Friday, April 09, 2021

Poetry Tackles Tough Topics

I often have the opportunity to write short articles about poetry for young people for
BOOK LINKS magazine, a publication of the American Library Association
. It's always fun to explore various topics through the lens of poetry. For the April, 2021 issue, I invited a dozen poets to share the "back story" behind their latest poetry books or novels in verse-- all dealing with "tough" or challenging topics in the lives of young people. Here's a link to the piece online and here's the article in full.

Poetry Tackles Tough Topics

in ALA's BOOK LINKS magazine

A scan of the new novels in verse and poem picture books published in 2021 reveals many new #ownvoices writers and many tough topics that you might not expect from poets. Issues of bullying, sexual assault, trauma, anxiety, loss and grief, war and survival, hunger and starvation, racial violence and murder are all explored with powerful clarity and deep empathy.

Interior “Tough Topics”
Much of the new poetry this year deals with internal, emotional struggles in the context of relationships with friends, family, and community. Characters experience bullying, ostracism, and rejection, but grow in strength and find their voices as the poetry reveals their struggles and their journeys. Current examples include the novels in verse Unsettled by Reem Faruqi about a girl who moves from Pakistan to Peachtree City, Georgia and deals with multiple layers of bullying and Miles from Motown by Lisa Sukenic with a focus on the anxiety of a family missing a son serving in Vietnam and a girl whose lies are catching up with her. Five poets share their thoughts about their novels in verse dealing with these “tough topics” including Lisa Fipps (Starfish), Chris Baron (The Magical Imperfect), Mahogany L. Browne (Chlorine Sky), Safia Elhillo (Home Is Not a Country), and Linda Sue Park (The One Thing You’d Save).

In Lisa Fipps’ debut novel in verse, Starfish, the young protagonist is bullied about her weight and tries to go unnoticed by living by “Fat Girl Rules,” but gradually comes to accept and celebrate herself. Fipps shares the personal story behind the novel here:“I wrote Starfish because it’s the book I needed as a child. The merciless, relentless bullying because I was fat began when I was a toddler. It’s never stopped. I just have better coping mechanisms as an adult. People’s eyes have always scanned me from head to toe before fixating on my stomach. People point and laugh at me. When you’re fat, people say and do unspeakably cruel things to you. But it was my mother’s words about my weight that nearly destroyed me. They cut me to the core. I think she loved me and just wanted me to be okay. I thought no one else had ever been treated like I was being treated – and it was all happening because there was something seriously wrong with me. I had no one telling me there’s something seriously wrong with those who hurt others. Kids are fatter than ever. So, now’s the time for Starfish. The book’s message is clear: No matter what you weigh, you deserve to be treated like a human being with intrinsic value and worth.”

Bullying is also the focus of Chris Baron’s latest book The Magical Imperfect, when two outcasts develop a friendship and the young protagonist who is selectively mute befriends a peer known as the “Creature” due to her acute eczema. Chris writes: “The ideas for The Magical Imperfect are rooted deeply in my own experience: my Jewish grandparents who immigrated through Ellis Island, and my wife’s family who immigrated from the Philippines, and the challenges, both hidden and on the surface, that we have faced as a family.

Etan and Malia are outcasts and gentle souls in a diverse community of immigrants from a small town in Northern California. Together, the kids endure earthquakes, illness, and challenges beyond their control. They also discover the magic that helps them through it. My hope is that through their adventures, light will shine on the challenges that are often hidden: mental health, chronic illness like severe eczema, and intergenerational family relationships. Now more than ever, we need stories to inspire empathy and hope.”

Chlorine Sky
brings us a poignant story about the ending of a deep friendship and the questions it raises for a girl about relationships. Author Mahogany L. Browne reveals, “I began reading very early and could find so much sweet ease in stories but I rarely found a voice that grappled with the many intersections of growing up a tomboy, brown-skinned, youngest daughter of a single mother's household. Sure, I read about tomboys or Black girls who were suffering from the effects of colorism. I read about single parenting or the tales of a middle-class family. I even read about father's in prison and the impact of drugs on a young person. But those stories never existed in one place.

