I have always avoided novels in verse and poetry. I don’t really know why. I mean, I liked poetry ok when I was in school, but it’s POETRY and that’s what angsty teens do. I know, I know, shut my mouth because I actually LOVED these two books written in verse and cannot wait to tackle more poetry.
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Brown Girl Dreaming is Jacqueline Woodson’s memoir, told in verse, reflecting back on her childhood. This book has won a bunch of big awards and has been on my radar a while, as a result. I was hesitant about the poetry aspect of the story, but felt it would be the perfect book for the Read Harder challenge as it is not only written in verse, but is written by and about a person of color and I’ve been trying to pay more attention to reading diversely.
What I liked: I absolutely loved this book. It was full of hope, love, beauty, dreams, and longing and I read most of it with a lump in my throat because of how beautiful/touching it all was. I loved how the major Civil Rights goings on of the time were woven into a more personal story. I also appreciated the glimpses into Jehovah’s Witness religious culture and the subtle questioning Jacqueline does of her religion as a child. I also loved the focus on family, especially Jacqueline’s relationship with her grandfather. There were bits of the poetry that I highlighted and loved, but since I’m not an avid poetry reader, I think I’d need to do a more careful close reading to fully appreciate the writing style. That said, using verse for a childhood memoir seemed really appropriate– there was a dream-like quality that came with it that felt reminiscent of childhood memories.
What I felt meh about: I only wish this had been a longer book!
All in all: I’m so glad I gave this book a try. I imagine this will be one of the best books I read this year. I hope to someday share this one with my daughter.
Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai
Inside Out & Back Again is a novel in verse, telling the story of ten year old Ha. Ha is living in South Vietnam at the end of the war. Her father has gone missing in action and food and resources are becoming scarce in the face of hyperinflation. But Ha is a young girl and while war is ever-present for her in Vietnam, she is more preoccupied with school and her papaya tree and not being told she can’t do anything her brothers can just because she is a girl. Then Ha’s family escapes Vietnam and takes refuge in the United States, finding a sponsor family in Alabama. Ha doesn’t know English and finds herself mercilessly teased by the children at her new school. She misses Vietnam and her father terribly, but as time goes by she learns English and discovers friends and allies at school and in her neighborhood and begins to find a way of life that is both Vietnamese and American.
What I liked: I am particularly drawn to Ha’s story of immigrating to the United States and having to start a whole new life in a very strange place. I have always enjoyed immigrant stories, but this one also had a lot of personal meaning to me as I grew up in an area with a high population of Vietnamese immigrants and I had a good friend in elementary school who moved to the U.S. in the 2nd or 3rd grade from Vietnam. Ha’s experiences reminded me quite a bit of my friend’s, from desperately wanting curly hair to being self-conscious about language to being both proud and ashamed of her cultural background. This also carries a fairly clear be-kind-to-your-neighbor/walk-a-mile-in-the-other-person’s-shoe kind of message, which felt aimed at a younger audience, but was certainly something I could appreciate as an adult.
What I felt meh about: I didn’t think the writing was as sophisticated as the writing in Brown Girl Dreaming and as I read these fairly close together, this suffered in comparison. This felt like reading a book for kids, if that makes sense.
All in all: I’m glad I read this and I think it would be a great book to assign for middle grades in school. I would certainly read this author again.