Pieces of Poetry

For poetry month I started looking for books to highlight. What I realized is that there haven’t been many young adult poetry books in my life lately. There have been a few books containing some poetry though. Here are some of my favorite novels with at least a little poetry woven into the story:

Gabi, a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero
[My Review]

Summary: Gabi Hernandez chronicles her last year in high school in her diary: college applications, Cindy’s pregnancy, Sebastian’s coming out, the cute boys, her father’s meth habit, and the food she craves. And best of all, the poetry that helps forge her identity.

July 24

My mother named me Gabriella, after my grandmother who, coincidentally, didn’t want to meet me when I was born because my mother was unmarried, and therefore living in sin. My mom has told me the story many, many, MANY, times of how, when she confessed to my grandmother that she was pregnant with me, her mother beat her. BEAT HER! She was twenty-five. That story is the basis of my sexual education and has reiterated why it’s important to wait until you’re married to give it up. So now, every time I go out with a guy, my mom says, “Ojos abiertos, piernas cerradas.” Eyes open, legs closed. That’s as far as the birds and the bees talk has gone. And I don’t mind it. I don’t necessarily agree with that whole wait until you’re married crap, though. I mean, this is America and the 21st century; not Mexico one hundred years ago. But, of course, I can’t tell my mom that because she will think I’m bad. Or worse: trying to be White.

Shame the Stars by Guadalupe García McCall
[My Review] [Interview with Guadalupe García McCall]

Summary: Eighteen-year-old Joaquín del Toro’s future looks bright. With his older brother in the priesthood, he’s set to inherit his family’s Texas ranch. He’s in love with Dulceña—and she’s in love with him. But it’s 1915, and trouble has been brewing along the US-Mexico border. On one side, the Mexican Revolution is taking hold; on the other, Texas Rangers fight Tejano insurgents, and ordinary citizens are caught in the middle.

As tensions grow, Joaquín is torn away from Dulceña, whose father’s critical reporting on the Rangers in the local newspaper has driven a wedge between their families. Joaquín’s own father insists that the Rangers are their friends, and refuses to take sides in the conflict. But when their family ranch becomes a target, Joaquín must decide how he will stand up for what’s right.

Shame the Stars is a rich re-imagining of Romeo and Juliet set in Texas during the explosive years of Mexico’s revolution. Filled with period detail, captivating romance, and political intrigue, it brings Shakespeare’s classic to life in an entirely new way.

Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson
[My Review]

Summary: Jade believes she must get out of her neighborhood if she’s ever going to succeed. Her mother says she has to take every opportunity. She has. She accepted a scholarship to a mostly-white private school and even Saturday morning test prep opportunities. But some opportunities feel more demeaning than helpful. Like an invitation to join Women to Women, a mentorship program for “at-risk” girls. Except really, it’s for black girls. From “bad” neighborhoods.

But Jade doesn’t need support. And just because her mentor is black doesn’t mean she understands Jade. And maybe there are some things Jade could show these successful women about the real world and finding ways to make a real difference.

Friendships, race, privilege, identity—this compelling and thoughtful story explores the issues young women face.


Some novels in verse are:

Cinnamon Girl by Juan Felipe Herrera

Summary: I want to see what is on the other side of the dust When the towers fall, New York City is blanketed by dust. On the Lower East Side, Yolanda, the Cinnamon Girl, makes her manda, her promise, to gather as much of it as she can. Maybe returning the dust to Ground Zero can comfort all the voices. Maybe it can help Uncle DJ open his eyes again. As tragedies from her past mix in the air of an unthinkable present, Yolanda searches for hope. Maybe it’s buried somewhere in the silvery dust of Alphabet City.

 

Booked by Kwame Alexander

Summary: Like lightning/you strike/fast and free/legs zoom/down field/eyes fixed/on the checkered ball/on the goal/ten yards to go/can’t nobody stop you/
can’t nobody cop you…

In this follow-up to the Newbery-winning novel The Crossover,  soccer, family, love, and friendship, take center stage as twelve-year-old Nick learns the power of words as he wrestles with problems at home, stands up to a bully, and tries to impress the girl of his dreams. Helping him along are his best friend and sometimes teammate Coby, and The Mac, a rapping librarian who gives Nick inspiring books to read.
This electric and heartfelt novel-in-verse by poet Kwame Alexander bends and breaks as it captures all the thrills and setbacks, action and emotion of a World Cup match!

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
[My Review]

Summary: Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world. Woodson’s eloquent poetry also reflects the joy of finding her voice through writing stories, despite the fact that she struggled with reading as a child. Her love of stories inspired her and stayed with her, creating the first sparks of the gifted writer she was to become.

