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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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.

Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger

“Of course I knew.  It was the reason I was no longer comatose after an entire life of sleepwalking.  It seemed that, all of a sudden, Marisol was necessary to my existence, but of course, I didn’t mention that to her”

John’s parent’s divorced six years ago; his father left them for the high-flying bachelor life in the city.  John’s mother never touches him-not a hug, pat, or even accidentally, while passing the butter.  It has left John cold, sarcastic, and (even though he might not want to admit it) profoundly unhappy inside.

That is, until Marisol swoops into his life: a skinny, Puerto Rican lesbian, adopted by do-gooding WASPy parents.  They bond over their respective zines, which, for the uninitiated, are short, self-produced magazine publications.  They meet for coffee (which John learns to first tolerate, and then even like), and go to a concert.  The two talk for hours about feelings, parents, being different, and everything friends talk about.

However, things get complicated when John develops feelings for Marisol-those kind of feelings.  Even though Marisol is a lesbian, John falls for her, and can’t help but wishing there was more to their relationship.  The two have to navigate around their attachment, while at the same time, John is trying to renegotiate his relationship with his parents, and find who he really is.

This is a lovely, honest depiction of a growing friendship, especially when Wittlinger delves into John’s romantic attachment to Marisol.  It feels like this sort of situation happened to me at least five times when I was growing up, but it isn’t often that you see an author exploring those mixed-up love feelings.  These sections of the book really shine, and make it an award winner, I think.  She takes these miniatures of life, and examines them and works with them, and fills an entire book.  Fantastic, and not easy to do, I’d imagine.

Another great thing about the book is the references:  poetry, Ani DiFranco songs, inserts of various zines (art included), and the entire lyrics of the song that the book took its title from. It’s called Hard Love, by Bob Franke.  Here’s the Youtube link; I think you’ll like it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ejMPz5yOb0

All in all, this was a delightful book.  It reminisced on the awkwardness of the high school years, without dwelling on them.  And the relationships and characterization of John and Marisol are realistic and relatable.  I can see why it won some of the big awards: a YALSA Best Book, Lamda Literary Award, plus the prestigious Printz Honor nomination.  You don’t want to miss this one.  Even the dedication rocks:  “for everyone whose first love was a hard love.”  I can relate.

Happy Reading!

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

Wittlinger, Ellen. Hard Love. Simon & Schuster: New York, 1999. 224 pp.  Grades 9-11.

I know I usually recommend other books, but right now, I am still formulating my choices for this one: John reminds me so much of another character I’ve read, I just need to search my brain archives so I can tell you!

Crank by Ellen Hopkins

“Have you ever

had so much to say

that your mouth closed up tight,

struggling to harness the nuclear force

coalescing within your words?”

Here’s a change of pace from what I normally review.  This is Ellen Hopkins’ semi-autobiograhical account of a young woman’s descent into drug addiction, and all the usual accompanying miseries.  Kristina is a 16-year old high-schooler, a good student who has a fairly close relationship with her mother.  She spends three weeks over the summer visiting her father, where she gets involved with an older boy…and drugs.

Things go downhill from there, as Kristina struggles with a growing addiction, keeping up with school, and family fights as her mother and stepfather fear for her safety and health.  An unexpected pregnancy leaves her reeling with the implications of her lifestyle, and forces her to make some tough decisions.

This is a tough, gripping book.  The genius of it is that it is written entirely in verse.  Now, don’t think “dead white guy poetry…SNORE” when you hear verse.  That’s not this novel at all.  Ellen Hopkins uses the poetry to pack the most emotion possible into a single phrase, and arranges the words meticulously on the page, so that each poem can be read in several different ways.  I’ve never seen anything like it before.  Even though it’s technically poetry, the story holds you so tightly in its clutches that you don’t ever stop to consider that it’s in verse.  That said, it’s excellent poetry, and each single poem can stand on its own.  Another benefit, and the reason why it was chosen by the ALA as a Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers, is that the verse format speeds things along:  with a gripping story and few words, before you know it, you’ve finished a 500-page novel.  Awesome.

Happy Reading!

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

Hopkins, Ellen.  Crank. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004.  537 pp. Ages 15 and up (explicit drug use, sexual situations).

If you liked this book, Ellen Hopkins has two sequels, Fallout and Glass.  She’s a prolific writer, and you will probably enjoy all of her other books.  If the verse form wasn’t your thing, try the classic Go Ask Alice, written by an anonymous author.  (Do a title search, rather than an author search in your library’s website). Enjoy!

A note to parents:  I have heard some criticism of books discussing these tough topics, such as drug abuse or sex.  Some people are concerned that these types of books can glamorize the highs and overlook the consequences, but that doesn’t apply to this book.  For every poem Kristina shares about being high, there is another one describing the crushing lows, where she is physically ill from withdrawal and in the depths of depression.