Dean Schneider

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Over the years, several of my middle school students have gotten turned on to reading and writing poetry through reading novels in verse. The spare lines of a good verse novel offer “pure energy horizontally contained between the mind of the poet and the ear of the reader,” as poet Nikki Giovanni says in her poem “Poetry,” and young readers respond to that energy. Such popular verse novels as Sonya Sones’ What My Mother Doesn’t Know, Kelly Bingham’s Shark Girl and Paul Janeczko’s Worlds Afire have that kind of power, and I have used Karen Hesse’s Witness and Angela Johnson’s The Other Side to teach poetry writing in a way that connects well with middle school students.

A RIBBON OF VOICES

Helen Frost is a master of the novel in verse, and her new novel Salt is a fine example of how one writer in the genre goes about her work. Set in the Indiana Territory on the eve of the War of 1812, the novel features a friendship between two 12-year-old boys—Anikwa, of the Miami nation, and James Gray, who lives in a fort called Fort Wayne. Their friendship is tested by events beyond their control: British forces are moving in from the north, Americans from the east, and the impending war over land threatens to change the Miami culture—and the boys’ friendship—forever. 

All three novels demonstrate how the lines of a well-crafted poem can be a direct line into the minds and hearts of readers.

Frost lets the boys tell the story, each in a first-person narrative. Since how poems look on the page is a concern in Frost’s books, she chooses here to represent Anikwa’s voice in hourglass shapes like Miami ribbon work, a traditional art form she explains in the notes at the end of the volume. James’s voice on each page is in seven sets of double lines, like the stripes on the American flag. A third voice is interspersed, the voice of salt, a commodity important to both the Miami people and the American settlers and a player in the unfolding story. As with any excellent novel in verse, the voices and themes of individual poems accumulate and weave into each other like the ribbon work of Anikwa’s poems, and it is one of the pleasures of the reading experience to settle into the quiet, reflective state of mind where we can hear those voices speaking quietly to us.

BATTLING THE PAST

Margarita Engle’s Mountain Dog, like Salt, has alternating voices—11-year-old Tony, from Los Angeles, and Gabe, a search-and-rescue dog. Tony’s mother is in prison for “turning meanness into money” by raising pit bulls for fighting, so Tony has come to live in a cabin in the Sierra Nevadas with his great-uncle, a forest ranger. Engle’s simple and poetic lines effectively delineate the two characters—Tony, who says, “My only battle / is against / my own past,” and Gabe, who lives only in the present: “I can’t imagine ever needing / to do anything but play, right here / right now, together.” Rescue is a theme here, as is healing and finding a future. Engle’s writing demonstrates the power and elegance of simple words finely crafted: “With a silvery bell on his collar / and Halloween light sticks / fitted into tabs on his bright / orange vest, Gabe sounds / like Christmas and looks / like a shooting star / as he streaks / through the darkness / of night / making light / seem like something alive / and growing.” Like many of the best novels in verse, Mountain Dog would be a great read-aloud novel in the classroom or perfect for readers’ theater, when students bring to life the voices of the characters.

HOPE AND HAPPINESS

Finally, Sarah Crossan’s The Weight of Water humanizes the immigrant experience by creating in 12-year-old Kasienka an earnest and memorable immigrant from Poland. She’s now in England with her mother, searching for the father who walked out on them. Kasienka is the narrator in these free verse poems, reflecting on the difficulties of surviving in a school where she’s different, a victim of mean girls’ constant torments. But a neighbor from Kenya, once a doctor and now a janitor, helps her to have a perspective on her life: “Happiness should be your revenge, Kasienka. / Happiness.” Hope and happiness arrive in William, a first love and a first kiss, a boy who likes her, who corrects her English and finds her mispronunciations cute. Kasienka says, “And for the first time / Ever / I can be wrong / And it’s okay. / Better than that— / It’s cute.”

All three novels in verse demonstrate how poetry has energy and how the lines of a well-crafted poem can be a direct line into the minds and hearts of readers, their voices speaking with power and a spare elegance.

