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Someday My Printz Will Come
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Poisoned Apples

Poisoned Apples, Christine Heppermann
Greenwillow, October 2014
Reviewed from ARC

Gosh, it’s a good year for poetry, at least from a publishing perspective.

And unlike Nelson’s gorgeous memoir that I will be hard pressed to sell to actual real live teen readers, Poisoned Apples has appeal in spades.

This was a later addition to our list, thanks to buzz and three stars five stars, and I’m glad we didn’t miss it; it’s a small collection of woman-centric fairy-tale poems that recast the action in the schools and streets and bedrooms and bathrooms of today’s world. Sort of Anne Sexton lite, maybe — which, frankly, is pretty much everything wrong with this collection in a nutshell.

Then again, when I was in grad school and we had to create a core collection on a topic of our choosing, I chose fairy tales and retellings, so maybe it’s only me who feels been there, done that? Or does it even matter? Originality isn’t necessary, after all (although I’ve always believed that a fresh look is important, and that’s what I don’t see here.  And some of the poems are great pieces of writing and worth recognizing for their literary chops, separate from content; they’re unrhymed verse, with differing structures, most some form of free verse rather than anything more formal as far as I can tell (although the lack of rhyme scheme might have blinded me to some poetic constructs).

On the amazing side, let me share with you “Photoshopped Poem”, which manages to be funny and spare and full of social commentary; it’s also less fairy tale themed than most of the collection, although right on target with the secondary theme of eating disorders and the issues surrounding female body image and media representations of the female body:

Some say the Before poem
had character.
This poem is much more attractive.
With the Healing Brush Tool
I took out most of the lines.
I left in a few
so it wouldn’t look unnatural.

The subthemes come across heavily when the collection is read start to finish, especially the eating disorder part of it — there were some moments when the message shadowed the writing; some of that is also the fault of poem order, which is mostly but not always on target. Will the RealCommittee see the lack of subtlety as a flaw? Or is it that this is a collection better waded in and out of than gulped down in a single sitting?

If the writing is a pro, most of the time, and the overt (if sometimes uneven) messaging is a con, the tie breaker might be the design. I haven’t seen the final version yet, but even in advance copy the design is a stunner, from that gorgeously evocative cover to that prickly title font to the haunting photos. It’s a lot of design and it enhances the work significantly — the illustration on “BFF,” which is about the worst kind of toxic friendship, somehow made the Jack and Jill reference that I think the reader is meant to get (the narrator’s name is Jill) pop out in a way that the poem alone hadn’t done for me, and there’s an image (on a secondary title page just past the table of contents, preceding the bulk of the text) of a blindfolded girl eating apples hung from a tree that both stuck with me and played perfectly against all the images of starvation and food restriction as well as the Eve reference in “The First Anorexic,” which marries anorexia to punishment for Eve’s sin — a poem, I should mention, that I find uncomfortable and which I think belies some of the feminist underpinnings of the collection, but also one that has continued to haunt me. (I’ve embedded a clip below, courtesy of the Harper website, so you can get a sense of the design, including the photo in question, and even two of the poems — none of the ones I’ve discussed, though — in case you haven’t seen this one yet.)

Mostly, I am saying that I am conflicted. If I were at the table, I wouldn’t be pushing for this one — but I’d listen very closely if someone else did.

 

 

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About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.

Comments

  1. Glad to see you guys talking about this book! I must confess I know this author, so as much as I love PA, I can’t address prize potential. I did want to question one thing, however, and that’s the idea that the more overt pieces in the collection necessarily lessen the overall quality of the work (“Will the RealCommittee see the lack of subtlety as a flaw?”) I absolutely admire the lovely, ironic restraint of “Photoshopped Poem” as you do, but I wonder if subtlety is the only valid creative response to something so unsubtle as the rampant, toxic sexism that undoes so many young women. Does a more direct attack on sexism make this collection–or any book–less artful? Don’t the more forthright pieces offer a critique of the way women/girls are taught–perhaps even required–to show restraint rather than anger in our culture? And aren’t they then an essential part of the politics and the art of the entire work?

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      Good questions! The part that struck me as most overt was more the eating disorder elements, which masked some of the other issues being discussed. I don’t know what the RealCommittee will or will not see as a flaw, but for me there was a balance issue — some notes playing too loudly, drowning the harmony the text seemed to be aiming towards.

  2. Ah, okay. I took the ED poems as the point of the book and the funnier, more ironic poems as breathing room/rests. So interesting! Oh, to be a fly on the wall during deliberations…

  3. Karyn Silverman says:

    I love that moment of seeing a book new through someone else’s eyes. Your take gives me a different way to look at this.

    I also had a conversation via Twitter yesterday about the line between “new” and “new to me” — because there’s nothing new under the sun, right, but there’s that moment when a reader first stumbles on an idea and is blown away. The issue with adults determining YA awards is that we don’t always get it right in terms of what will be new to the readers. I liked Poisoned Apples, but it wasn’t new to me. If it had been, would I have read it differently? Probably. We all have context and baggage and acquired knowledge, which so deeply affects how we read a text. And all we can do to bypass all of that is listen to each other.

    Now that I sound like an inspirational poster (complete with kitten with head cocked to the side), I’ll shut up.

  4. Photoshopped Poem was my favorite in the collection too.

    I like your metaphor of a harmony, but some notes playing too loudly. It’s interesting, because I wanted to make a point by looking at the actual numbers of poems, and then had found the opposite. There are 50 poems in the collection. Six of them I found to be explicitly referencing eating disorders and another 12 or so (give or take a few, since this was simply my own interpretation) were focused squarely on body image. That means more than half of the poems didn’t delve into the topic, which surprised me. My first impression was that the majority of the poems were about body image/eating disorders. I’m not sure that means, but I will put it out there.

  5. Brenda Martin says:

    Unfortunately the final version has some definite design issues. Some bad white type on black background decisions, and while many of the photographs are well-chosen, some others are amateurish. The paper is cheap which doesn’t help. I agree with all of the above wrt the poems themselves.

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