A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman
[My Review]

Summary: Padma Venkatraman’s inspiring story of a young girl’s struggle to regain her passion and find a new peace is told lyrically through verse that captures the beauty and mystery of India and the ancient Bharatanatyam dance form. This is a stunning novel about spiritual awakening, the power of art, and above all, the courage and resilience of the human spirit.

Veda, a classical dance prodigy in India, lives and breathes dance—so when an accident leaves her a below-knee amputee, her dreams are shattered. For a girl who’s grown used to receiving applause for her dance prowess and flexibility, adjusting to a prosthetic leg is painful and humbling. But Veda refuses to let her disability rob her of her dreams, and she starts all over again, taking beginner classes with the youngest dancers. Then Veda meets Govinda, a young man who approaches dance as a spiritual pursuit. As their relationship deepens, Veda reconnects with the world around her, and begins to discover who she is and what dance truly means to her.

Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe García McCall

Summary: Lupita, a budding actor and poet in a close-knit Mexican American immigrant family, comes of age as she struggles with adult responsibilities during her mother’s battle with cancer in this young adult novel in verse.

When Lupita learns Mami has cancer, she is terrified by the possibility of losing her mother, the anchor of her close-knit family. Suddenly, being a high school student, starring in a play, and dealing with friends who don’t always understand, become less important than doing whatever she can to save Mami’s life.

While her father cares for Mami at an out-of-town clinic, Lupita takes charge of her seven younger siblings. As Lupita struggles to keep the family afloat, she takes refuge in the shade of a mesquite tree, where she escapes the chaos at home to write. Forced to face her limitations in the midst of overwhelming changes and losses, Lupita rediscovers her voice and finds healing in the power of words.

Told with honest emotion in evocative free verse, Lupita’s journey toward hope is captured in moments that are alternately warm and poignant. Under the Mesquite is an empowering story about testing family bonds and the strength of a young woman navigating pain and hardship with surprising resilience.


Finally, here are two poetry related books I look forward to reading sometime this year:

The Playbook by Kwame Alexander

Summary: You gotta know the rules to play the game. Ball is life. Take it to the hoop. Soar. What can we imagine for our lives? What if we were the star players, moving and grooving through the game of life? What if we had our own rules of the game to help us get what we want, what we aspire to, what will enrich our lives?

Illustrated with photographs by Thai Neave, The Playbook is intended to provide inspiration on the court of life. Each rule contains wisdom from inspiring athletes and role models such as Nelson Mandela, Serena Williams, LeBron James, Carli Lloyd, Steph Curry and Michelle Obama. Kwame Alexander also provides his own poetic and uplifting words, as he shares stories of overcoming obstacles and winning games in this motivational and inspirational book just right for graduates of any age and anyone needing a little encouragement.

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

Summary: A cannon. A strap.
A piece. A biscuit.
A burner. A heater.
A chopper. A gat.
A hammer
A tool
for RULE

Or, you can call it a gun. That’s what fifteen-year-old Will has shoved in the back waistband of his jeans. See, his brother Shawn was just murdered. And Will knows the rules. No crying. No snitching. Revenge. That’s where Will’s now heading, with that gun shoved in the back waistband of his jeans, the gun that was his brother’s gun. He gets on the elevator, seventh floor, stoked. He knows who he’s after. Or does he? As the elevator stops on the sixth floor, on comes Buck. Buck, Will finds out, is who gave Shawn the gun before Will took the gun. Buck tells Will to check that the gun is even loaded. And that’s when Will sees that one bullet is missing. And the only one who could have fired Shawn’s gun was Shawn. Huh. Will didn’t know that Shawn had ever actually USED his gun. Bigger huh. BUCK IS DEAD. But Buck’s in the elevator? Just as Will’s trying to think this through, the door to the next floor opens. A teenage girl gets on, waves away the smoke from Dead Buck’s cigarette. Will doesn’t know her, but she knew him. Knew. When they were eight. And stray bullets had cut through the playground, and Will had tried to cover her, but she was hit anyway, and so what she wants to know, on that fifth floor elevator stop, is, what if Will, Will with the gun shoved in the back waistband of his jeans, MISSES.

And so it goes, the whole long way down, as the elevator stops on each floor, and at each stop someone connected to his brother gets on to give Will a piece to a bigger story than the one he thinks he knows. A story that might never know an END…if WILL gets off that elevator.

