

One of the goals for the poetry collection that became the verse novel THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY was to make it feel like a real Howard County public school. For a long time, I’ve been planning to write a series of posts about the research I did and the help I received from our local community in creating Ms. Hill’s students.

Meet Rajesh Rao: Captain of Patrols, 5th Grader, (Reluctant) Poet

I’ve already written about a few of the characters, including Brianna Holmes, whose family is temporarily housed in a motel. Here is my interview with Kim McCauley, who works with homeless families in our county schools.

And in this guest post at Latinxs in Kidlit, I spoke with poet and translator Patricia Bejarano Fisher, who worked with me on Gaby Vargas’ Spanish and English poems.

Today, I’m going to focus on Rajesh Rao.

Points of connection: There’s a lot of my own childhood in Raj. He is the eldest, with three younger sisters. As a big sister to two wild younger brothers, I feel his frustration at always being in charge. Like him, I was the most academically-focused kid in my family, so parental expectations were high.

The first poem I wrote for Raj was “Raj’s Rant,” a sonnet about how he wants to break out of his Responsible Raj image. Originally, the poem (p. 162 in the hardcover) opened with these two quatrains:

My sisters Shreya, Priya, and Deepti
are wild and stubborn as a pack of mules.
They need−since they are all younger than me−
a brother who can make them follow rules.

Miss Hill chose me as Captain of Patrols.
I wear a badge and help kids cross the street.
It’s like I’m older brother to the world
when I tell students, “Hey! Slow down those feet.”

He’s tired of always being the responsible one. Oh, boy, can I relate!

In revisions, the focus shifted to show why Raj decides to rebel. I cut the first stanza, moved the second one up, and laid out his argument. Like many school-aged perfectionists, his breaking point is when Ms. Hill’s whole class gets yelled at, including the kids who weren’t at fault. That feels like an injustice to Raj. (Little known fact: Like Raj, I was co-captain of the safety patrols.)

Here are the first two stanzas of the poem, as published.

Ms. Hill picked me for Captain of Patrols.
I wear a badge and help kids cross the street.
It’s like I’m older brother to the world
when I tell students, “Hey! Slow down those feet.”

I’m always quiet when I ride the bus.
I get straight As. My homework’s never late.
But I got mad when Stiffler yelled at us
and told us that we might not graduate…

Research and help: My neighbor Shruti Thakur, whose daughter Shreya was a classmate and close friend of my daughter’s, was a huge help in creating Raj’s character.

When my children were in elementary school, I worked as a freelance features writer for our local edition of the Baltimore Sun, covering education, the arts, and community stories.

Several months before I began work on THE LAST FIFTH GRADE, Shruti suggested that I interview Chitra Kumar. Ms. Kumar was Shreya’s classical Indian dance instructor. I’d seen Shreya perform at school talent shows, but watching a Kathak teacher work with students was a new experience.

You’ll find my Baltimore Sun article about Chitra Kumar here.

With this background knowledge, and advice on details from Shruti, I wrote Raj’s second poem, “Talent Show.”

Talent Show
By Rajesh Rao

My whole family was sitting in the cafeteria.
Aunts, uncles, cousins, even my grandparents.
My three sisters were the first act.
When they came on stage
their ankle bells and costumes looked
too bright for our worn-out school.
The music started.
I’ve heard it a million times.
They are always practicing
classical Indian dance at home
and at their Kathak class.
My sisters moved their hands
as if they wanted everyone to come closer
and listen to the folk tale their dance tells.

I wanted to be in the talent show too.
I wanted to play piano for Mark’s band.
But my parents didn’t want me to spend
so much time at Jason’s house,
practicing rock music.
“Homework first,” Dad always tells me.
“It’s different for sons.”

What else went into this character? Wow. I gave Raj a lot of conflict to deal with. He’s feeling boxed in by how people view him, both at school and in his family. (I love using a strict poetic form like the sonnet when characters are feeling constrained by outside pressure.)

He’s also struggling to find his footing in the social dynamics of the classroom. As his friend Edgar pulls away, who will Raj connect with? This was the last layer I added for Raj’s character, finding a new friend and a way to stand up for himself.

