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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.

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 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.

5 Questions for the Author: Deborah Kalb

I’ve got a treat for history buffs on Laura’s Bookshelf today. Middle grade author Deborah Kalb is here to talk about her new novel, GEORGE WASHINGTON AND THE MAGIC HAT.

Here is the blurb from Goodreads:

Adventure, history, and the drama of school life intertwine in this engrossing tale of a fifth-grade boy struggling to find his place after his best friend abandons him. Find out what happens when Sam’s class takes a trip to Mt. Vernon, where he accidentally buys a bossy three-cornered hat that sweeps him off to the eighteenth century and a warm friendship with George and Martha Washington. As Sam travels back and forth between his present-day life and incredible adventures with George Washington, he learns about history, himself, and the nature of friendship and families.

Welcome to my bookshelf, Deborah! I was so glad when we connected about our middle grade books. Both novels mention Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home, and one of my protagonists in THE LAST FIFTH GRADE is named after George Washington. The first president is an important character in your book.

I’ve got a great poem to pair with your book, which appears at the bottom of this post. But first, let’s get to your five questions.

Laura: You live in an area that’s infused with history. How did you incorporate setting into the story of Sam and George Washington? What details did you draw from the modern-day Washington, DC area?

Deborah: I’ve lived in the D.C. area for most of my life, so it was very natural to incorporate a variety of nearby places — from an elementary school in Bethesda, to Mount Vernon, to Nationals Park—into the story. Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home, is in Northern Virginia, not that far away from Bethesda, after all, so it would make sense for Sam and his class to visit that historic site on a field trip—and then my imagination took over!

[My children visited Mount Vernon with their elementary schools too!]

I looked into George Washington-related artwork in the area, and a friend told me about the statue of George Washington at the National Cathedral, so I thought that would lend itself to an interesting scene. Many of the historical scenes in which Sam finds himself are not in the D.C. area but instead in New York and Pennsylvania, for example. I did some research on those areas to see how they might have appeared at the time.

Laura: Sam is dealing with a lot of disappointments: a changing friendship, losing the starring role in the class play. How does he grow and learn to cope with these things over the course of the story?

Deborah: Yes, Sam’s fifth-grade year is not starting off well. He and his former best friend, Andrew, are barely speaking—Andrew has joined a travel baseball team and is spending all his time with the kids on the team. And Sam, who generally gets the lead role in school plays, doesn’t get the starring role—as George Washington—in his class play this time; instead, the role goes to Oliver, a new kid in class whom Sam finds very annoying.

But his time-travel adventures with George Washington, courtesy of the magic tri-cornered hat, teach him a variety of lessons. Not to give too much away, but one of the most important involves friendship, and another involves the ability to believe in yourself.

Laura: The voice of the magic hat adds a lot of humor to the story. How did you go about creating a persona for the hat? Did you research any dialect or common phrases from George Washington’s time?

Deborah: The hat was such a fun character to create! I thought about various magic personalities in books I loved as a kid, including the Half Magic books by Edward Eager, which often featured curmudgeonly magical creatures, and the hat seemed to develop as I kept writing. I didn’t know exactly what its personality would be as I started.

I didn’t specifically research any dialect—I think a lifetime of reading classic novels and biographies gave me a sense of how the hat might sound—but I did read books that included some of George’s own writings, and I tried to make the hat—and also the George, Martha, and other 18th century characters—speak in a decidedly different way from Sam and his 21st century friends. I love to write dialogue, so I thoroughly enjoyed that part of the writing!

Laura: George Washington is the father of our country, but he was also a slave owner. Can you describe how you addressed that issue in the book?

Deborah: Yes, that’s an important question. I definitely wanted to address that issue in the book, and I thought a lot about the best way to do so. Sam is studying George Washington at school, and some of the scenes in the book featuring discussions in his class focus on the fact that many of the founders of this country were slave owners, and the terrible dichotomy between their owning other people and their advocating for freedom for the colonies.

I also have a scene in the book where Sam meets an 18th century African American boy about his own age, and that causes Sam to think about whether this child is a slave, and what his life would have been like. In addition, his former best friend, Andrew, is from a biracial family and that makes Sam ponder the issue in an even more personal way.

Laura: Will there be more titles in your “The President and Me” series? Which presidents would you most like to write about and why?

Deborah: Yes, this is the first one in a series, and I’m working on the second one, about John and Abigail Adams, now! For the time being, I’m proceeding in chronological order, and will see how it goes from there. Many kids have asked good questions, such as, “What will you do when you get to some boring presidents?” and, “What will you do when you get to a really bad president?” We shall see!

Of course, Abraham Lincoln would be amazing to write about because of his historic role during the Civil War and the fact that he’s up there in the pantheon of great presidents. His life story includes so many fascinating episodes. And I’d love to write about FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt, because of their leadership during the Great Depression and World War II. I hope to incorporate many of the First Ladies into the books as well, to recognize the important contribution of women throughout presidential history.

***

It’s Poetry Friday, so let’s find a great poem to pair with Deborah’s book. I know just the one. Check out this poem from DC area poet Justine Rowden’s book,  PAINT ME A POEM.

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Find out more about PAINT ME A POEM, featuring art from the National Gallery in Washington, DC.

Thank you for stopping by today, Deborah and George.

For more of this week’s best posts on poetry for children and adults, stop by The Logonauts. Katie is hosting Poetry Friday this week.