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Book Review: A Crown of Wishes

Title: A Crown of Wishes (The Star-Touched Queen #2)
Author: Roshani Chokshi
Genres:  Fantasy
Pages: 369 pages
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available Now

Summary: She is the princess of Bharata—captured by her kingdom’s enemies, a prisoner of war. Now that she faces a future of exile and scorn, Gauri has nothing left to lose. But should she trust Vikram, the notoriously cunning prince of a neighboring land? He promises her freedom in exchange for her battle prowess. Together they can team up and win the Tournament of Wishes, a competition held in a mythical city where the Lord of Wealth promises a wish to the victor. It seems like a foolproof plan—until Gauri and Vikram arrive at the tournament and find that danger takes on new shapes: poisonous courtesans, mischievous story birds, a feast of fears, and twisted fairy revels. New trials will test their devotion, strength, and wits. But what Gauri and Vikram will soon discover is that there’s nothing more dangerous than what they most desire.

Review:  I really enjoyed The Star-Touched Queen so I was really looking forward to A Crown of Wishes. Initially I was hoping it would be more of Amar and Maya’s story, so I was a bit sad that it was not. However, I do love “sequels” that are not really sequels to a story, but rather the story of a peripheral character from the first book. I do like when authors do that because it gives us more of the world but from a different perspective. We get a sense of the young woman Gauri has become from her and Maya’s brief interaction in the first book. We learn she has become a fierce warrior and is willing to take risks her brother won’t. Outside of that we don’t know much about her, so A Crown of Wishes allows us to learn more about Gauri and so much more. We also learn more about Vikram, the soul whose thread Maya has to make a decision about in the first book. In Crown of Wishes, we ultimately learn what her decision was and how it has affected his life. All that being said, I totally and completely loved the book!

One critique of The Star-Touched Queen”that I had was there was so much description that it sometimes slowed down the story a bit. With A Crown of Wishes, while Chokshi’s signature lyrical descriptions of the Otherworld are there, the strength of this novel comes from the character interactions between Gauri and Vikram. In this novel, Gauri and Vikram both narrate so we get to spend time in each of their heads as they go on the journey to the Tournament of Wishes, and their time in Alaka, where the tournament is held. They begin their relationship as enemies, barely trusting each other. In fact, their first interaction was a delight to read as their chemistry practically flew off the page. Both are equals to each other and treat each other as such, which is refreshing as Vikram doesn’t see Gauri as a “female warrior” but just as a warrior. Both also have emotional walls surrounding them due to the way they were raised, and through their experiences, they eventually learn to open up and trust one another. As they do, the sarcastic barbs between them become less and less, and they become more honest with each other. Again, refreshing as there was none of the “noble idiocy” trope in this novel at all. They truly become a team who works together to solve problems and survive the tournament. Of course they fall in love too, but the development of their relationship is a healthy one full of mutual respect for the other’s skills and their flaws. And as they came to love each other, they were able to grow as individuals as well. Gauri and Vikram’s personal growth and relationship growth is what made this book so wonderful.

Chokshi also added a new character to the narrative who reflects the main theme of the story – personal choice. While the premise of the tournament is to gain wishes, through their experiences Gauri and Vikram learn that wishes cannot solve all problems, and that it’s our choices and how we use them that do. The character, Aasha, is a vishakanya who was taken from her family at the age of 4 and raised to be an assassin. She longs for a different life, however, and her attendance at the tournament allows her that opportunity as everyone, both human and non-humans, are all contestants in the tournament. For her, all she wants is to have choices in life, and through her actions, befriending Gauri and Vikram when it is dangerous to do so, is an example of how our choices matter in who we become, who we believe ourselves to be. I loved her character and I’m hoping that if there is a third book, we’ll have more of Aasha’s experiences.

Recommendation: I was planning on reading this novel slowly, but got so caught up that I did a marathon session. You know what that means, you have to get A Crown of Wishes now!

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New Release

This is the week that The Edge of the Abyss is released. Check out Jessica’s review of the first book in the series – The Abyss Surrounds Us.

The Edge of the Abyss (The Abyss Surrounds Us #2) by Emily Skrutskie
Flux

Three weeks have passed since Cassandra Leung pledged her allegiance to the ruthless pirate-queen Santa Elena and set free Bao, the sea monster Reckoner she’d been forced to train. The days as a pirate trainee are long and grueling, but it’s not the physical pain that Cas dreads most. It’s being forced to work with Swift, the pirate girl who broke her heart.

But Cas has even bigger problems when she discovers that Bao is not the only monster swimming free. Other Reckoners illegally sold to pirates have escaped their captors and are taking the NeoPacific by storm, attacking ships at random and ruining the ocean ecosystem. As a Reckoner trainer, Cas might be the only one who can stop them. But how can she take up arms against creatures she used to care for and protect?