Leave me a comment if you’d like more background stories on characters from THE LAST FIFTH GRADE. Any special requests?

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 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 (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

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

 

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!

NPM 2017: 5 Questions for the Verse Novelist, Featuring Leza Lowitz

Welcome back to my National Poetry Month, 2017, series of interview with verse novelists. I am spending this month learning more about the craft behind this form of writing with nine poet/novelists.

Leza Lowitz is the third author to take on my 5 Questions challenge. Leza is originally from California, but lives in Tokyo. Her novel UP FROM THE SEA is about the 2011 tsunami.

Blog readers, you know how much I love books about bi-cultural kids and their complicated families. UP FROM THE SEA is one of those books.

Leza, 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?

On March 11, 2011, a massive earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, wiping out villages on the main island’s coast. On that day, Kai, a half-Japanese teenager, loses nearly everyone and everything he cares about. When he’s offered a trip to New York to meet kids whose lives were changed by 9/11, Kai realizes he also has a chance to look for his estranged American father. Visiting Ground Zero on the tenth anniversary of 9-11, Kai learns that the only way to make something good come out of the disaster back home is to return and help rebuild his town. Up from the Sea is one boy’s story about loss, survival, and starting anew, based on real events in the U.S. and Japan. I felt that immediacy and power of verse best captured the emotional intensity and drama of Kai’s experience of being swept up in the tsunami and its aftermath. Plus, for reasons I explain below, verse was really the only option.

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?

Historical events can seem remote; news items that have happened at a remove of time and space.  The verse form is immediate, bringing the reader into the action. You’re there with the protagonist, time-traveling back to the event itself, experiencing it in real time as it unfolds. We get the “who, what, why, when, where and how” without the blah, blah, blah. The central event is stripped down to its essence.

REPORTERS COME CLOSER,

ask for a statement.
I tell them
to talk to Guts.
I tell them
to talk to the people
who donated
all the stuff
that made
our game possible.

I tell them
to talk to
the village women
and the fishermen
and Old Man Sato
and all the people
in the town
and all over the world
who cheered us on.

I say this team
is dedicated
to my mom
and grandparents
and to all the kids
who’ve lost someone they love
to a quake or a tsunami,
to hunger
or sickness
or war.

I say it’s dedicated
to our little coastal town
and to all the other towns
in the world
struck by disaster.
The ones that never
make the news.

WE LINE UP TO BOW

low to the field,
thanking the spectators,
thanking our town.
Arigatou gozaimasu!*
we shout in unison.

* Arigatou gozaimasu! Thank you very much.

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?

The March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan came to be known as 3-11. This natural disaster impacted Japan as much as the “man-made” disaster of 9-11 impacted the U.S. Both countries were instantly changed. My novel crosses cultures, using oceanic and water imagery, but the central metaphors are those dates themselves—9.11 and 3.11–just ordinary days when life changed forever. Another powerful image I used were trees that actually survived each disaster–an ancient pine tree in Japan and a pear tree at the World Trade Center. These were symbols of hope and resilience. I was also drawn to the true story of a soccer ball from 3-11 that washed up in the U.S. and was returned to the owner–a young boy in Japan. That ball became a powerful symbol of loss and renewal.  Finally, the tsunami area is famous for its Miyagi oysters. When dirt enters an oyster, it’s polished to become a pearl. This became a metaphor for the fact that challenges and difficulties can similarly give rise to beauty and appreciation.

As a first-time verse novelist, how was the experience different from writing prose fiction? What makes you return to poetry as the backbone of how you tell a story?

I did my master’s degree on the Dramatic Monologue form, but I never imagined I’d write a novel in verse. I was in Japan when the disaster struck, and experienced the 9.1 magnitude earthquake in Tokyo. Luckily, we were safe, but when I visited the tsunami-stricken region to volunteer, I met a boy who inspired me to write this novel to keep a light shining on the area, which is still struggling. Thousands of aftershocks rattled the country; some of them were earthquakes as large as 7.2 magnitude. Writing a conventional novel requires uninterrupted chunks of time and the ability to focus for long stretches. I didn’t have either! Every time a quake hit, I’d dive under the desk. But I managed to sit still long enough to write one poem at a time. The verse form arose from these circumstances.

