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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Novels in Verse: Two Out of Three Isn’t Bad

This week Rox514UQFha0qLanne and Sharon both introduced books for older readers with thoughtful arguments for why they should be considered possible Newbery contenders.  I’ll start this post on novels in verse with a title that falls clearly on the other side of the line for me.  David Elliott’s BULL is one of my favorite books of the year.  It’s a fresh, lively retelling of the story of the Minotaur.  Characters jumped off the pages, especially Poseidon, with distinct voices and forms for each.  It explored multiple themes, jumping nimbly from irreverence to drama and back again with effective and varied use of language and form.

In terms of the Newbery Manual’s questions to consider around age, I think you could make a case that there could be a “14-year-old for whom this book is suitable.”  And that it is “distinguished enough to be considered,” with some sense of “exactly what 14-year-olds would respond to it.”  You could…but I woulnd’t.  I believe this author is clearly writing for older teens and that this is not “a book for which children are an intended potential audience.” The tone, the voice, the language all seem to be aimed older, with no apparent efforts to soften or hold back in recognition of younger sensibilities.  I put it in my “Not-for-Newbery-but-I-sure-hope-it-wins-something” pile and move on.

Loving vs VirginiaLOVING VS. VIRGINIA Patricia Hruby Powell is subtitled “a documentary novel of the landmark civil rights case.”  It uses historical documents, quotations, and photographs to help tell the story of the events that led to the landmark Supreme Court ruling on interracial marriage in 1967. Most of the book, though, is devoted to free verse poems from the alternating points of view of Mildred and Richard.. The poems tell the story of how the two became friends, then romantically involved, married (but not legally in their home state), and finally, after years of legal challenges, married according to the state of Virginia.

I thought the interplay between poems and the other material was very effective.  The poems bring us right into the developing relationship.  These are interesting characters, in a distinct time and place, and they shine through as individuals that we’d want to know, even if they didn’t have the larger historical impact looming in their lives.  Slipping back and forth between their personal stories and the “documentary” words and events results in a powerful “interpretation of the theme,” showing how lives of individuals are impacted by society’s views and laws and how those individuals can help to change both.  About half of the book covers Mildred and Richard’s married life, and this could have reduced the appeal to children, but I don’t really think it does.  It’s the context of their adult lives and the issues that impacted them so heavily that are really central, and that’s what will keep some 12-14-year-olds engaged.  Not all, but that’s okay.  

long way downThe novel in verse form is a perfect fit for Jason Reynolds’ LONG WAY DOWN.  Once you’ve read it, it’s hard to imagine this story, most of which takes place during an elevator ride of about 60 seconds, being told any other way.  The brevity, the imagery, and the turns of phrase all serve the terse, tense story just perfectly.  There’s careful plotting in there too.  We learn things about Will’s brother and father, for example, before we know the details:  “…Shawn’s / dead. / So strange to say. / So sad. / But I guess / not surprising, / Which I guess / is even stranger, / and even sadder.”  

As Will struggles with the central decision of whether or not to avenge his brother’s death, the verse format kind of slows his thought process down, so we see the new insights as he reflects, remembers, and listens to the visitors in the elevator.  At the same time, the plot moves so quickly….if I had stopped to think about it I could have predicted that his father would be a visitor, followed of course by Shawn himself, but I wasn’t even thinking who was next because I was so much in Will’s head that I just sort of reacted along with him.  The ending doesn’t answer the question that Shawn’s been struggling with the whole time, and I think that works just fine (as does the similarly inconclusive conclusion to Reynolds’ PATINA:  I appreciate the way he trusts readers to think and wonder for themselves, without wrapping it all up for us).   Will is fifteen-years-old, but this book will be a great match for middle school age readers as well as high school.  Although it does include a word that I’m pretty sure hasn’t appeared in Newbery book to this point (“Them f—ers ain’t even / snatch it”); it shouldn’t be an issue, but that’s what I thought about “scrotum.”    