Will Cas embrace the murky morals that life as a pirate brings or perish in the dark waters of the NeoPacific?

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Review: The Bone Witch

Title: The Bone Witch
Author: Rin Chupeco
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 400 pages
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Review Copy: eARC received via NetGalley
Availability: Available now

Summary: The beast raged; it punctured the air with its spite. But the girl was fiercer.

Tea is different from the other witches in her family. Her gift for necromancy makes her a bone witch, who are feared and ostracized in the kingdom. For theirs is a powerful, elemental magic that can reach beyond the boundaries of the living—and of the human.

Great power comes at a price, forcing Tea to leave her homeland to train under the guidance of an older, wiser bone witch. There, Tea puts all of her energy into becoming an asha, learning to control her elemental magic and those beasts who will submit by no other force. And Tea must be strong—stronger than she even believes possible. Because war is brewing in the eight kingdoms, war that will threaten the sovereignty of her homeland…and threaten the very survival of those she loves.

Review: I enjoyed Rin Chupeco’s first book, The Girl from the Well, and jumped at the chance to follow her into the fantasy genre. And while there were some good things about The Bone Witch (the heroine, her brother, lush descriptions, the whole idea of asha, and this specific type of magic), there were a lot of things that either weren’t or just didn’t work for me.

The heroine, Tea, is an engaging narrator, and the glimpses of her in the future, having changed radically from the girl we get to know during her asha training, is intriguing. I wanted a lot more progression on this front, but that’s where the structure of the book undercut itself. Between every chapter was a very short scene of the future, between Tea and an unnamed Bard, and these scenes either constantly killed the momentum of the past or set us up for excitement that took far too long to materialize. If the interruptions had been less frequent (and had been a more coherent narrative, not mostly Tea preparing to raise or raising creature after creature after creature), this might have worked; as it was, it became an irritating distraction, especially once it became obvious that the past Tea and the future Tea weren’t going to be any closer to each other in this book, attitude/philosophy-wise, than they were at the start of it. Having the Bard narrate the future segments felt like a deliberate choice to keep information from the reader (like who Tea’s dead love is and what her plans are for all the monsters) rather than the best choice for telling the story. I felt frustrated, not teased, throughout.

The thing that disappointed me most was the portrayal of the country Drycht. It’s obviously supposed to be the stereotypical conservative Muslim country analogue, what with a kingdom mostly of sand, a king with an “iron grip,” its women veiled, and its stance on gender roles. I cannot think of a single character in the book (aside from the Drycht envoy who is scandalized that Tea is wearing bold colors and must be calmed by being allowed to go on a rant about the shamelessness of women—and he is supposed to be “a progressive man in comparison [to his fellow countrymen]”!) who has anything good to say about the country or the people, aside from occasional praise of its trade goods.

This negative narrative isn’t subtle, either. The nameless Bard was “born in Drycht but was banished when [he] came of age for [his] freethinking ways.” While Farhi, one of the maids, has a name, she never actually speaks on the page (so far as I can remember) and always behaves negatively/distantly toward Tea. One of the heroine’s mentors says flat out “This is Kion, miladies, not Drycht. We are at an age where men and women stand together on equal footing, unlike our barbarian brothers to the south.” To top it off, there are two referenced honor killings: a dance performance “about a woman from Drycht to be executed for dishonoring her family when she fled with a disreputable lover” and a separate incident, where it is revealed that the girl the Bard loved unrequitedly was killed by her father for running away with a bricklayer. (This moment isn’t about this unnamed girl or the not-the-Bard!boy she loved at all, it is explicitly about Tea and the Bard. Because we make the tragic murder of a girl in love all about us, apparently.)

This negative portrayal is never pushed back against in the text, so it doesn’t appear to be a misguided attempt at having a prejudiced narrator. It is simply gross, disappointing, and makes me wonder what other red flags I may have missed in the mashup of other cultures in this fantasy world. I am interested in hearing from other readers and reviewers on this subject.

Recommendation: Just skip it. While there are some good ideas here, the constant interruptions from a future stranger are terribly distracting and hinder, more than help, the main narrative, and the Islamophobic content under the guise of a fantasy culture is not redeemable.

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Review: Piecing Me Together

Title: Piecing Me Together
Author: Renée Watson
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pages: 272
Genre: Contemporary
Review copy: Library
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: Jade believes she must get out of her neighborhood if she’s ever going to succeed. Her mother says she has to take every opportunity. She has. She accepted a scholarship to a mostly-white private school and even Saturday morning test prep opportunities. But some opportunities feel more demeaning than helpful. Like an invitation to join Women to Women, a mentorship program for “at-risk” girls. Except really, it’s for black girls. From “bad” neighborhoods.

