I started by putting together a list of verse novels and novelists, and yesterday picked up my first batch of requests from my local library.
I read Stop Pretending: What happened when my big sister went crazy by Sonya Sones in—what, an hour, 90 minutes? It's a short read (I counted 106 poems, 145 pages), but powerful. Here's the jacket copy, followed by my impressions.
"In the blink of an eye it happens. A teenage girls suffers a mental breakdown and lands in a psychiatric ward, haunted by voices, out of control, seeming transformed into a stranger.
For the younger sister left behind, nothing will ever be the same. Fearful about her own sanity, her fragile friendships, and her unraveling world, she embarks on a fierce emotional journey. A succession of powerful poems stirs up a cyclone of emotion that sweeps the chilling landscape of mental illness."
My thought after reading the first few poems: This is way too real and true-to-life to be made up solely from someone's imagination. I flipped to the back and found out, yes, this book is autobiographical. One of Sonya Sones' older sisters had a nervous breakdown at 19 when Ms. Sones was 13—the ages of the two girls in Stop Pretending.
I expected breathy, maudlin teenage verse. But Sones gives us controlled emotion. These poems with their focus and spareness become the perfect vehicle for the deeply felt subject matter. Thirteen-year-old Cookie's voice has a diary-like tell-all quality to it when she expresses her mixed up feelings (fear, rage, sadness, confusion, weariness, shame etc.) about her sister's illness and all the changes it brings to her life.
I love the way this book gives just enough information so we know what's happening, yet still leaves room for us to do a little figuring out on our own. The U.S. urban setting (where family, friends and school loom large) make it easy for modern tweens and teens to relate.
The poems themselves range from very short (like the four-line "The Truth Is" - p. 64) to several pages long ("I'm Tired" pp. 92-94). Mostly they are in free verse but presented with an underlying sense of control. Several poems use syllable-counted forms. For example, the second poem, the powerful "My Sister's Christmas Eve Breakdown" is eight cinquains (five line stanzas containing, successively, 2, 4, 6, 8, 2 syllables, used in other places too). There is a prose poem ("English Homework" p. 42), and lots of poems made up of tercets (three-line-stanzas, unrhymed).
She uses repetition a lot and with good effect. "Maybe..." begins each stanza in "My Supper Theories as to Why" p. 37, "I'm tired..." is the mantra of "Tired p. 92-94, and "Will they..." or "Will she..." begin the six stanzas of "Shock" p. 133.
If I could quote my favorites, I'd share "My Sister's Christmas Eve Breakdown," "Three A.M. the same night," "Paper Doll" (I all but lost it on this one), and "Last July, when sister and I got lost on the Cape" for starters. (Actually Ms. Sones has published three poems from the book online, including the Christmas eve one here)
I'm looking forward to reading more verse novels to see how other storytellers are using this interesting form.
If you're keen too, here is a page with a list of them from Sonia Sones' website...it should keep us reading for a while.
The informative article "Thoughts On VERSE NOVELS" posted on the Dryden Books Facebook page, also gives a good introduction to this genre.
Wild Rose Reader.