Author: Skila Brown
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Pages: 208 pages
Availability: On Shelves Now
Review Copy: Hard Copy from Publisher
Summary: Carlos knows that when the soldiers arrive with warnings about the Communist rebels, it is time to be a man and defend the village, keep everyone safe. But Mama tells him not yet — he’s still her quiet moonfaced boy. The soldiers laugh at the villagers, and before they move on, a neighbor is found dangling from a tree, a sign on his neck:Communist. Mama tells Carlos to run and hide, then try to find her. . . . Numb and alone, he must join a band of guerillas as they trek to the top of the mountain where Carlos’s abuela lives. Will he be in time, and brave enough, to warn them about the soldiers? What will he do then? A novel in verse inspired by actual events during Guatemala’s civil war, Caminar is the moving story of a boy who loses nearly everything before discovering who he really is.
Review: It’s probably not news to you, but April was poetry month. Being a teacher, that means I have been reading a large amount of poetry lately. I also posted a list of novels in verse last month which got me wondering why they appeal to me so much. I’ve heard many readers ask why books are in that format and make comments about how they sometimes don’t even seem like poetry or that they think readers may not understand novels in verse. I am not sure why they work or don’t work for other people, but I have an idea of why they work for me. When I read a novel in verse like Caminar, all of the white space focuses my attention even more closely on the words – especially when they are as powerful as those written by Skila Brown. In addition, the variety of cadences and frequent pauses allow for a lot more thinking on my part. There are many, many breaks in the writing that make time for this reader’s responses. In Caminar the pauses felt natural even though I am certain they are very deliberate.
The topic of the Guatemalan civil war is grim, and Skila Brown has given the conflict a face. Carlos is a young boy who plays soccer and carries marbles in his pockets, though he is yearning to be a man. He is still willing to obey his mother, but is beginning to question that. He wonders if following her orders is keeping him from becoming a man. In the midst of his questioning, the soldiers and rebels step into his life and his world is shattered. At this point, I will just go ahead and admit that I did not make it through the book without tears. The dedication hints at what is to come, “In memory of the more than 200,000 people who were killed or disappeared in Guatemala between 1960 and 1996. May they always be remembered.”
Brown weaves the story through many individual poems. She plays with the arrangement of words on the page and most are visually very distinct from each other. Some of the poems are concrete showing the shape of what they describe. A few bounce back and forth between two columns and could even benefit from being read aloud by two people. One is read down the page and then is inverted to be read again providing a different perspective. I really enjoyed experiencing the variety of forms and even though the shapes changed greatly, the voice remained consistent and clear.
Carlos is young, but is being forced to grow up quickly. Caminar is a coming of age novel which shifts it into the young adult category a little though it is often labeled as a middle grade book. I think it is on the borderline. Brown tackles the topic of war in a way that is accessible and appropriate for younger children, yet is complex enough to work with older readers too.
One of my favorite parts of the book was the concept of the nahuales or animal spirit protectors. I loved the poems that dealt with that. Early on, Carlos scoffs a bit at the idea, but his beliefs shift over time. It led me to remember the book How I Became a Ghost by Tim Tingle as it also features the idea of animals as protectors. I think that the two books have many similarities. In both, a group of people are being targeted and a young boy must face fears in an attempt to help loved ones. They would likely be good books to read together.
Recommendation: Buy it now particularly if poetry appeals to you. If you typically avoid novels in verse, I would still say grab this one. I was unfamiliar with this history and truly appreciated the story. Above all though, poetry is about word choice and placement and Skila Brown chose well.
Interview with Skila Brown