But Jade doesn’t need support. And just because her mentor is black doesn’t mean she understands Jade. And maybe there are some things Jade could show these successful women about the real world and finding ways to make a real difference.

Friendships, race, privilege, identity—this compelling and thoughtful story explores the issues young women face.

Review: Jade creates stunning collages. She’s an artist turning bits and pieces of color, texture and shapes together. Art has often been one of the ways people explore what they think about the world and sometimes it’s a way to find healing. Jade creates these amazing collages and they are a way she processes what’s going on in her life. It seems like the people who love her make her whole and the world takes her apart. “Sometimes it feels like I leave home a whole person, sent off with kisses from Mom, who is hanging her every hope on my future. By the time I get home I feel like my soul has been shattered into a million pieces.”

This is an introspective book. Jade is a thinker and I loved seeing through her eyes. She puzzles things out and though sometimes she’s hesitant to advocate for herself, Jade has clear ideas about how things should be. She’s also willing to listen to other perspectives. I really appreciated the chapter titled agradecido/thankful. Her friend and uncle have a conversation about a teacher at the local high school who doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving. Her uncle E.J. explains that they’re celebrating our nation being stolen from indigenous people and how “Columbus didn’t discover nothing.” Jade realizes she’s never given this a thought. She thinks it through and comes to the conclusion, “I think the US has a lot to be thankful for and a lot to apologize for.”

The chapter titles are in Spanish and English. Jade is excited about learning Spanish and tutors some of her fellow classmates because she’s doing well. Jade’s hoping to go on an International trip where she could do some volunteer work. She doesn’t just want to take advantage of opportunities for herself, Jade also wants to be able to contribute to the world. She doesn’t want to always be seen as the at-risk, needy girl. She knows she has things to offer and wants those around her to realize this too.

Aside from the titles, the chapters are also unique because they are sometimes poetic.I found the language to be lyrical and often poetic even when not in poetry form. Some chapters are only a paragraph long and manage to say a lot. Occasionally there are actual poems.

Race is a topic of thought and conversation throughout the book. Jade has several relationships that lead to some intense situations revolving around race. Her mentor, which she has been assigned because she is perceived as needy, is new to the job and sees Jade with a deficit mentality that Jade rebels against. Her new best friend is White and is either deliberately ignoring racist comments and actions or is oblivious. Jade has to decide if these relationships are worth her efforts.

Recommendation: Buy it now. This is a beautiful book that delves into so many aspects of life and is a fantastic story about finding and using your voice.

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Review: The Inexplicable Logic of My Life

Title: The Inexplicable Logic of My Life
Author: Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 464
Publisher: Clarion Books
Availability: Out now!

Summary: The first day of senior year: Everything is about to change. Until this moment, Sal has always been certain of his place with his adoptive gay father and their loving Mexican-American family. But now his own history unexpectedly haunts him, and life-altering events force him and his best friend, Samantha, to confront issues of faith, loss, and grief.

Suddenly Sal is throwing punches, questioning everything, and discovering that he no longer knows who he really is—but if Sal’s not who he thought he was, who is he? [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe was, I think, the first YA book I’d ever read with a gay protagonist. And I will always believe myself forever lucky to have picked that as my first. So the minute I learned that a new book by the same author was coming out, I pre-ordered it, no questions asked.

I think the synopsis says it all. Salvador, called Sal by some and Sally by his best friend, has an incredible bond with his adoptive gay, Mexican-American father. But when tragedy visits him and his friends, Sal has to confront who he is and who he’s becoming.

As expected, the writing is beautiful – detailed, lyrical, heartwarming and heartbreaking all at once. There are certainly moments that could be pegged as problematic, but (and this may be me viewing the book through rose-colored lens) I think the storytelling is nuanced enough to provide different interpretations and perspectives from which to view the events of the novel. I’ll leave it at that to avoid spoilers.

What struck me was how singular the novel was in one particular way – the presence of family and the incredible father-son bond depicted. In a way, the book doesn’t feel like Sal’s story alone, so much as the story of Sal and his father through Sal’s eyes. I stayed up until 3:00 am reading about this pair and the people who fell into their orbit, and I didn’t regret a second of it.

The Inexplicable Logic of My Life is a must-read, especially if you loved Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. It’s a story about love – family, friends, and everything in between.

Recommendation: Buy it now!

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