Just to drag out the Poetry discussion a little more before we return to some of our shortlist titles…let’s look at the difference in evaluating poetry collections versus novels in verse for the Newbery.
In a non-novel collection of poems, examples of previous Newbery winners show us that the bar is high for the level of craft of each individual poem, and the collection “adheres” in each poem’s relationship to the other. There is something that the reader gets from having these poems brought together that is more than the some of their parts, but that something is not necessarily what you get from a novel, in terms of plot, character, and arc. Look at A VISIT TO WILLIAM BLAKE’S INN, JOYFUL NOISE, DARK EMPEROR, GOOD MASTERS! SWEET LADIES! and CARVER: A LIFE IN POEMS for examples. Those last two, arguably, start to cross the line towards with narrative structure and characterization, CARVER the most…though I still put it in the “poetry collection” camp over “novels in verse.”
In “novels in verse,” the structure/individuality of single “poems” is not what’s at stake anymore…rather, the “verse” format is serving the structure of a novel. I think the term was coined to handle Viriginia Euwer Wolff’s groundbreaking MAKE LEMONADE. A few years after its publication, OUT OF THE DUST became the first Newbery novel in verse. Though the titles make this more clearly a set of narratively-strung “poems” than other verse novels like Wolff’s, it’s not the strength of each individual poem that makes this book distinguished; rather, what makes it stand out is the overall effect of the novel. This effect is carried through the poetic format: the character development and tangible setting standing out to me as masterfully conveyed through the verse. Margarita Engle’s THE SURRENDER TREE is the only other Newbery novel in verse we have as an example (I say tentatively: am I missing anything else?), and its structure and strengths are the same.
Interestingly, when I compare these two Newbery books to the wider field of novels in verse, I do see very clearly that the poetic craft of both are remarkably higher than in many other verse novels. If you read them aloud, you hear that the authors have close to mind the rhythm, mouth-feel, and sound of their lines. Their line and stanza breaks are deliberate and effective, and the impact of each individual poem thought through. In other verse novels….let’s take MAKE LEMONADE as an example of a good one of the “other” camp…this is not so much the case: though a vaguely “free-verse” format serves to set a rhythm to the voice, the rest of the author’s deliberations seem to be concentrated on the narrative arc, and episodic-novel structure.
So what about this year’s novel-in-verse contenders? INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN is cropping up once more in the “Getting Serious” comments, and I’ve admitted fully that I could see committee members coming together on this. But while I think that the voice and setting here are remarkably strong, I find the line-craft, and deliberateness of each piece, lacking. I found the frequently short lines unconvincing and sometimes jarring, and I often missed the reason for each episode’s place in the overall arc. Still, really, a lovely book, but I think the craft suffers.
On the other hand, I found the craft in EDDIE’S WAR to be ample and evident. The line breaks have a rhythm that conveys the voice, and the sound of each word and line adds to the effect. Here’s just a pair of examples chosen at random so you can see what I’m talking about in terms of the difference:
Eddie’s War p. 46
Big headlines, photos,
all over the page
like I’d heard on the radio:
Germans pushing into Poland,
warplanes, air attack,
troops invading, murdering,
killing people—even killing women,
This is absolutely not one of the best examples from EDDIE’S WAR. Yet compare the linebreaks to INSIDE OUT:
Mother could not believe
until Brother Quang says
the American government
gives sponsors money.
In my book, EDDIE’S WAR would be the more distinguished novel in verse than INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN, because the book is strong in “all elements pertinent to it”… i.e., the craft of the verse along with the craft of the novel. And while I’m not sure that either would quite reach my top ten, I do hope the committee is looking at both of them.