Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson


Photographs locomotion

There’s two of me and Lili.

We were little them, dressed up at Easter time

Big smiles-me with two front teeth missing

and my head shaved Easter clean.

Here’s Mama and Daddy dancing,

Mama’s blurry foot lifted up in the air.

Look how she’s laughing.

When I look at the picture I can hear it.

Here’s the four of us

Everybody smiling at the camera but

me. I’m looking away from it

frowning

Like I see something coming

that ain’t good.”

Lonnie’s parents died when he was seven, and now he and his sister live in different foster homes. He gets to see his sister, though, and his foster mom turns out to be a really nice lady, even if he was afraid of her at first.  Still, he longs for his life back before the fire that killed his mom and dad.  However, he’s learning a new way to cope.  Now Lonnie is eleven, and he’s learning about poetry in school.  His teacher says it helps people sort out their feelings.  He writes so many poems, the good kind of poems-those natural, thoughtful poems that feel like breathing-that it fills up a book.  Lonnie’s story.  You’ll love it even if you don’t love poetry, I promise.

Teachers will love the book’s natural fit for teaching forms of the poem: students will be introduced to the sonnet, haiku, and free verse as Lonnie learns them.  Students will love the book because it is a concise 100 pages, and of verse, at that: it’s an easy triumph for young readers who are exhausted by marathon reads. I love it because the poems are just right: accessible, full of concentrated emotion, and well-written.  I also love it because of Lonnie’s capacity for rejoicing in a world that hurt him badly.  If you’ve got a bit of time, I invite you to see what the world of an eleven-year-old poet in foster care looks like.

Happy reading!

Author’s website

Woodson, Jacqueline. Locomotion. New York: Speak, 2003. 100 pp. Ages 11-14.

If you liked this book, you’re in luck! There’s another, called Peace, Locomotion, and it looks great.  Actually, here is Jacqueline Woodson’s whole long list of books, just in case you’d like to see what other things she’s been up to.  If you are really into the poetry novels, try Make Lemonade.  I just reviewed the second one in the trilogy!

 

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True Believer by Virginia Euwer Wolff

True Believer“Well, my plan from before

looks so scrimpy now.

It looked so big when I was a littler girl.

It was I was going to go to college

and get a job, get out of here

and not live with garbage and stink on my street

and nasty criminals in the neighborhood,

shooting.”

LaVaughn is fifteen years old and lives with her mother in a dangerous, dilapidated apartment complex.  Sometimes gunshots wake them in the night, and shootings happen at her school, too.  LaVaughn’s got a plan, though: she knows the only way to a safer, happier life is her education.  However, her plan is really the only non-confusing thing in her life.  Her  best friends have changed, putting all their belief into a life that LaVaughn doesn’t want for herself. Her mother is dating a new man, all these years after her father died.  Also,  LaVaughn’s handsome neighbor Jody is back again, and she needs to sort out just how she feels about it all.

This novel is written in free verse, and you won’t believe it’s written by a grown-up.  Virginia Euwer Wolff portrays the uncertainty and anxiety of being a teenager with stream-of-consciousness poetry, which reads just like you are listening to LaVaughn’s thoughts.  Even though this is the second novel of a trilogy, the story is complete on its own and you won’t have any trouble following what is going on.  Now, there are several special things about this book.  First, I am often suspicious of stories like this, about inner-city teenagers trying to succeed against seemingly-insurmountable odds.  I find that stories like this often seem to gloss over the obstacles in place, and suggest that anything can be achieved through sheer willpower.  That seems unrealistic to me, and also didactic, as though it is telling us the magical formula for success, and implying that everyone who doesn’t succeed has simply not tried hard enough.  But LaVaughn’s story isn’t like this at all; it doesn’t talk down to you or minimize the oppressive situation.  Furthermore, Wolff’s portrayal of LaVaughn’s friends is compassionate, no matter what their situation.  Also great:  Jody.  I can’t spoil anything, but Jody’s situation and the way it is treated is really outstanding, and definitely National Book Award-worthy. You’ll love this one!

Happy Reading!

Wolff, Virginia Euwer. True Believer. Simon Pulse: New York, 2001.264 pp. Ages 14-18.

Author’s website: http://www.virginiaeuwerwolff.com

This book is the second in the Make Lemonade trilogy, though it is perfectly okay to read it on its own.  If you want to read the first one, it’s called Make LemonadeThe third one is This Full House.  If you’d like to read other stories about young people struggling to finish school against the odds, you will probably like Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok.  Home of the Brave is another verse novel, and is about a young refugee going to school in Minnesota, so while the plot is slightly different, the format is similar.

Love that Dog by Sharon Creech

“April 26

Sometimes

when you are trying

not to think about something

it keeps popping back

into your head.

You can’t help it

you think about it

and

think about it

and think about it

until your brain

feels like a squashed pea.”