We are in a time where Black Girl Magic is proclaimed, celebrated, and chanted everywhere. We are also facing the reality that Black Lives Matter is a chant. That Black Trans Lives Matter is a chant. That Save our Girls is a chant. And these chants exist because there is still a structure (be it media or systemic oppressions) in place that reminds us: most of our names will only be remembered because of our untimely deaths or our ability to exceptionally survive the trauma. I didn't want this to only be about the wounds, but the many moments that grow us beautiful, despite the insistence of flattening our experiences and silencing our many tongues.”

Safia Elhillo’s novel in verse, Home Is Not a Country,
is a powerful exploration of the intersection of identity, culture, country, and family told by a girl beginning to discover her own strength. The author shares these insights: “My friendships have been the space where I’ve healed a lot of my relationship to identity, to belonging. So many of my questions and crises around identity were wrapped up in this idea of a country, needing one to claim. But a country is such an abstraction, such an invention, and I was basing my whole sense of who I was around this intangible thing. The nation-state doesn’t care about me. And my communities, my friendships, those are the spaces where I get to heal the ways I have been failed by larger constructs of nation and citizenship and allegiance. So, I actually don’t care anymore where I “belong” in the larger geopolitical sense, because I know who I belong to, who I am accountable to, who I feel allegiance to. And I wanted to honor those communities in this book, those small interpersonal spaces that feel like home when the larger questions about where home is feel so unanswerable.

The choice to write the story in verse ultimately comes down to my relationship to verse versus prose. I feel like I am never going to feel quite fluent in English, in that effortless way, and one of the pleasures of verse is that all of the ways in which I am questioning my own sense of fluency, I can lean into in verse and then it becomes part of the syntax of the poem. I feel less at the mercy of external measures of fluency and English, and instead feel the language get malleable in my hands, ready to bend to my will, to mutate in order to accommodate the things I need to say. I don’t feel bound by the rules of “proper” English, of “correct” grammar. In a poem, I get to invent my Englishes and handmake my grammars. And I wanted to be able to tell this story with all my tools around me.”

Newbery medalist Linda Sue Park wrote The One Thing You’d Save, a novel in verse built upon sijo poems in student voices contemplating their priorities during a class assignment that asks, “If your house were on fire, what one thing would you save?” Park explores the genesis for this work here: “I got the idea for this book maybe fifteen years ago. It came out of the writing process itself: When I’m developing a character, I always think about their STUFF—the actual physical objects that are important to them. I wondered if it would be possible to write some kind of story that focused on things, rather than people….

I’d also been wanting to write another collection of sijo (traditional Korean poetic form) ever since Tap Dancing on the Roof was published in 2007. So, I submitted a collection in 2012. Two rejections. I put it away, but every so often, I would get it out and revise. It was finally accepted in 2017, and then it took a while to find the right illustrator (Robert Sae-Heng, whose work was worth the wait!). The result was a publication date during a worldwide pandemic, when people have had to spend way more time at home than usual. And maybe some of us are getting a different perspective on our stuff: the things we surround ourselves with, how we find comfort, what we value. I was often frustrated by how long it took this book to come out…but sometimes things happen for a reason. And of course, it ended up being about people after all.”

External “Tough Topics”
Some of the forthcoming novels in verse tackle “tough topics” dealing with external pressures, crises, and global events. Here the context is wider with a look at a dystopian future, hunger and starvation, and war and refugees. One current example of a novel in verse that focuses on challenges from the outside world is Alone by Megan Freeman, a survival tale about a girl who finds herself alone in a small, deserted Colorado town. Others include D-39: A Robodog’s Journey by Irene Latham, Samira Surfs by Rukhsanna Guidroz, and Your Heart, My Sky by Margarita Engle who share their insights about the roots of their stories here.