Dean Schneider teaches seventh- and eighth-grade English at the Ensworth School in Nashville.

Over the years, several of my middle school students have gotten turned on to reading and writing poetry through reading novels in verse. The spare lines of a good verse novel offer “pure energy horizontally contained between the mind of the poet and the ear of the reader,” as poet Nikki Giovanni says in her […]
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Living in upstate New York with a name like Mohammed Sami Sabiri, Sami has always felt like an outsider—the school nerd, a member of his school’s “leper colony” and the subject of constant taunting. His father fled Iran as a young man because of the secret police and has worked hard to fit into his community, where the Sabiris have become a respected family: original members of the Meadowville subdivision, father on the golf club’s planning committee, mother in the Ladies’ Invitational golf tournament. They send Sami to one of the most elite private boys’ academies in upstate New York.

But Sami feels he doesn’t know his father, and when Mr. Sabiri takes a mysterious trip to Toronto, he begins to wonder if his father is having an affair. So he starts to do a little undercover investigation of his father’s email messages and online accounts. Before he gets too far, the FBI storms the Sabiris’ residence, arrests Mr. Sabiri and confiscates all records that seem to incriminate him as part of a terrorist cell led by one Tariq Hasan. The fact that Mr. Sabiri is the research director at Shelton Laboratories, where anthrax, smallpox and other viruses are stored, escalates the hysteria about potential cross-border biological attacks.

But is Arman Sabiri a terrorist or a victim of a latter-day witch hunt, akin to the Salem Witch Trials, the Holocaust and the McCarthy hearings that Sami’s history teacher, Mr. Bernstein, has been discussing in class? In the context of a thrilling suspense story, Stratton explores the many ways people are separated from each other—the yearning of people like the Sabiris to simply fit in, the distance that secrets create and the evil dance of persecutor and victim, whether the Nazis, the KKK or the bullies at school who torment Sami and maneuver the firing of Mr. Bernstein. All is not what it seems with Mr. Sabiri, and Sami’s quest to clear his father’s name will carry readers along for an exciting ride.

Dean Schneider teaches middle school English in Nashville.

Living in upstate New York with a name like Mohammed Sami Sabiri, Sami has always felt like an outsider—the school nerd, a member of his school’s “leper colony” and the subject of constant taunting. His father fled Iran as a young man because of the secret police and has worked hard to fit into his […]
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When the school bell rings and students race for the doors, where do they go? What do they do? In each of the 10 short stories that compose Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks, the reader follows a different student to see what they get up to on their way home. 

In “The Low Cuts Strike Again,” Bit, Francy, John John and Trista are the kids whom teachers talk about in the teachers’ lounge—“at-risk” kids who swipe loose change wherever they might find it. The Low Cuts, as the four call themselves, have something in common: their almost-bald heads, a haircut chosen in solidarity with each other and with their parents, all cancer survivors. And it’s what they do with all that loose change that shows another side of the label of “at-risk.” 

In the lead story, “Water, Booger, Bears,” Jasmine and TJ challenge those who think “boys and girls can’t just be friends.” Other stories portray protagonists dealing with bullying, falling in love and struggling with anxiety. 

Jason Reynolds affords loving attention to each of the characters in his large cast. Despite simple-seeming prose, his language sparkles. He writes of the Low Cuts, “Even though they were tight on time, they were loose on talk” and, “Bit put a pothole in the middle of memory lane.” Along with his previous novels, written in prose, verse and dual voices, these short stories demonstrate Reynolds’ range of superb storytelling.

When the school bell rings and students race for the doors, where do they go? What do they do? In each of the 10 short stories that compose Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks, the reader follows a different student to see what they get up to on their way home.  In […]
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“It’s an ordinary summer day, the day that Jimmy Killen dies and comes to life again.” So begins Almond’s tale of young Davie’s journey through the streets of Tyneside town and up the hill on the other side.

It’s not a long walk, yet it feels like an epic pilgrimage for all of the people he meets along the way—a priest who questions the existence of God, little girls drawing fairies and monsters and angels in chalk on the pavement, a one-legged man with a hawthorn crutch, friends, footballers, a bonny lass, a handsome murderer, and the dead man come to life again.