I rate all three of these books highly:  I would nominate LONG WAY DOWN, strongly consider LOVING VS. VIRGINIA, and pass on BULL for reasons noted above.  Among other novels in verse from this year, I thought WHEN MY SISTER STARTED KISSING by Helen Frost was strong, but not quite at the level of these.  I liked much of Kwame Alexander’s SOLO, but was put off by some plot elements; I didn’t think it distinguished enough to look hard at the age level issue.  And I hope to get to Margarita Engle’s FOREST WORLD soon.  

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Steven Engelfried About Steven Engelfried

Steven Engelfried is the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at sengelfried@yahoo.com.

Comments

  1. Sara Coffman says:

    I’m not sure why this post hasn’t gotten any comment attention, but I want to chime in since I just finished LOVING VS. VIRGINIA. It is well-conceived and executed, and like Steven, I think the “interplay between poems and the other material” works beautifully.

    Is it the most distinguished work of the year, however…. I’m not sure.

  2. Steven, would any time be given around the table to the inclusion of the “f-word” in LONG WAY DOWN? Would it specifically be talked about? You know, the decision to award or honor a book with the “f-word” in it could send shockwaves across libraries and schools around the country. So would there be any discussion about that?

    In my opinion, “displays respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations” and whether or not a kid can handle it or whether or not kids say the word anyway, are two entirely different things. I would assume, maybe incorrectly, that people who aren’t bothered by the inclusion of that word would argue that kids can handle it or that it’s part of the character’s voice or that it fits the story. That’s fine and dandy if we’re talking about LONG WAY DOWN as a piece of literature but it may be proof that the book is not Newbery Medal material. We have a 15 year old protagonist, violence and a gun, and a pretty serious curse word. I think one could successfully argue that the combination of those three things alone could make this book “ineligible” based on the definition of “children’s literature” in the Terms, Definitions, and Criteria and furthermore, based on the Expanded Definitions in the back of the manual.

    This has nothing to do with the overall merits of LONG WAY DOWN as a piece of literature. This has to do with its place in the conversation for a Newbery Medal.

  3. Steven Engelfried says:

    Yes, Mr. H, I wouldn’t be surprised if the word was talked about. I would guess the discussion would be centered around the individual committee members’ assessment of what the “understandings, abilities, and appreciations” of those 13-14 year-old readers includes. If I were advocating for its inclusion, I might argue that it fits this example from the Manual: “it is exceptionally fine for the narrow part of the range to which it appeals, even though it may be eligible for other awards outside this range.” That “narrow part of the range” being 13-14 year-olds, many of whom do know that word, won’t be shocked by it, and would be highly engaged by the the issues involving guns and violence. But I do think it would be a long shot.

    Whether the argument goes anywhere depends, really, on the 15 people around the table. They bring their own experiences and understandings to the table. Which may include a sense that the impact of the f-word is different in 2017 than it was decades ago. Or not. If I were arguing against the book, I don’t believe that saying: “it has the f-word, so: no.” is a convincing argument. Neither is “no Newbery has had this content before,” because “members should refer to the current terms, criteria, and definitions…, rather than to precedent or past winners in attempting to
    determine eligibility” (Manual). But discussing what the inclusion of the word, as well as the content and violence, means in the assessment of the “understandings, abilities, and appreciations,” seems like a worthwhile process.

    I have a feeling that it would be hard to convince enough members to support this book. But I would like to see it nominated, just to make sure that discussion happens.

  4. I haven’t read the other two yet, but I just finished Long Way Down and I think it’s definitely appropriate for junior highers. It does seem like it would make things less complicated if Newbery only went up to age 12 though!

  5. Leonard Kim says:

    “The novel in verse form is a perfect fit for Jason Reynolds’ LONG WAY DOWN. Once you’ve read it, it’s hard to imagine this story. . . being told any other way.”

    Steven, I finished this today, and I had exactly the opposite reaction. I felt strongly this should have been a play. Can you all picture that? I can vividly picture it being performed at high schools all across the country. Anyway, something staged would be my first choice, and that would cut out most of what I found dilutive, affected, and extraneous in this book (the anagrams did nothing for me). But I think even a prose novella would have been a better choice than verse. Is it even verse? Without the line breaks, it reads mostly like prose to me.

