May 2011

Helen Frost

A story that’s more than meets the eye
Interview by
Share this Article:

Sometimes it’s hard to discern what lies behind the façade of a young girl. Take Wren and Darra, the characters in Helen Frost’s intriguing new novel, Hidden. While they have never actually met, these girls share a secret that unites them—a secret that they’ve kept, individually, for years.

After reading just the first two pages of Frost’s novel-in-poems, young readers will be drawn into the vivid tale that unfolds, written alternately from Wren’s and Darra’s points of view. Their perspectives offer an inside look at how one moment in time, one unfortunate act, can both bind and alter many lives collectively.

“There were hidden elements of each girl’s life. The language itself works to bring the two stories together.”

Presenting those two perspectives was the challenge for Frost, who has cleverly woven such intricate details and dialogue into many of her past novels. And it’s a challenge she takes seriously. “It’s very important, and I try to get it right,” says Frost, an award-winning poet who won a 2004 Michael L. Printz Honor for her YA novel-in-verse, Keesha’s House.

As Hidden unfolds, Darra’s abusive unemployed father steals a minivan, not realizing young Wren is in the back. When Darra guesses that Wren is hiding in her family’s garage, she’s torn between helping the young girl she has never met (and seen only on TV news reports) and protecting her father.

The ensuing fear, confusion and uncertainty—experienced by both Wren and Darra—are vocalized through first-person accounts by the two eight-year-old girls. Wren’s insights, written in carefully crafted stanzas, make up the first third of the book. The second section illuminates Darra’s angst about the event, coupled with the blame she puts on Wren for her father’s eventual arrest. The denouement, which comes six years later when Wren and Darra unexpectedly meet at summer camp, brings all the memories, confusion, blame and turmoil to a head.

While some authors start with an event or a kernel of a plot for a novel, Frost instead allowed her compelling characters to take her in a direction she never expected to go.

“In this one, I really started with the characters,” Frost says during a call to her home in Fort Wayne, Indiana. “I had this idea that this family, Wren and her brother, were going to go to the Isle of Barra” (the setting in Frost’s 2006 book The Braid).

But soon, Wren’s character became quiet, withdrawn and overshadowed by her brother. Frost began to envision that something must have happened to Wren to spark her silence.

“It became a very different story,” Frost says. “After I started telling the story, Darra kind of poked her head in. She wasn’t there until six or seven versions of the story went by. I had to keep asking myself questions.”

While the story changed, one thing remained consistent: Frost’s impeccable talent for creating novels in the form of poetry. She says that after she wrote The Braid, where form also plays an important role, “I felt like anything was possible with language. Language itself helps tell the story.”

Language definitely helps to convey the story of Hidden, with each girl’s words captured in a different format. “There were hidden elements of each girl’s life,” Frost says. “The language itself works to bring the two stories together.”

To relay Wren’s experience, Frost says she worked hard “to put her poems in a structured form.” For Darra’s dialogue, she created an ingenious form specifically for this novel. The last words of the long lines, read vertically down the right side of the page, form sentences that elucidate Darra’s memories.

While the form was intentional, the author says the words came organically—to create an authentic, natural-sounding dialogue. “[I] trust the DNA of the language. It creates tension and really interesting reverberations in the story. For kids reading it, I think they will think this is a really fun thing to discover.”

A native South Dakotan who was born fifth in a family of 10 children, Frost says she “grew up in a family that made me feel like I could do anything.” She received a degree in Elementary Education from Syracuse University, and it was there that she discovered poetry.

“I feel really lucky in the introduction to poetry I had. It has always been a part of my life,” says Frost, noting that the much-decorated poets Philip Booth and W.D. Snodgrass were among her teachers.

As her writing career progressed, “I was writing prose for children and poetry for adults,” she says, expressing amazement at how long it took her to meld those two worlds. “I realized that I had all those tools. I sometimes start my books in prose, but then I miss those tools. It’s like a really precise paintbrush. I want the structure, the sound of language.”

Frost has seen firsthand the impact of poetry on young readers. “I saw how much [children] loved poetry,” she says, recalling a time she once worked with a group of tween-age boys. “I remember putting out poems on a table . . . and a fistfight practically erupted. They were fighting over Shakespeare; I really saw a hunger for poetry.”

In addition to drawing on her background in poetry, Frost also infuses her writing with experiences from the many places she’s hung her hat over the years—from a progressive boarding school in Scotland to a one-teacher school in a tiny town in Alaska.

“I think I just grew up with a sense of adventure,” Frost says. “All these places came back when I became a full-time writer; I realized just how much I had to draw on.”

Next up for this talented author is Step Gently Out, a picture book collaboration with photographer Rick Lieder due out next year. She’s also starting a new novel-in-poems, and it’s likely there are even more ideas “hidden” somewhere in her imagination—but don’t worry, she’ll get them down eventually.

“The main thing is to keep from being distracted,” says Frost, a mother of two and grandmother of two. “I love writing, and I love children. To have those two things combined . . . it’s been a long journey to get to this point. It feels really lucky.”

Get the Book



By Paul Jaskunas
Free Press
ISBN 9780743257480

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our newsletter to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres every Tuesday.

Trending Interviews