Jack hates poetry.  He doesn’t want to read it, and he certainly doesn’t want to write it.  However, he is in the same situation as many children: you do not get to choose what you want to do in school.  And so, in a series of assigned poems over the course of a school year, Jack dutifully records his feelings.  In the beginning, they’re short and grumpy poems, like “I tried. Can’t do it. Brain’s empty” or “I don’t want to because boys don’t write poetry.  Girls do.” However, once he reads the poems of Walter Dean Myers, who is 1) not a girl and 2) not writing about roses and romance or wheelbarrows, Jack begins to feel differently.  He begins to write about the death of his beloved dog in poem form.  He even musters up the bravery, with his teacher’s encouragement, to ask Walter Dean Myers to visit his school.  Poems? They may not be so bad after all.

Does anyone remember the William Carlos Williams poem about the red wheelbarrow?

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

As a young child, that poem filled me with rage.  Really?! I thought. You’ve got to be kidding me. You know what? No.  So much does NOT depend on wheelbarrows.  Why am I reading this? I’ll admit it freely, friends.  Until someone taught me about symbolism and brevity and the distilled emotions of poetry, I had absolutely no patience or interest in it. (Now, I am a happy subscriber to the Poetry Foundation magazine and spend many hours reading poems-that’s the truth! I even became a literature major-there is hope for all you who do not yet love poetry!) Anyway, when Jack opens his book with a complaint about the wheelbarrow, I laughed out loud!  In an authentic voice, Jack manages to display his distaste for poetry, but creates some very moving poems while doing so.

The best part of this book is its intertextuality-a fancy word that means “references to other books”.  Not only does Jack chronicle his appreciation for the young adult superstar author, Walter Dean Myers, he also discusses several famous and important poems.  These poems are included in the back of the book, so you can read them, too. The book is like a bunch of arrows pointing to other great books and poets and authors, so it makes you want to read more!  This is an excellent way to introduce a poetry unit in the classroom because it acknowledges the common complaints against poetry, discusses why poetry is important (without preaching, friends, because you know that is really something I can’t bear in a book-kids smell that a mile away!), and then gives us some clues for new things to read.  Furthermore, anyone who has ever lost a pet will be moved by Jack’s poems about his dog.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.sharoncreech.com

Creech, Sharon. Love that Dog. HarperCollins: New York, 2001. 86 pp. Ages 8-12.

If you liked this book, and it made you crazy for poetry and now you want to read it all the time, like me, you might want to try the sequel to this book, called Hate that Cat.  Home of the Brave is a poem-story about a young Sudanese refugee settling in Minnesota, and Out of the Dust is the story of a young girl living in Oklahoma during the Great Depression.  And of course, everyone should read everything Walter Dean Myers has ever written!

Identical by Ellen Hopkins

“At ten it isn’t exactly

easy to separate

good touch

from bad

touch,

proper

love from

improper love,

doting daddy from perv.”

Kaeleigh and Raeanne are identical twins: beautiful, wealthy, well-dressed, living in a large house in a prestigious area.  Their father is a respected judge, and their mother is on her way to winning a seat in the Senate. Of course, (remember, this is an Ellen Hopkins book), nothing is as nice as it appears.  After a devastating accident when the twins were young, their father begins drinking, abusing prescription medication, and sexually abusing Kaeleigh.  Their mother spends more and more time on the campaign trail, feigning ignorance of the situation at home.  The girls try to compensate for the devastation in the family in various ways: Raeanne sleeps with guys to get drugs, using sex, drugs, and alcohol to medicate herself.  Kaeleigh binges and forces herself to vomit, and cuts herself in the shower.  Both girls despair of ever being whole again.

I can’t say much more, because I don’t want to give anything away.  The ending is surprising, and felt slightly contrived, but after problems with the scope and nature of Raeanne’s and Kaeleigh’s, that is understandable.   It’s hard to resolve such trauma in the space of a single story, and I don’t feel like the ending will be objectionable to younger readers.  Furthermore, I think Hopkins handles the emotional fallout of sexual abuse in a very realistic way, which makes up for the ending.

 This is a novel in unrhymed verse, and many of the poems are shaped to look like hearts, letters, and other designs.  However, it still reads quickly, and the arrangement doesn’t interfere with ease-of-reading.  That said, the topics do.  This book was so disturbing that I was compelled to finish it in the space of seven tense hours.  I just wanted to get through it, so that I could be free of it.  Compelling isn’t the half of it: once I started, I had to finish.

I know that Ellen Hopkins is a wildly popular author, and readers are constantly clamoring for more, and any book that makes young people want to read is a winner with me.  Yes, please! If you love books about tough stuff, this one may be for you.  Hopkins is undeniably a skilled writer, and her novels fill an important space in the YA lit world.  When we refuse to address certain topics, it creates a shroud of shame around them, which is why I applaud authors who don’t shy away from tricky subjects.  However, I would recommend this book only to very mature readers, due to the graphic content.  We’re talking incest, drugs, bulimia, self-injury, BDSM, alcoholism, and date rape.  This isn’t for the faint-hearted.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.ellenhopkins.com (Right now, it’s currently under construction, but you can look her up on Facebook, if you want!)