Death is in the air, as it often is in Almond’s novels, where the line between the dead and the living is blurred. Often, too, the loveliness of the world is celebrated: “Ah, the mountains, Davie, and the sun and the rain, the greenness of the grass beneath me feet, the yellow in the hedges, the blueness of the sky above me head, those distant jagged islands in the blue, blue sea,” Paddy Kelly says to Davie.

Not many writers for young readers take on so much in a short novel—death and life and what’s the point of it all, anyway. If this novel covers similar ground as previous novels, just as Davie covers the same ground of Tyneside town he has walked many times, Almond views these elemental themes from a new and exciting perspective.

“It’s an ordinary summer day, the day that Jimmy Killen dies and comes to life again.” So begins Almond’s tale of young Davie’s journey through the streets of Tyneside town and up the hill on the other side.

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Kip Wilson’s debut young adult novel, White Rose, was the first book acquired by Kwame Alexander’s new imprint at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which aims to offer a greater diversity of voices in books for young people. Fittingly, White Rose is all about voices.

Based on a true story, this novel-in-verse gives voice to German teen Sophie Scholl and her fellow members of the White Rose movement. The group spoke out against Hitler and the rise of the Nazis by distributing leaflets that encouraged Germans to rise up and join their resistance. But Sophie and her brother, Hans, were not successful in their mission, and after they were caught passing out leaflets at Munich University, they were arrested, interrogated and imprisoned.

In Wilson’s fictionalized account, Sophie is the narrator, and the story is largely hers, with an occasional letter from Hans and voices of a few other characters—like Robert Mohr, the Gestapo interrogator; Jakob Schmid, the janitor at the university who caught the Scholls and turned them in; Else Gebel, another prisoner; and Roland Freisler, the judge. The innovative narrative structure begins at “The End” in 1943, with Sophie at the Gestapo headquarters, and then the story shifts back to 1935, when Sophie was 14. The intervening years trace Sophie’s life and gradual political awakening. By writing in verse and exploring several secondary characters, Wilson offers a compelling work that will be perfect for the reader’s theater exercises in English or history classrooms, and it pairs nicely with Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s Hitler Youth and Russell Freedman’s We Will Not Be Silent.

Based on a true story, Kip Wilson's novel-in-verse gives voice to German teen Sophie Scholl and her fellow members of the White Rose movement.

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Can wildlife in the circumscribed existence of cities still be considered wild? In Shaun Tan’s Tales from the Inner City—a collection of illustrated stories and poems that serves as a companion to 2009’s Tales from Outer Suburbia—gorgeous surrealist art and equally lovely prose portray a “concrete blight” of a city where crocodiles live on the 87th floor of a skyscraper, pigeons preside over the financial district, frogs take over a corporate boardroom and moonfish take to the skies.

In these stories, humans don’t seem to see nature as anything other than menacing. They kill the ancient monster shark, the iridescent moonfish and the last rhino. And when bears hire lawyers to put humans on trial—Bear Law taking precedence over Human Law in Tan’s cosmic hierarchy—human lawyers shout, “You have nothing to show us!” In response, the Bears show the humans the beauty present in all the places they never bother to look: “On the tailfins of freshwater trout, under the bark of trees, in the creased silt of riverbeds, on the wing-scale of moths and butterflies, in the cursive coastlines of entire continents.”

Is there hope for nature? Perhaps the answer is in the story of the pigeons who take the longer view, awaiting the demise of humans and a time when a “radiant green world” will bloom again. Readers may well find this one of the most amazing books they have ever read.

 

This article was originally published in the October 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Can wildlife in the circumscribed existence of cities still be considered wild? In Shaun Tan’s Tales from the Inner City—a collection of illustrated stories and poems that serves as a companion to 2009’s Tales from Outer Suburbia—gorgeous surrealist art and equally lovely prose portray a “concrete blight” of a city where crocodiles live on the 87th floor of a skyscraper, pigeons preside over the financial district, frogs take over a corporate boardroom and moonfish take to the skies.

