As my regular readers know, I’m a round-one judge for the Cybils Awards in the Poetry category. Because of that, I’ve been reading tons of verse lately! I’m not allowed to share any details about our process for choosing the finalists, but I am allowed (and encouraged) to review the books as I read, so I figured I’d share four of them with you today. I hope these bite-sized reviews will be enough to feed your fiction addiction!
When We Make It by Elisabet Velasquez
Published by Dial Books on September 21, 2021
Genres: Historical Fiction, Verse, Young Adult
Cover Artist: Faneshe Fabre
My content rating: YA (Tackles lots of mature topics - see the review for a partial list)
An unforgettable, torrential, and hopeful debut young adult novel-in-verse that redefines what it means to "make it,” for readers of Nicholasa Mohr and Elizabeth Acevedo.
Sarai is a first-generation Puerto Rican eighth grader who can see with clarity the truth, pain, and beauty of the world both inside and outside her Bushwick apartment. Together with her older sister Estrella, she navigates the strain of family traumas and the systemic pressures of toxic masculinity and housing insecurity in a rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn. Sarai questions the society around her, her Boricua identity, and the life she lives with determination and an open heart, learning to celebrate herself in a way that she has been denied.
When We Make It is a love letter to anyone who was taught to believe that they would not make it. To those who feel their emotions before they can name them. To those who still may not have all the language but they have their story. Velasquez’ debut novel is sure to leave an indelible mark on all who read it.
When We Make It explores ethnic identity against a backdrop of mid-90’s Brooklyn. Sarai knows many people consider her neighborhood of Bushwick dangerous and disorderly, but to her it’s just home. Many of her neighbors are viewed as criminals, but she sees the hopes and dreams that go along with their failures and flaws. She sees them as imperfect people who are trying, in whatever ways they can, to “make it.” The book also explores race and culture. As a Puerto Rican girl who’s lived in Brooklyn her whole life, Sarai wonders how much of her ethnic background and identity she has a right to claim, and she longs to learn more about her roots.
When We Make It doesn’t tread lightly; it portrays the truth of living in poverty and tackles such weighty topics as sexual assault, domestic abuse, drug use, teen pregnancy, postpartum depression, miscarriage, racism, and misogyny (to name a few—I’m guessing I missed some). This is the reality that Sarai lives in, but she also sees beauty and a sense of solidarity in her community. And in the end, she realizes that “making it” doesn’t mean she has to leave Bushwick and the building blocks of her life behind.
The One Thing You'd Save by Linda Sue Park
Illustrator: Robert Sae-Heng
Published by Clarion Books on March 16, 2021
Genres: Contemporary, Middle Grade, Verse
If your house were on fire, what one thing would you save? Newbery Medalist Linda Sue Park explores different answers to this provocative question in linked poems that capture the diverse voices of a middle school class. Illustrated with black-and-white art.
When a teacher asks her class what one thing they would save in an emergency, some students know the answer right away. Others come to their decisions more slowly. And some change their minds when they hear their classmates’ responses. A lively dialog ignites as the students discover unexpected facets of one another—and themselves. With her ear for authentic dialog and knowledge of tweens’ priorities and emotions, Linda Sue Park brings the varied voices of an inclusive classroom to life through carefully honed, engaging, and instantly accessible verse.
A sweet verse narrative that highlights life’s true treasures. In this story, Ms. Chang asks her students a simple question: What one object would you take with you if you were fleeing from a fire? Each student’s answer is a window into their personality and their values. Some of the objects are relatively simple, some profound. Some of the students find clever ways around the rules, while others share personal stories that reveal why their object is sacred to them.
The poems in the book are written with the syllabic structure of a sijo, a short Korean form of poetry (though Park explains at the end of the book that she sometimes takes liberties with the length). Since most kids probably aren’t familiar with this form of poetry, they’ll be learning something new. (Maybe they’ll even want to try it out themselves.) Plus, it will encourage them to think about important objects in their own lives, and what special meanings their possessions might hold.
Starfish by Lisa Fipps
Published by Penguin Young Readers: Nancy Paulsen Books on March 9, 2021
Genres: Contemporary, Middle Grade, Verse
Cover Artist: Tara O'Brien
Ellie is tired of being fat-shamed and does something about it in this poignant debut novel-in-verse.
Ever since Ellie wore a whale swimsuit and made a big splash at her fifth birthday party, she’s been bullied about her weight. To cope, she tries to live by the Fat Girl Rules–like “no making waves,” “avoid eating in public,” and “don’t move so fast that your body jiggles.” And she’s found her safe space–her swimming pool–where she feels weightless in a fat-obsessed world. In the water, she can stretch herself out like a starfish and take up all the room she wants. It’s also where she can get away from her pushy mom, who thinks criticizing Ellie’s weight will motivate her to diet. Fortunately, Ellie has allies in her dad, her therapist, and her new neighbor, Catalina, who loves Ellie for who she is. With this support buoying her, Ellie might finally be able to cast aside the Fat Girl Rules and starfish in real life–by unapologetically being her own fabulous self.
Starfish is an incredibly powerful book for kids who are bullied about their weight and need to see themselves on the page. But it’s also an important book for everyone else–anyone who might not understand the true harm that can be caused by thoughtless (or plain hurtful) words and actions. Ellie faces bullying every day, and all of it is harmful. But the very worst of her pain comes from her own mother, who can’t seem to see past her fears over her daughter’s health and social relationships to realize that she is the one causing her daughter’s deepest wounds.
Fipps writes a story that is both poignant and painful. Relatable and revolting. As a person who hasn’t had to worry overly much about weight, my instinct was to think, “Surely, things can’t be this bad for most overweight people.” And I will say, the book might feel overwhelming for some (it’s the type of book that might need some processing with kids who read it). But sometimes the truth isn’t pretty and we need to hear it anyway. Sometimes life isn’t fair. And this sense of unfairness makes it all the more powerful when Ellie eventually finds herself on a journey toward acceptance and empowerment.
The Dirt Book: Poems about Animals That Live Beneath Our Feet by David L. Harrison
Illustrator: Kate Cosgrove
Published by Holiday House on June 8, 2021
Genres: Picture Book, Verse
15 fun and fact-filled poems about soil--what makes it and who lives in it!
Dirt! It's made of chipped rocks, rotting plants, decaying animals, fungi, and germs. It's food for plants and home to animals of all kinds.
15 poems explore the underground lives of earthworms, spiders, ants, chipmunks, and more.Chipmunk, for such a little squirtyou sure do move a lot of dirt, you sure do dig your tunnels deep,
you sure do find some nuts to keep, you sure do know your underground.Chipmunk, you sure do get around.
The Dirt Book is a cute collection of poems about what goes on underground. It talks a bit about the dirt itself (what it’s made of, how it got there, etc) but focuses more on the myriad of creatures that make their home beneath the earth. The book is illustrated in a vertical panoramic style, meaning you turn the pages up instead of to the left. This means there’s lots of space for Cosgrove to illustrate what’s going on below the ground and also just above the surface. The poems are relatively simple but fun to read aloud. Kids will get a kick out of hearing tales of creepy crawlies like the spider looking for his lunch, as well as larger animals like the gopher tortoise who has to share his home with all sorts of guests. At the end of the book, Harrison has included a paragraph of facts about each animal as well.