First, Irene Latham conjures a future world with a corrupt government, a country at war, and no domestic animals in 
D-39: A Robodog’s Journey. When young heroine meets a robodog, they’re thrust into a journey for survival. Irene explains:“This book is a combination of many things—which feels appropriate as main character Klynt is quite a tinker-er, and enjoys working with small parts to restore old machines like typewriter, printing press, and robodog. I'm particularly attracted to what I call “writing on the edge”—which for me means writing from that place of sharpest emotion, like we experience in life-or-death, dire, or dystopian scenarios. Check the news feed today, this moment, and you're likely to find such scenarios right here in the United States. Also, I have something of an obsession with the Middle East—no doubt from the time I lived there as a child—so I follow news about the area's arts, culture, politics and war. The war in the book is loosely based on the Syrian Civil war, and I realize now that the book is in part an exploration of freedom—what freedom means, and why it's important to me. The robodog came to me in a dream, fully formed and nearly bzzflopped, begging for m-fuel, just as it first appears to Klynt in the book. I suspect the many times my siblings and I watched the Star Wars movies might have had something to do with it! All of this creates rich, intoxicating writing space for a poet, and I'm grateful for all this book has taught me about love, heroism and acceptance.”

In Samira Surfs, Samira and her family make a traumatic journey from their home in Burma to Bangladesh where Samira is inspired by the Bengali surfer girls. Rukhsanna Guidroz shares this backstory: “Several years ago, I read an article about a group of girls who surf in Bangladesh. They were breaking with cultural traditions, and this act of sheer bravery struck me. Among the surfers was a Rohingya girl. When I researched her ethnic background, I learned about the persecution, and targeted violence Rohingya have faced in Myanmar for decades. In 2017, approximately 742,000 Rohingya fled to neighboring Bangladesh in what many have called "genocide" attempts by the Myanmar military and police. After reading about their harrowing escape, I felt compelled to explore a story that shows a family rebuilding a life despite hardships. In Samira Surfs, 11-year-old Samira faces her fears, makes new friends, and discovers her voice. Surfing and sisterhood pave her way to peace and empowerment." 

In Your Heart, My Sky, Margarita Engle tackles a time of great starvation and food shortages in Cuba in the context of a poignant love story. She shares a bit of backstory here: “During trips to Cuba, I am always saddened by the way relatives still reminisce about the trauma of waking up to nothing but sugar water during the ‘90s. At the same time, I am encouraged by the way they persisted in the uniquely Cuban arts of inventando y resolviendo (inventing and resolving). El período especial (the special period) was a tragic era when I felt compelled to visit often, carrying suitcases filled with food. Some of my cousins fled on rafts. Others stayed and managed to survive. I had written about the hunger of the ‘90s while it was happening, but adult readers in the U.S. did not care about the suffering of islanders. A few years ago, I decided to try again, this time writing for young readers who will soon be voters, free to choose candidates who might dare to lift the six-decades-old trade embargo against Cuba, one of several complex factors that still contribute to food rationing, long lines, and desperate shortages. The pandemic has shown all of us that no one in any country is immune to disastrous economic events. Your Heart, My Sky is a love story, but it is also a cautionary tale. I hope it will be read with empathy and compassion.”

Trauma and “Tough Topics”
Several new novels in verse deal with very difficult issues of personal trauma and sexual assault, mental and physical abuse, drug addiction, death and loss, and murder and racial violence. For example, Muted by Tami Charles features an aspiring singer who experiences the dark side of the music industry, Me (Moth) by Amber McBride chronicles the after-story of a girl who has lost her family in an accident, and Fix by Albert J. Mann and High by Mary Sullivan both deal with the impact of drug addiction on families and friends. Four poets share their thoughts about writing novels in verse with trauma at the center including Joy McCullough (We Are the Ashes, We Are the Fire) and Alessandra Narváez Varela (Thirty Talks Weird Love), Joanne Rossmassler Fritz (Everywhere Blue), and Carole Boston Weatherford (Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre).