Necessity is the mother of form, in your case. That must have been a harrowing time for everyone in Japan.

I see a similarity between the poems in novels-in-verse and dramatic monologues. Each poem in a verse novel has a character communicating his or her emotions and observations. There is often a realization or shift in thinking that happens in both monologues and in a verse novel’s poems. What do you think about the overlap between a speech for the stage and a poem in a verse novel?

Verse novels can have the same visceral impact as Dramatic Monologues. We don’t get stage directions, we get lights! camera! action! There’s no “fourth wall” as we experience what the protagonist is experiencing firsthand. It’s a powerful form for the writer and hopefully, for the reader as well.

Thanks for your insights into UP FROM THE SEA, Leza. I’m looking forward to your next book.

Leza Lowitz has published 20 books in many genres, including Up from the Sea (Crown Books for Young Readers), recipient of the 2014 SCBWI Work-In-Progress Honor for Multicultural Literature, Jet Black and the Ninja Wind, winner of the 2013 APALA Young Adult Literature Award, and Here Comes the Sun, her memoir on arriving at motherhood via two continents, two decades, and two thousand yoga poses.  Lowitz also runs a popular Tokyo yoga studio. Find her at www.lezalowitz.com and www.sunandmoon.jp.

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.

It’s National Poetry Month: Let’s Teach Poetry

Thanks to everyone who joined me at the Nerdy Book Club last night. What began as an idea to encourage people to teach poetry during National Poetry Month grew into a full-on event when my Nerdy friends invited me to post the live video on their Facebook page. Wow!

In case you missed it, I’ll try to embed the video at the bottom of this post.

As promised, here is a list of some of the books I recommended in the video. Plus a few extras. These are all poetry books, except where noted.

Find this deliciously creepy book at Indiebound.

Extending Your Onomatopoeia Lesson:

The Song Shoots Out of My Mouth: A Celebration of Music, Jaime Adoff
The Louds Move in!, Carolyn Crimi (non-poetry picture book)
Hip Hop Speaks to Children: A Celebration of Poetry with a Beat, ed. Nikki Giovanni
The Raven, illus. Ryan Price
Forest Has a Song, Amy Ludwig VanDerwater
When Louis Armstrong Taught Me Scat, Muriel Harris Weinstein

Also Mentioned:

Once Upon a Poem: Favorite Poems that Tell Stories (Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” is in this anthology)
Poe: Stories and Poems, adapted by graphic novelist Gareth Hinds
Love to Langston, Tony Medina
I and I Bob Marley, Tony Medina
Polka Bats and Octopus Slacks, by wordplay master Calef Brown
Mirror Mirror, Marilyn Singer
Echo Echo, Marilyn Singer

Books with Poetry Writing Prompts:

The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary (you’ll find the sound riddle prompt that goes with last night’s lesson on page 240).
Gone Fishing, Tamera Will Wissinger
The Poetry Friday anthology series, Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong

What Else Was on My Shelf?:
Some of the books I use for my poetry residencies…

Falling Down the Page: A Book of List Poems, ed. Georgia Heard
Dreaming Up: A Celebration of Building, Christy Hale (great example of concrete poetry)
Sports Pages, Arnold Adoff
Love that Dog, Sharon Creech (verse novel)
Neighborhood Odes, Gary Soto
Poetry Speaks Who I Am, ed. Elise Paschen (my favorite anthology for middle schoolers)

A Limited List of Other Favorite Poetry Books:
(I’ll come back and add a screen shot of my bookshelves later)

I Am the Dog, I Am the Cat, Donald Hall (great for teaching opposite poems)
A Bad Case of the Giggles, ed. Bruce Lansky

Additional Resources:

March 31 Poetry Friday round-up at The Poem Farm
Laura’s Shoe Odes Workshop at Woven Tale Press
Laura’s Persona Poem Workshop at Today’s Little Ditty
and … in case you need to make a case for poetry at your school, here is my Baltimore Sun op-ed piece, “Does poetry have a place in the Common Core?”