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“It was the summer of 1988, / When basketball gave me wings / and I had to learn / how to rebound,” says 12-year-old Charlie Bell. Though he dreams of heroics on the court, truth is, he’s not that good and avoids playing. His father just died, and he’s become closed off and consumed by grief. Frustrated, Charlie’s mother sends him off to his grandparents’ home for the summer. Charlie doesn’t want to go, feeling that “soaring above / the sorrow and grief / seemed impossible.” But because he’s only 12 years old, Charlie doesn’t understand that he’s not the only one suffering a loss. Charlie lost a father, but his mother lost a husband, and his grandparents lost a son.

This novel-in-verse, the prequel to the Newbery Medal-winning The Crossover (2014), includes comic-style illustrations by Dawud Anyabwile that portray Charlie’s hoop dreams, Granddaddy’s pithy reflections on life and plenty of homespun philosophy drawn from basketball. As Charlie begins to open up to the world and his place in it, he rebounds with the love and support of his family and friends. Charlie finds many things over the course of the summer—a restored sense of joy, a new sense of normal and his game.

 

This article was originally published in the April 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

“It was the summer of 1988, / When basketball gave me wings / and I had to learn / how to rebound,” says 12-year-old Charlie Bell. Though he dreams of heroics on the court, truth is, he’s not that good and avoids playing. His father just died, and he’s become closed off and consumed by grief.

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Nikki Giovanni and Ashley Bryan first collaborated in 1996 with The Sun Is So Quiet, and now they join creative forces once again to bring a new gift to readers. Anyone who knows Bryan knows his big, openhearted embrace of life, and Giovanni’s spare and eloquent poems embody his loving spirit, as in “Leaves,” which Giovanni has called a “love poem, from me to Ashley.” She writes, “When I’m sitting / In a tree / Looking for a friend / I hope you’ll be the one / Standing at the root / Holding out your arms / To gently catch / My fall.”

That spirit suffuses this volume, from “Because,” a gentle poem addressed to sons and daughters, to reflections on the strengths of ancestors in “I Am a Mirror.” But there’s also resoluteness behind these poems, a willingness to hint at big themes—age, death, loss, independence, heaven, the auction block and the middle passage, and an encouragement to take a stand. As in all good literature for the young, adult readers might see more in the words and images. “Wild Flowers” will resonate with anyone who has experienced recent loss: “Autumn will come . . . anyway . . . Let us continue . . . our dance . . . beneath the sun.”

Complementing Giovanni’s luminous poetry, Bryan’s ever-gorgeous tempera-and-watercolor art is a jeweled treasure—a stained glass and patchwork-quilt vision of love.

 

This article was originally published in the January 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Nikki Giovanni and Ashley Bryan first collaborated in 1996 with The Sun Is So Quiet, and now they join creative forces once again to bring a new gift to readers.

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BookPage Teen Top Pick, November 2017

Fifteen-year-old Will Holloman is, indeed, a hollow man (as suggested by his last name). His older brother, Shawn, has been shot and killed, and Will’s sadness over Shawn’s absence is like a tooth that has been ripped out, and his tongue keeps slipping “into the new empty space, / where you know / a tooth supposed to be / but ain’t no more.” Now Will intends to follow the three rules of the street: no crying, no snitching, get revenge. He’s going to play by the rules, which “weren’t meant to be broken. / They were meant for the broken / to follow.” With his brother’s gun in the waistband of his jeans, he heads to his building’s elevator. And here, acclaimed author Jason Reynolds’ brilliant new novel-in-verse (recently nominated for a National Book Award) becomes a ghost story—a gritty, streetwise A Christmas Carol.

As the elevator descends, different ghosts of shootings past—each connected to Will in sometimes surprising ways—enter the carriage. They share experiences, question him and challenge his motives. It’s a long way down from the eighth floor to the lobby, but it only takes seven floors, 60 seconds and six ghosts to make him question his quest for revenge. Reynolds’ elegant verse begs to be read aloud, and teachers will want to discuss what Will might have taken away from each ghostly visit. An ambiguous ending prompts further questions: What, if anything, has Will learned? Is he destined to be just another “block boy” looking to off somebody?