    I don’t personally have any age issue with this book.

  6. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    I’ve never been that interested in the “is it verse?” question. I like Virginia Euwer Wolff’s description of her “Make Lemonade” books: “I think of them as written in prose, but I do use stanzas….I wanted there to be ‘room’ – breathing opportunities to receive thought and have time to come out of them before starting again at the left margin.” That helps me to focus less on the technical poetry side of things and more on how the chosen form, whatever we call it, works for the reader.

    In LONG WAY DOWN, that “breathing room” is important. The line breaks pace the intense emotions, stopping and starting with brief images or insights. But I do see careful language choices, beyond the page breaks, used purposely and effectively. Here are a few examples I appreciated, from pages 59, 60, and 63:

    In “I Had Never Held a Gun” he compares the gun to a newborn.

    Never even
    touched one.

    Heavier than
    I expected,

    like holding
    a newborn

    Those first three couplets are statements, separated by a period, then a comma. I like the way we know he’s now holding the gun, though he doesn’t say so. We just get the detail of its weight. Then the pace accelerates in the second half.

    except I
    knew the

    cry would
    be much

    much much
    much louder.

    The last three couplets are more tied together, with no punctuation and the repeated “much” crossing over from the fifth to the sixth couplet. Those muches also set off the last word, which ties newborn and gun together a second time, adding noise level to the earlier weight comparison. And when you get to “louder” you have to jump back and in your mind ponder those two loud, but very different sounds.

    Then there’s a shift in pace and language use in the next poem: “A Noise from the Hallway”:

    My mother,
    stumbling to the bathroom,
    her sobs leading the way.

    The previous poem had Will imagining the sound of crying in relation to the gun. Now he’s actually hearing it. But this crying is in reaction to the shooting that’s happened, not the future one he’d been imagining. He’s not seeing any connection, I’m pretty sure, but readers might.

    Then it shifts back to Will in his room, and the pace speeds up:

    I quickly slapped
    the switch on the wall, dropping
    the room into darkness, dropping
    myself into bed, pushing
    the pistol under the pillow
    like a lost tooth.

    The alliteration of slapped/switch and pushing/pistol/pillow punctuate the move into action after contemplation and listening. So does the rhythm of dropping/dropping/pushing. The use of dropping in two different senses highlights both images: the room going dark, and the kid hopping into bed. He’s retreating, in this moment, back from the looming menace of the gun into the safety of his bed. The “lost tooth” simile equates the gun with something harmless and childlike, similar to the “newborn” in the earlier poem. It also gives us a tangible image of Will putting the gun under the pillow. Which helps a few pages later, in “But I Also Felt Guilty”:

    for waking up,
    for breathing in,

    for stretching,
    yawning, and
    reaching

    under
    the pillow.

    The “lost tooth” image from the earlier poem (or whatever we call it) conveyed a picture of Will putting the gun under the pillow, so here, when he’s feeling guilty for being alive when his brother’s not, then extends that guilt to the secret he’s keeping and the act he’s contemplating, that repetition of “under the pillow” is all that’s needed.

    So yes, I’m still very pleased with the format choice and believe the author uses it very effectively. I have a harder time visualizing it as a play. I’m not sure seeing the characters or the setting would add much, because I do like the way the words work . And also I don’t have that kind of imagination to picture the possibilities of a stage presentation. But if it comes to my town I’ll definitely try to see it.

  7. Thank you for that analysis of LONG WAY DOWN, Steven. I listened to the audio on the plane yesterday, and don’t recommend that venue for this book. I’m afraid it set me at too much distance. Seeing the stanza laid out in your post brings much more weight to the content.

    I partially through LOVING, and think I may set it aside. I feel I do know this story from other books and the movie and I’m not finding enough pull in this version to keep reading. I’m also questioning why I purchased it for my students. Not a lot there for them.

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