I like novels in verse for lots of reasons, and one is the way that many good ones take readers into corners of our diverse world. If, like me, you’re eagerly waiting for Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming to come out next month, in the meantime you can be moved by these two new wonderfully written novels for teens.
A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman follows the dreams and setbacks of Veda, a dancer who loses her leg in an accident early in the book, and must adapt to using a prosthetic. The novel is divided into nicely titled poems, while keeping the pace of a fast-moving but elegant dance. I liked the themes of resilience, a bit of romance, art, and spirituality (and art as spirituality), all weaving in and out of what many will find a familiar and beautifully unfamiliar world. A Time to Dance is framed with poems about the Temple of the Dancing God. Both poems refer to costumes and feet sculpted from bronze or carved in stone. There are sounds of cymbals and scents of white jasmine, but in the final poem, there’s a stronger emphasis on the inner life. The music of applause has deepened, and the fears and hopes of a young dancer have turned to acceptance and joy.
Walking (caminar means “to walk” in Spanish) keeps the plot moving in a new verse novel, which is more like a collection of poems in that most, though usually short, have a completeness of their own. Caminar by Skila Brown is set in Guatemala in 1981and tells the story of Carlos. The first poem sets the place, comparing where he lives to a hand. The particular fingers and thumb named here are important throughout, as Carlos walks, meets people, changes his mind, faces violence, and climbs the mountain we see on that first page to warn others about the soldiers who invaded his village. The beginning poems also set up trees, animals, and “nahuales,” or animal spirit protectors, which appear throughout.
The book covers a lot of time and the leaps between poems makes such time-passing graceful, and also suits the themes of courage and coming of age. How each poem appears on the page is given a lot of thought, with patterns of words sometimes mimicking sounds. Some conversations seem to zigzag, while others are broken or speckled over the page so we get a sense of many talking at once. Some shape poems look scattered like ammunition, or at a moment of terror rely on a single word.
Both books use lyrical language to show hardships faced, bringing together beauty, pain, and courage. Highly recommended!
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