Try this sometime. Read a book, put it down, and then wait a couple months. Let the distinct memories of the title ebb away. Your first impressions are tamed. Your fervor (of either the positive or negative variety) softens a bit. This method of reviewing is a way of separating the wheat from the chaff. If a book sticks with you for a certain period of time, it must be worth remembering. "Reaching for Sun" is worth remembering. A very
gentle, warm, and welcoming book it feels like nothing so much as a gently scented bath. First time novelist Tracie Vaughn Zimmer tries her hand on a preliminary verse novel technique and, for the most part, pulls it off with aplomb. A title of the sweeter variety.
Josie loves so much. The woods behind her home. Her Gran and her mother. Nature itself. What she doesn’t love is having to attend special education classes for her cerebral palsy. She’s also not too fond of the fact that she doesn’t have a real friend to hang out with. That is, before she meets Jordan. The only son of a busy businessman, Jordan sees the extraordinary that resides within Josie. Yet before too long Josie’s life gets extremely difficult. Her mother’s making her attend classes at the clinic that she simply does not want to attend. She fights with Jordan and she starts skipping clinic only to have her Gran collapse ill at home. Life can be cruel and life can be beautiful and Josie sees equal parts of either side.
The verse novel still has to justify its own existence with every book that uses its style. When you pick up a work of fiction written in verse you have to ask yourself, "Would this title be stronger or weaker if it were just straight prose?" Zimmer’s advantage is that Josie lives a life that’s best suited for poetry. The very world around her sings. To hear her say, "I’m the wisteria vine growing up the arbor of this odd family, reaching for sun," would sound trite or forced if the book weren’t verse. Instead, it’s just lovely. This isn’t a case where the author wrote some sentences and then randomly chopped them up into lines. It’s a book that flows to its own internal rhythm.
This isn’t Zimmer’s first book either, you know. She wrote a poetry title called, Sketches From a Spy Tree so her poetry credentials are well and truly in order. As for those amongst you curious as to whether or not Josie’s cerebral palsy is treated with the proper amount of attention, Ms. Zimmer also happened to teach high school students with autism and middle school children with developmental and learning disabilities (as this title’s bookflap explains). I, personally, have never had any contact with anyone with cerebral palsy, so maybe I’m not the best person to judge. Still, if you wanted to find books on a disability that was treated with the utmost respect, I cannot see that Zimmer does anything but impress.
It doesn’t hurt things any that the language in "Reaching for Sun" is distinctly pleasurable too. The "poem" called "holiday buffet", for example, shows off the author’s low key style. "On Christmas Eve / we buy up the gala apples / with thumbprint bruises, / oranges, scaly and puckered, / even bananas spotted like / Granny’s hands." And when Josie meets Jordan for the first time the books says that her voice is like "new chalk". Later, Gran defends the raucous brightly colored energy of her home and says that though she sold most of her land she didn’t sell the family’s imagination. Be that as it may, Josie wonders of that imagination, "if we could bleach it – just a bit." And when Jordan comes out wearing his swim trunks, "his shoulders look like the nub / of new growth on a tree. / In my swimsuit I feel exposed – / a seedling in a late frost." Good stuff.
It has a first book feel to it, of course. That’s not necessarily a criticism. It’s just that sometimes you read a book and it offers you hints of greater things to come. "Reaching for Sun" does that. It’s not a flashy book. It won’t parade itself about demanding attention and respect. But the emotions in this title are raw, the characters real, and the situations interesting. A fine example of the verse novel and bound to be a book report favorite.
Notes on the Cover: Beautiful, sure, but aren’t we cheating a little bit here, Bloomsbury? It’s a striking image and I bet a whole heckuva lot of girls will clamor to pick it up. That said, Josie has a couple physical defects that this picture is gently obscuring. One of her shoulders, for example, is particularly high. Note that the shoulder in this picture is nearly cut out of the shot. Clever but a little sad. You can’t put a physically disabled girl on the cover of her own book? Guess not.