In We Are the Ashes, We Are the Fire, Joy McCullough juxtaposes a contemporary girl’s struggle to support her sister, a rape victim, with the fifteenth century figure, Marguerite de Bressieux. Joy reveals, “When I first learned about Marguerite de Bressieux, I was immediately intrigued by the questions around her. Was she truly a French noblewoman who trained herself as a knight to avenge the brutal siege on her family home? Or was she a legend created by a world that needed a story like that? I wanted to write Marguerite’s story in verse because verse allows me to strip away extraneous historical detail that can be distancing, allowing readers easier access to these stories that happened a long time ago but are still achingly relevant. It also allows me as the writer (and the reader!) to access the deep emotions of intense events without having to play out gruesome details. Because I wanted to examine the questions around Marguerite rather than pick a side, I created a contemporary character who could discover her and grapple with those questions as a way to get through her own trauma. That character’s point of view came out naturally in prose, which allowed me contrast and a more modern voice.”

In Thirty Talks Weird Love, by Alessandra Narváez Varela, an anxious, stressed-out Anamaria is growing up in Mexico is visited by her future self who tries to guide her. Varela writes: “One sleepless night, I started writing Thirty in my notebook, inspired by a recent journal entry in which I had wondered if telling a young-adult story would help recapture memories from my teenagehood. I worked as a high-school tutor for five years, and interacting with students made me feel like I had been “born old at heart,” as Anamaria (the main character) puts it, because at that age I only cared about school and seldom had fun. I have dealt with depression since I was a teenager, and attempted suicide when I was 17, but I never took the time to talk to anyone about this because my thinking was, “I’m OK. I can’t stop. I’m going places.”

It was not until my mid-twenties that I asked for help and started treatment. As a lecturer of creative writing at UTEP, I became more comfortable sharing my experiences with students as I encouraged them to write openly about their own challenges. My conversations with amazing high-school and college students led me to conceive of Thirty, a character who visits Anamaria from the future and says “you’re not alone.” The form emerged organically, shifting from prose into verse as I transcribed my original draft. It soon became obvious that Anamaria had to talk to the reader in verse because she’s a poet herself!”

Issues of anxiety, mental illness, and personal loss are at the forefront of Joanne Rossmassler Fritz’s new novel in verse, Everywhere Blue, as a family struggles with finding their missing son and brother. Joanne reveals: “I've dealt with anxiety for most of my life, so I knew I was ready to write about an anxious protagonist. Maddie started out very much like me (I played the oboe; I was the youngest of three siblings, I was a nervous kid who constantly worried about vomiting), but as I revised and revised (and revised some more!) she took on a life of her own. She became a real person to me, not just a character in a book. She needed some of her own characteristics, and that's where the research came in. This book began with one poem I wrote in 2013 (about oboe lessons and early darkness). As a teen, I lost all four of my grandparents within a few years, so those memories stayed with me for a long time. But I never experienced a missing person in my own life. Strum came to me soon after my son's childhood friend vanished in 2014 (and, sadly, to this day has never been found). I wanted some kind of closure for that family. So, I wrote hope into the situation." 

Carole Boston Weatherford
has brought many important events in African American history to life in her award-winning poem picture books. Her most recent, Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre, may be the most powerful and personal of all. Carole shares: “I wrote Unspeakable as a lamentation for Black Wall Street and a testament to the people who perished in, or survived, the massacre. The topic is personal for me. According to my family's lore, one relative was lynched--burned to death. Another had his store torched by a white merchant. I was also inspired by the late illustrator Tom Feelings, who gave me a sneak-peek at a work-in-progress on lynching. When I embarked on this project, the massacre's 2021 centennial had not dawned on me. What I did know is that hate crimes persist.”

