Kelly Jensen is an author and former librarian. She can be found blogging at Stacked about YA Lit. Kelly is also contributing editor and community manager at BookRiot and the author of It Happens, a book about contemporary realistic YA fiction.
Kelly is here today to talk about verse/verse novels in YA and feminism and how the format lends itself to subversion.
Verse as a Feminist Tool of Voice and Subversion in YA Lit — and Beyond
Modern poetry in America began with two key writers: Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. The two were about as different as can be imagined. Whitman wrote for the common man, his life being one that was lived out loud. His work reflects his beliefs and passionate dedication to big issues going on sociopolitically and culturally. Whitman wrote externally — where he certainly imbues his work with his personal stances, the body of his work reflects an utter investment in the world outside of himself. Readers who aren’t familiar with his work should spend some time perusing Leaves of Grass. It’s a fantastic collection; start with “I Hear America Singing” and “I Sing the Body Electric” to get a feel for how he breaks apart conventions in his writing in terms of structure, formality, and voice.
Dickinson, on the other hand, was a recluse. Her poetry, like Whitman’s, defied convention, making use of capitalization and punctuation in ways that didn’t align with poetic or grammatical tradition. But unlike Whitman, Dickinson’s poetry was internally-focused. But where she excels — what makes her poetry so foundational and so memorable and so damn curious — is that that internal focus offered her a powerful voice and opportunity to reflect on herself and her beliefs about her place in the world without having to put herself out in that world. Where she lived in a world of restrictions and limitations sociopolitically and culturally, poetry gave her a place to break from those boundaries.
Where Whitman wrote for the common man, perhaps it could be said that Dickinson’s work reflects the common woman.
It’s impossible to ignore the growth of references to Emily Dickinson in YA literature over the last few years. There have been multiple books where the main character of the story has some sort of connection or fixation with the infamously recluse American poet, including When Reason Breaks by Cindy L. Rodriguez, Death, Dickinson, and The Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia by Jenny Torres Sanchez, Nobody’s Secret by Michaela MacColl, And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard, and Emily’s Dress and Other Missing Things by Kathryn Burak, among others. In each, it’s a girl who finds herself connecting to Dickinson in some capacity. There’s something about who Dickinson was and what it was she had to say that speaks to these girls in a way that little else does. While there have been books where boys have connected to a poet or to poetry — James in Evan Roskos’s Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets is fascinated by Walt Whitman — it doesn’t serve as the same catalyst for self-discovery, self-empowerment, or cultural subversion that it does for girls.
Dickinson taps into something internal, something almost primal, that lives inside of girls. Exposure to her work untaps it, digging into what it means to feel locked in, suffocated by a world that doesn’t let you live in the same way that men can. And Dickinson does it by bashing convention in her own right.
Through poetic expression and connection, girls — those in YA and those outside the YA novel — are able to find a powerful voice that otherwise finds itself suppressed. It’s a way to delve inside, to consider one’s place in the world and one’s connection to that greater world without the pressure to conform to what it is the outside world wants. For girls, this isn’t just a nicety; it’s a necessity. It is, in many ways, “a room of one’s own.”
It’s not surprising, then, that the verse novel in YA fiction tends toward not only featuring female voices written by female authors, but many of the titles and collections are, without question, feminist. They offer up stories and perspectives not frequently explored with such exactitude or sharpness. These novels, even if they don’t invoke Dickinson outright, step into the tradition she created that offers a way for girls to break traditional barriers in writing and in their social places.
The choice to write a story in verse or write a collection of poetry is intentional. To deliver a feminist message through a verse novel is the most perfect means of subversion and a literary middle finger to the patriarchy.
If you’re looking to dive into some solidly feminist verse novels and consider the ways in which Dickinson’s legacy lives on through YA, you can do no harm in checking out the following. All descriptions are from WorldCat. If you work with teens — especially teen girls — don’t shy away from recommending these books or encouraging teens to respond to these works in the ways that allow them the chance to discover their own unique voices and means of expression.
- Audacity by Melaine Crowder: A historical fiction novel in verse detailing the life of Clara Lemlich and her struggle for women’s labor rights in the early 20th century in New York.
- A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl by Tanya Lee Stone: Josie, Nicolette, and Aviva all get mixed up with a senior boy who can talk them into doing almost anything he wants. In a blur of high school hormones and personal doubt, each girl struggles with how much to give up and what ultimately to keep for herself.
- The Day Before by Lisa Schroeder: Sixteen-year-old Amber, hoping to spend one perfect day alone at the beach before her world is turned upside down, meets and feels a strong connection to Cade, who is looking for his own escape, for a very different reason.
- The Geography of Girlhood by Kirsten Smith: Novel in poetry about a girl navigating the unknown, the difficult limbo between youth and adulthood. A novel written in verse follows Penny Morrow in her transition from middle school to high school as her father remarries, she acquires a new stepbrother, and she experiences her first dance, first kiss, and other hazards of growing up.
- The Good Braider by Terry Farish: Told in spare free verse, the book follows Viola as she survives brutality in war-torn Sudan, makes a perilous journey, lives as a refugee in Egypt, and finally reaches Portland, Maine, where her quest for freedom and security is hampered by memories of past horrors and the traditions her mother and other Sudanese adults hold dear. With unforgettable images, the author’s voice sings out the story of her family’s journey, and tells the universal tale of a young immigrant’s struggle to build a life on the cusp of two cultures.
- How to (Un)Cage a Girl by Francesca Lia Block: A celebration of girls and women in a three part poetry collection that is powerful, hopeful, authentic, and universal.
- My Book of Life by Angel by Martine Levine: 16-year-old Angel struggles to free herself from the trap of prostitution in which she is caught.
- Poisoned Apples: Poems For You, My Pretty by Christine Heppermann: Christine Heppermann’s powerful collection of free verse poems explore how girls are taught to think about themselves, their bodies, their friends–as consumers, as objects, as competitors. Based on classic fairy tale characters and fairy tale tropes, the poems range from contemporary retellings to first person accounts set within the original stories. From Snow White’s cottage and Rapunzel’s tower to health class and the prom, these poems are a moving depiction of young women, society, and our expectations.
- Song of the Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell: In fifth-century Britain, nine years after the destruction of their home on the island of Shalott brings her to live with her father and brothers in the military encampments of Arthur’s army, seventeen-year-old Elaine describes her changing perceptions of war and the people around her as she becomes increasingly involved in the bitter struggle against the invading Saxons.
- A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman: In India, a girl who excels at Bharatanatyam dance refuses to give up after losing a leg in an accident.
- Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall: Throughout her high school years, as her mother battles cancer, Lupita takes on more responsibility for her house and seven younger siblings, while finding refuge in acting and writing poetry.
- Your Own, Sylvia: A Verse Portrait of Sylvia Plath by Stephanie Hemphill: The author interprets the people, events, influences and art that made up the brief life of Sylvia Plath.
Bonus Talk: Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero offers up the diary of a Mexican-American teen girl and within it, she shares much of her internal self through poetry. That act of poetry is subversive and powerful.
Even though Ellen Hopkins’ books aren’t often considered feminist, her work comes from an exceptional feminist perspective. She makes use of the verse format to tell stories of those who are often underrepresented or overlooked and she does so without flinching or turning away from the tough stuff.
Likewise, Margarita Engle’s books in verse — which tell the stories of real people, the bulk of whom have not had their voices heard — fit firmly in the feminist camp.
Thank you again to Kelly for this amazing post and suggested reading.
If you want to see more of Kelly’s writing be sure to check out her blog: http://www.stackedbooks.org
And also BookRiot: http://bookriot.com/author/kjensen/