NPM 2017: 5 Questions for the Verse Novelist, Featuring Jeannine Atkins

Happy National Poetry Month, everyone!

Today, I’m kicking off my NPM 2017 series on verse novelists with my friend, poet and author Jeannine Atkins. In addition to answering five questions about their work, I’ve asked each author to share a photograph of a poem from her book, so we can get a peek at how the poems look on the page.

Jeannine, tell us about your most recent verse novel.

I’ve long been intrigued by the women artists working quietly but fiercely in the mid-1800s. Edmonia Lewis’s grand marble sculptures were famous during her time, but she essentially vanished until feminist and African American art historians brought the work back to light in the 1970s. I read all I could find about Edmonia Lewis, but she wasn’t much of a talker or writer, so most of what’s known came secondhand or from material written for marketing her work. The gaps frustrate biographers, but make her a good subject for poetry. I had some facts and chronology, but I was missing a personal voice, which I imagined for STONE MIRRORS: THE SCULPTURE AND SILENCE OF EDMONIA LEWIS.

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 STONE MIRRORS first as prose, sent it around, had it rejected, and put it away for years. But the story stuck with me, and when I took the manuscript out again it felt a bit weighty – as If made of stone, while I was interested in what can be found in what’s chipped away. Her story rings with themes of memory and disappearing, which the white spaces of verse help suggest. The white space also frames and softens some of the violence in her history. Much of Edmonia’s life was spent choosing subjects for sculpture. Rather than just cite the names of her work, verse let me explore metaphors for her choices and come closer to her artistic sensibility.

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 agree – there is something about the lightness of verse that may invite more than a fact-filled tome. When I research using bulky histories, biographies, or memoirs– which I do treasure – I’m on the lookout for common nouns, references to everyday things like a green butterfly net, a bowl of blueberries, a checked tablecloth, or speckled notebook. More than epic arcs, small things help the past come alive for me and they’re what I use to shape my verse.

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?

Breaking stone is a metaphor throughout for the power to change what seems impossible to change: as a woman of African-Haitian and Ojibwe descent, Edmonia faced discrimination and attacks. Sculpture is an art of taking away, so reflects on the silences both demanded of Edmonia and silences she chose. In the following poem I show ways that her work as a housekeeper reflects the theme of visibility.

“The Art of Disappearance” from STONE MIRRORS.

 

From “The Art of Disappearance”

Edmonia fetches clothes to be mended
from brick houses with little land between.
She carries baskets past ladies who are tight-belted,
buckled, buttoned, their necks straight below hats
burdened with flowers cut from cloth
and feather taken from birds they can’t name.
Boys toss balls. Girls run behind sticks and hoops.
Boston’s curving streets aren’t courtrooms.
Here Edmonia doesn’t have to shove past staring,
but her story still follows her like a fox…

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?

So interesting — we’ve talked about this omission in the class I teach about verse novels in the MFA program at Simmons. Some verse novels rely on imagery from myths and fairy tales, since images from those can suggest whole stories in just a few words. But many fantasies rely on world building and its bulk, while verse is all about compression. Fantasies are often about escaping reality into another world and may have fast-paced plots at the expense of careful wording and common images that may move into metaphors. But really there’s no reason why the forms can’t be combined. I’m with you, Laura. Before long, I bet we’ll be reading some fabulous verse fantasies!

Let’s hope so. Thanks for being part of this series, Jeannine.

Jeannine Atkins’s historical verse includes Stone Mirrors: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis, Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science (both Atheneum), and Borrowed Names: Poems about Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madam C. J. Walker, Marie Curie and Their Daughters (Holt). She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, cat, and dog. Her website is www.Jeannineatkins.com.

My series of interviews with verse novelists continues later this week with Caroline Starr Rose. Here is the full schedule of posts:

4/3 Jeannine Atkins, STONE MIRRORS: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis

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.