All of these writers bring their own perspectives to these “tough topics” as writers do. But as poets, their use of poetry to tackle challenges of internal, emotional struggles, to expose external pressures and global crises, and to address issues of trauma, violence, and death is unique and powerful. Through lyrical language, well-crafted structures, and the mindfulness of white space, these poets invite the reader to brave these difficulties virtually and grow in their capacity to understand the pain of others with greater empathy.

1. Baron, Chris. 2021. The Magical Imperfect. New York: Feiwel & Friends.
2. Browne, Mahogany L. 2021. Chlorine Sky. New York: Crown.
3. Charles, Tami. 2021. Muted. New York: Scholastic.
4. Elhillo, Safia. 2021. Home is Not a Country. New York: PRH/Make Me a World.
5. Engle, Margarita. 2021. Your Heart, My Sky. New York: Atheneum.D
6. Faruqi, Reem. 2021. Unsettled. New York: HarperCollins.
7. Fipps. Lisa. 2021. The Starfish. New York: Penguin/Paulsen.
8. Freeman, Megan E. 2021. Alone. New York: Simon & Schuster/Aladdin.
9. Fritz, Joanne Rossmassler. 2021. Everywhere Blue. New York: Holiday House.
10. Guidroz, Rukhsanna. 2021. Samira Surfs. Ill. by Fahmida Azim. Kokila.
11. Latham, Irene. 2021. D-39: A Robodog’s Journey. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge.
12. Mann, J. Albert. 2021. Fix. New York: Little, Brown.
13. McBride, Amber. 2021. Me (Moth). New York: Feiwel & Friends.
14. McCullough, Joy. 2021. We Are the Ashes, We Are the Fire. New York: Penguin/Dutton.
15. Park, Linda Sue. 2021. The One Thing You’d Save. Ill. by Robert Sae-Heng. Boston: HMH/Clarion.
16. Sukenic, Lisa. 2021. Miles from Motown. Fitzroy Books.
17. Sullivan, Mary. 2021. High. Fitzroy Books/Regal House Publishing.
18. Varela, Alessandra Narváez. 2021. Thirty Talks Weird Love. El Paso, TX: Cinco Puntos Press.
19. Weatherford, Carole Boston. 2021. Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre. Ill. By Floyd Cooper. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner/Carolrhoda.

Now head on over to The Opposite of Indifference where Tabatha is hosting our Poetry Friday posts this week. See you there!


tanita✿davis said...

Oooh, tons of excellent offerings, a few I've not yet seen anywhere. Thank you for posting what you've written elsewhere! These are GREAT.

Jeannine Atkins said...

Very moving to hear the back stories about books I'm looking forward to reading this year. Thanking everyone for their good and honest hearts, their clear sight.

Ruth said...

Another winning list from the Queen of Lists! Thank you for all the great juicy titles to add to my list!

Linda B said...

I just finished 'Starfish', hoping it lands in many, many classrooms, so needed! I have several of the others & have read Unspeakable, too, a marvelous but heartbreaking story. I've bookmarked those I don't already have on the list, Sylvia. What a beautiful array of stories you've shared. Thank you!

Linda said...

I love STARFISH, such a sad but hopeful story! There are so many wonderful novels in verse being published on tough topics that kids (and adults) need right now. Thank you for introducing me to some titles I didn't know about.

Irene Latham said...

Wow, so many powerful stories being told in verse! I love the depth and breadth... thank you, Sylvia, for all. These authors are writing from deep places, and I'm so grateful. What a delight to see D-39 in such fine company. I've read a few of these and am excited to read the rest! xo

jama said...

Thanks so much for sharing your article here! WOW -- such a wealth of books with their backstories to read and savor. Definitely bookmarking this post. :)

Sylvia Vardell said...

Thanks, y'all. It's a pleasure to lift up these powerful stories in verse for more readers to discover. And I'm always so grateful to you poets for sharing your thoughts and back-stories with me.

Janice Scully said...

Thanks for this fabulous list! So many I would love to read.

Linda Mitchell said...

Such an important list. Thank you. So many topics that we school librarians deal with in our students.