Thursday, September 15, 2011

Inside Out and Back Again v. Hidden: Two Novels in Verse

In any other given year, INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN by Thanhha Lai would be the sort of novel that the Newbery committee would drool over. Written in verse, with beautiful poetic language, it tells the story of 10-year-old Ha and her family as they leave their war-torn home of Vietnam to settle in the United States. Ha's father has been missing in action for 9 years and the transition to American culture is not easy. This kind of character drama is the stuff the Newbery committee loves. But this year, this particular free verse novel, has some pretty stiff competition.

HIDDEN by Helen Frost, is another free verse novel told from the point of view of two different girls, Wren Abbott and Darra Monson. When Wren was eight years old, a man stole her mother's car from a gas station and drove off. Unbeknownst to the man, Wren was in the backseat. Wren's next two days are spent trapped in the man's garage, hiding in his boat, eavesdropping on their family, and finding brief companionship in the family's cat Archie. Darra, the man's daughter, after seeing a news report of the missing girl, guesses that Wren must be hiding in their garage somewhere. Without telling her mother or father, she attempts to help by leaving food out for Wren. She even devises a plan to get her out unseen, but never gets to see it through. Wren is able to escape without the two girls ever actually meeting face to face. Six years later though, the two girls attend the same summer camp and those harrowing days Wren spent trapped in the Monson's garage come haunting back.

It's probably not fair to compare the two novels. They are each their own separate entities. However after reading both, Lai's attempt at free verse in INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN seems rather meager compared to Frost's intricate and brilliantly designed plot. With INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN, I feel that there is no real reason to tell the story in verse. The language is beautiful and poetic, but I feel that if Lai would not have been somewhat confined to the artistic style she chose, there may have actually been more of a story here. What we have are feelings and events pieced together in a rather sparse, and sometimes sporadic manner. I'm sure the intent was to have these small, quiet moments in Ha's narrative stand out loud and clear when they weren't surrounded by much context. But instead, I found it to be quite the opposite. I just didn't think there was much to this piece and I can't find much to say about it. Plus, it's kind of boring.

In HIDDEN however, the free verse serves an important purpose. Both Wren and Darra share the role of narrator and each do it in their own brand of free verse poetry. This gives them two very distinct voices. Wren's narrative is similar to that of Lai's style from INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN, a more traditional form of free verse. It's beautiful on the page and reads effortlessly. At times, Wren's free verse narration is even incredibly suspenseful. Darra's narrative is of Frost's own creation. It's more a heavier style of narrative poetry, detailed and descriptive and even kind of a puzzle. When solved it gives the reader further insight into how Darra experienced the same event six years ago.

There are a few plot particulars of HIDDEN that did hold it back from being perfect though. Eight year old, pink and pigtailed, delicate little Wren behaves with such maturity and resourcefulness when surviving in the Monson garage that some suspension of disbelief is required on the reader's part. Later in the book, when Darra finds out that her father is being released from prison in a few months, Wren coincidentally receives an "urgent" phone call from her parents, interrupting her final few weeks of summer camp, informing her of the very same news. "We thought we should let you know," says her father. Why exactly couldn't it wait a couple of weeks, I ask? Probably, convenience of moving the plot along. But I'm willing to forgive Frost those minor blunders because the end result is so powerful.

I understand that the two books are aimed at two entirely different age sets. INSIDE OUT AND BACK again is geared toward the younger Newbery audience members while HIDDEN is definitely written for the upper end. I appreciate the fact that Lai's novel introduces younger readers to the free verse form, but just can't get over how far superior Frost's book is.


HIDDEN Final Grade: A-

Friday, September 9, 2011


I was a little leery of this Kevin Henkes novel for a couple of reasons. First, I believe Henkes is at his best when he's writing picture books about talking mice, kittens, gardens, and rabbits. Second, the few times I have read a novel of his I've been disappointed. OLIVE'S OCEAN and BIRD LAKE MOON were both depressingly dark and dreary. If LILLY'S PURPLE PLASTIC PURSE, KITTEN'S FIRST MOON, and other picture book and early readers are his Summer Blockbusters of sorts, it feels like his novels are his creative, moody Indie flicks!

In JUNONIA, nine-year old Alice Rice travels from Wisconsin with her family to their vacation cottage on Sandibel Island in Florida. It's a trip Alice looks forward to every year and this year is no exception. Especially since Alice will be celebrating her tenth birthday with the summer "family" she's come to love. However when Alice discovers that many of the regular vacationers the family spends each summer with are not coming this year, she begins to worry that her special tenth birthday won't be so special after all.

On the surface, JUNONIA is a simple, quick read, with larger than normal text and only 176 pages of story. By story's end however, a lot of big ideas wash to shore. In a way, JUNONIA is about the loss of innocence. The moment in a child's life when they begin to realize they are outgrowing certain common comforts. Alice realizes this as she makes her way through a beachy graveyard at one point in the story, and ponders some of life's biggest questions (as only a ten-year old could). Of course the presence of the younger, more immature, Mallory forces Alice to behave and reason in a more grown-up way . . . but I felt that Alice was aware of these feelings the moment she stepped foot on Florida sand, long before Mallory even entered the picture.

One thing I've learned in seven years of teaching is that kids are thinkers. Their minds are always soaking in details and processing information and reacting to that information in one way or another. Kids are selfish, yet sensitive by nature and knowing how to react to all sorts of new feelings is not something they know how to do. One thing Henkes does so well in JUNONIA is depict how jumbled of a process this can be. Poor Alice is confused and frustrated and sad about so many things, and sorting out all of these feelings is new territory for her. Luckily she has a mother and a father who have the ability to read her face like a book and shown her the joy and release that can be found in letting go of things and accepting other people for who they are. So much in this book leaves Alice at a loss for words though, and Henkes does a marvelous job of portraying this.

I enjoyed JUNONIA. It's much more light-hearted than some of Henkes' more recent novels and the text has an airy, island feel to it. I loved the different descriptions of the many shells Alice collects and didn't even realize that there are so many different kinds of shells. In the end, I had hoped for a little more closure on Mallory and her situation, but I understand that this is Alice's story. Maybe down the road, Henkes will want to follow up on Mallory, but I'm afraid that story could only be a return to the dark and depressing Henkes I wasn't ever fond of. So for now, I'll appreciate JUNONIA for the junonia shell that it is.

Final Grade: B+