 

This article was originally published in the November 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

With his brother’s gun in the waistband of his jeans, Will heads to his building’s elevator. And here, acclaimed author Jason Reynolds’ brilliant new novel-in-verse (recently nominated for a National Book Award) becomes a ghost story—a gritty, streetwise A Christmas Carol.

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BookPage Children's Top Pick, September 2017

“Down, tears. Down! Hold it together. You are Patina Jones. Daughter of Beverly Jones. No junk. No punk.” Twelve-year-old Patina (Patty) has a lot she could cry about, a lot to hold together. Her father died in his sleep a while back, and her mother lost both legs to “the sugar,” so her Uncle Tony and his white wife (called Momly) are raising Patty, who takes care of her little sister, Maddy. And now, Patty must navigate the halls of a new school. In Patina, she shares her smart, bold, razor-sharp black-girl takes on the rich, white-girl world of Chester Academy, where you only stand a chance as long as your face is always selfie-ready.

Patty feels she has no chance at Chester Academy, though she learns that her view of the world is not always right, and her story becomes less about fitting in than about learning to see people in a more generous light.

But what Patty is completely clear about is, in a life of loss, she has track. To her, running is “a way to shut people up. A way to . . . I guess, sometimes even shut myself up. Just turn it all off. Leave everything, all the hurting stuff, the unregular stuff that seemed so regular to me, in the dust.” She becomes the anchor on her relay team, signifying how she, with the help of Coach, is beginning to think beyond herself and be part of a team. “They needed me. Not just my legs. But my support. My energy. We needed each other.”

As in Ghost, Patina’s story ends before the finish line of the big race. But each novel in this projected four-book series passes the baton to the next, so eager readers will just have to await the third installment.

 

This article was originally published in the September 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Patty must navigate the halls of a new school. In Patina, she shares her smart, bold, razor-sharp black-girl takes on the rich, white-girl world of Chester Academy, where you only stand a chance as long as your face is always selfie-ready.

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BookPage Children's Top Pick, October 2016

“A Tale of Two Weddings” would be an apt, more Dickensian title for Archer Magill’s story. At the first wedding, when Archer was 6, his performance as the ring bearer didn’t go so well. He split his too-tight dress pants (with no underwear underneath) and walked down the aisle, bare bottom exposed for the world (and YouTube) to see. In fifth grade, Warrant Officer Ed McLeod arrives during a school lockdown complete with helicopters to be the new student teacher in Archer’s class. The 26-year-old’s dramatic arrival and movie-star looks soon make him “the most famous student teacher in the Twitterverse and the photosphere.” He becomes a heartthrob to the girls and gets marriage proposals from as far away as North Korea. Turns out, though, that Mr. McLeod is gay and attracted to Archer’s beloved Uncle Paul, and Archer is to be the best man at their wedding. He does a splendid job this time—pants intact, no butts about it.

Author Richard Peck relates the years between the weddings with his signature humor, using the intimacy of the first-person point of view to provide Archer’s take on his world—sometimes clueless, always earnest—as he grows up and seeks role models. Peck began this book in 2014, when same-sex marriage became legal in Illinois (where the novel takes place), and by the time he finished, same-sex marriage was the law of the land. “But have the youngest readers among us heard?” he wondered. So he wrote this endearing, full-of-life story “to spark discussion and to open a door to a world suddenly living in a whole different era.” By the end of the story, count Uncle Paul and Ed McLeod, now happily married, as two of Archer’s role models.

 

This article was originally published in the October 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

“A Tale of Two Weddings” would be an apt, more Dickensian title for Archer Magill’s story. At the first wedding, when Archer was 6, his performance as the ring bearer didn’t go so well. He split his too-tight dress pants (with no underwear underneath) and walked down the aisle, bare bottom exposed for the world (and YouTube) to see.

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