Hopkins, Ellen. Identical. New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2008. 565 pp. Ages 16 (a mature 16) and up.

Impulse by Ellen Hopkins

“Pray

you could somehow stop

the uncertainty, somehow

stop the loathing,

somehow stop the pain.

Act

on your impulse

swallow the bottle,

cut a little deeper,

put the gun to your chest.”

Before you panic about that quote, I’ll explain:  it’s a description of past events, even though in the excerpt I realized it can come off as an order.  Don’t worry! It’s not as bad as you think.

Well, it’s pretty bad.  The novel takes place in Aspen Springs, a psychiatric hospital for children and adolescents.  Vanessa, Connor, and Tony have all attempted suicide, and meet in the ward.  Vanessa has bipolar disorder, like her mother, and cuts herself when she cannot cope with her emotions.  Connor, even though he looks like the perfect, all-American star student, feels isolated in his own family, as though he were an object instead of a son.  And Tony has spiraled into the depths of despair after his mentor dies of AIDS.   In the hospital, the three begin the lengthy process of sorting through years of pain and fear, searching for the combination of medication and therapy that will help them emerge into the sunlight again.

The three main characters take turns relating their own experiences in the novel: the speaker is identified at the beginning of each chapter, or whenever the speaker changes.  Since the characters are all so fragile and desperately unhappy, it is (like Hopkins’ other works) a raw, harrowing novel.  I had to take frequent breaks when reading it.  The voices are so gripping that you feel them reach out of the book and suck you in.  I actually found it to be so intense as to be overwhelming.

That said, this is Ellen Hopkins.  That’s her style: she wields her words like a surgeon’s knife, slicing away at any extraneous padding in a story.  There’s no sugar-coating here, that’s for sure.  It’s an undeniably grueling read, but even as I was sickened and horrified about the experiences, feelings, and memories of the characters, there was a part of me that was able to stand back from the story and recognize the skill of the writer.

The three-voice-narrative was especially genius, I think.  Because of the emotionally intense, introspective nature of a person going through a life-threatening emotional crisis, a single narrator could telescope the story in on itself, and make the entire novel too centered around tortured ruminations of the sad mind.  But with three different characters telling the story, Hopkins anchors the story, and keeps it from being an unbroken personal manifesto of misery.

Oh, what can I say here?  The topics are rough: sexual abuse, drugs, self-injury, abortion, and suicide, all described in graphic, but poetic language.  However, Hopkins takes this dark side of the self and humanizes it, makes it understandable.  She also refuses to tie up the story with a neat “happily ever after” bow, too, which is something I really appreciate.  One gets the feeling that, to Hopkins, her audience is street-smart enough not to swallow a syrupy ending.  There’s this underlying feeling of respect for her readers: she speaks to them as though they were adults.  I think this one is definitely worth a read.  (And the ALA thinks so, too: this book is an ALA Best Book winner!)

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.ellenhopkins.com/

Hopkins, Ellen. Impulse.  New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2007. 666 pp.  Ages 16 and up.  And while your 16-year-old is reading it, stick around for the tough questions that may come up.

Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate

“’I’ll let you get settled’, Dave says,

But first I’ll give you some lessons…

Number one, he says,

always lock your door.

Ganwar, show Kek what a key looks like.’

In my old home,

my real home,

my father kept us safe.

We had no need for locks.

Kek is a refugee from Sudan.  He has been resettled from the refugee camp, and sent to live with his aunt and cousin in Minnesota.  In Sudan, he used to live with his parents and brother.  However, when the men with guns came, only his mother survived, and now she is missing.

It is certainly a big task to adjust to the new surroundings, and it is even more challenging when you miss your home country and you’re worried that you might never see your mother again.  But Kek is an optimist at heart, and he tries his best to keep his hopes (and those of his aunt and cousin) up.  For example, back in Sudan, cows were integral to life-very prized possessions.  In Minnesota, Kek passes a scrawny old cow ambling around a tumbledown farm, and somehow convinces the elderly woman there to let him help her care for her cow. That’s Kek for you:  naively charming; scarred from the traumas of his past, but not hardened.  You can sense the resilience of the very young in his voice.

The story is written in verse, but just like in the novel Sold, it really works well.  The sparse words capture Kek’s innocence, heartache, and hopeful moments with equal precision, and his voice feels both accurate and endearing.  The ending is also sweet, but not saccharine.  I enjoyed this book very much, and think it would be an excellent addition to the middle school classroom. For those of you familiar with the wildly popular Animorphs series of the nineties, this is written by the same author.  Here’s what she says about her book:

“In Kek’s story, I hope readers will see the neighbor child with a strange accent, the new kid in class from some faraway land, the child in odd clothes who doesn’t belong.  I hope they see themselves.”

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.katherineapplegate.com/

Applegate, Katherine.  Home of the Brave. New York: Feiwel and Friends, 2007.  249 pp.  Grades 6-8.

If you liked this book (and it was the poetry part that you enjoyed), Sold by Patricia McCormick is also written in verse.  However, it’s for an older crowd.  If you like the immigrant aspect, try Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan.