Process Talk: Cordelia Jensen on Writing and Teaching the Verse Novel

VCFA graduate Cordelia Jensen is offering two workshops through the Highlights Foundation, one that’s up and running already, on Exploring the Limitations and Liberations of Novels in Verse and Novels in Vignette and the other on Creating an Image System That Works for Your Verse Novel.

I try to take a class every couple of years, maybe just to prove that my aging brain can still handle new ideas. And I happen to be struggling with a new novel that, despite my best efforts to turn it into prose, seems insistent on showing up in the form of mostly free verse mixed in with a range of poetic forms. So I signed up, and asked Cordelia if she’d talk to me ahead of the class.

[UK] What led you to the verse novel as a form?

[CJ] What led me to the verse novel was the instruction of our mutual friend, Coe Booth. Coe was my first advisor at VCFA. I had arrived my first semester with a Middle Grade camp story I was very excited about…and then…well…Coe was, um, let’s just say far less excited about my camp story than I was! I got frustrated and sent her a series of “family poems” I had worked on for years, ever since my father died of AIDS in 1994. I sent her 5 of these.

She said, “Oh my gosh Cordelia! This is what you need to be writing. Have you ever heard of a YA verse novel?” I had not. She changed the course of my career—and my life—because she introduced me to this form. I then worked on my first published verse novel—Skyscraping—for the rest of my time at VCFA. It was bought by Penguin less than a year after I graduated from the program. I fell head over heels in love with the form and I then went on to publish two more—The Way the Light Bends, also published by Philomel/Penguin—and a hybrid prose/verse novel I co-authored with fellow VCFA grad Laurie Morrison, entitled Every Shiny Thing (Amulet/Abrams.)

[UK] What led you to teach the form?

[CJ] I have taught creative writing in a variety of settings—at a bookstore with kids and teens, with undergrads at Bryn Mawr College, with high schoolers at Germantown Friends School, with adults at The Writing Barn and now Highlights—in each of the setting I either incorporate verse novels in one lesson of the semester or focus an entire class on verse novels. I teach the form not just because I love to write it though; I teach it because it is experimental and complex and asks readers (and writers) to rethink how stories can be told.

[UK] For myself, I don’t always know how a form will limit a story or free it up until I’ve dug into it for a while, turned the compost heap a few times, so to speak. What’s your approach to teaching writers to open their minds to the nature of the verse novel?

[CJ] I think verse novels challenge the author with very specific limitations—such as, how do I create three-dimensional secondary characters with much less access to dialogue? How do I show action when so much of verse is internal? How do I create a cohesive plot from a series of strung together snapshots of moments? Many authors have come up with creative solutions to the limitations of this hybrid form. There are also a lot of liberations found in the form—like using white space to create story tension or font play to emphasize certain emotions or words which can help develop character. There are parts of writing in verse that can be really freeing and fun and experimental. Most people who take a verse novel class are already excited about the form and ready to play!

[UK] I’m fascinated by your framework of image systems. In fact, as you know, I signed up for your class, hoping to use its energy to help me think through a work in progress that shall remain lovingly unnamed for now. What can you tell me about images and their power in driving a verse novel? 

[CJ] I’m so honored you’re taking my class! I don’t want to give too much class content away, but I will say that I do think that because poetry spotlights imagery, if you change the way the character reflects or interacts with the same kind of image through the course of the story, you can reveal character growth in a more dramatic way I think than regular novels can. This, I believe, is what helps to make successful verse novels feel so emotional. My favorite example of this is the image of the papaya in Thanhaa Lai’s Inside Out & Back Again. There are also specific factors to consider when you choose an image system for your main character, including age, worldview, and psychosocial development.

[UK] The verse novel is an ancient form (think Homer and Beowulf) and it’s still evolving! What advice would you give to writers wanting to try it out, see where it might take them?

[CJ] I love this quote from Brenna Friesner, author of The Verse Novel in Young Adult Literature, as I think it encourages students to explore the possibilities located in the form:

“Within these definitions of ‘novel’ and ‘verse,’ there is flexibility. The form doesn’t change book to book, but each author’s interpretation of the form creates a wide range of word and page counts. Authors are often playful in using a combination of poetry forms and devices interchangeably with free verse… In a sense, it is up to each author to forge a path with their verse novel…Verse novel authors, who are at the forefront of their own evolving genre, are really the ones who best understand what their work represents and where it’s going.” 

[UK] Thanks, Cordelia! I look forward to your October class so I can find new ways to see the story I seem to have on my hands!

How Do You Compete With Free?

Deborah Ahenkora is a publisher based in Accra, Ghana. “We don’t live in silos,” she says. In this interview with journalist and radio show host Nahlah Ayed, Ahenkora talks about her childhood reading, the challenges faced by publishers in African countries and her wake-up moment after reading Nancy Drew and confessing to well-meaning adults that she’d decided then and there to become a detective.

Dreams, ambition, reality, and the magic of escaping into a book, all interwoven with a reading of Bahiya, the Little Zebra, a picture book from Tanzania and Egypt, written by Nahida Esmail and illustrated by Randa Abubakr. (African Bureau Stories)

Ahenkora speaks of a book famine in Africa. She asks:

What would the world look like if young Canadian girls were growing up reading about a little girl living in Harare?

And when the marketplace is flooded with free book donations from the developed world, all glossy and beautifully finished, how can local entrepreneurs hope to compete? In 2008, she founded the Golden Baobab Prize for African writers of children’s literature in 2008 — when she was just a 19-year old university student.The interview raises great questions and showcases the voice of a woman with an important and necessary vision.

Before Fake News Became a Thing: Reflecting on the Career of J Marks

Years ago, I came across a YA novel titled Rama: A Legend by a writer who called himself Jamake Highwater. Even back then, in the 1990’s, I wondered how come someone with a Native American-sounding name, writing about mostly Native subjects in an authoritative sounding voice, would choose to turn his attention to a retelling of the Ramayana. I didn’t know any Native writers personally at the time, but it seemed odd, somehow.

What gave this man, I wondered, the authority to fictionalize the Ramayana? Still, he seemed to bear the stamp of approval from the publishing world. The book was published by Henry Holt. Publishers Weekly called it “an authentic adaptation and abridgment of the original for an American audience,” so who was I to quibble? Anyway, over the years, I became preoccupied with other subcontinental story tropes being hijacked and hopelessly hacked, to great approval in the very market I was trying to submit to. Who had the time to worry about Jamake Highwater?

Later I heard there was something scandalous about him, something to do with his lack of authenticity, but I didn’t pay too much attention. Hoaxes of this kind had been in the air for decades, it seemed, witness The Education of Little Tree.

Then recently, pottering around the Internet, while avoiding the novel that has been beating me over the head, I stumbled upon this article in Indian Country Today. Excerpt:

In 1984, Hank Adams (the Native American activist) sent an astounding exposé on the “Indian expert” Jamake Mamake Highwater that we published in the pages of Akwesasne Notes. (Vine Deloria acted as a go-between to get it published and Suzan Harjo did some research.) What Hank Adams had uncovered was that the Native American author (who claimed Blackfoot/Cherokee heritage), a noted intellectual, a recipient of Ford Foundation grants and major publishing contracts, was not a Native American at all, but a writer named J Marks (J, Jay or Jack Marks, born Jackie Marks). 

Adams’s exposé was published in 1984. A decade later, in 1997, I may have been seeing the shapeshifting efforts of a man who was trying to retool the focus of his authority from Native traditions to Southeast Asian ones with a fictionalization of the Ramayana. Was it based on sources from Java or Bali, or maybe on the Thai Ramakien? I don’t remember and none of the reviews still available saw fit to mention a source.

A cautionary tale, this. A reminder that fakery has been with us for years. In our children’s book industry, it can leave long lasting footprints.

[Image source: abebooks.com]

Guest Post: Meera Sriram on A Gift for Amma

A Gift for Amma: Market Day in India, by Meera Sriram, illustrated by Mariona Cabassa, is out just this month from Barefoot Books. Just when I found myself getting used to staying put in one place, this book arrived to tug at my memories of India. Cabassa’s art conjures the deep, vivid palette of the region and the convoluted silhouettes of a south Indian cityscape. And then there’s the progression of colors in the concept-grounded text–all designed to evoke that visceral feeling of a vibrant, living city.

I asked Meera to tell me more about how she’d grown this book. Here’s what she said:

Just to offer context, in this story, a little girl explores many colorful items at a bustling street market in India while trying to pick a special gift for her mother. It is illustrated by Barcelona-based artist Mariona Cabassa and the setting is inspired by the vibrant street life in Chennai, the city in southern India where I grew up.

A book on colors set in India is almost like a low hanging fruit. So, I knew I had to push myself to make it fresh. Since it’s a colors concept book at its core, my target audience sort of fell in place. And considering their age group (around 3-8 years), I had two important aspects in mind: read-aloud and re-readability.

Lyrical and rhythmic text with fun sounds, rich vocabulary, and active verbs helped upgrade the read-aloud factor of the narrative. I “sang” every couplet (to a beat) as I wrote, to make sure it followed the rhythm. And I read the full manuscript aloud countless times! Introducing onomatopoeic words (achoo, ding-a-ling, clink ) paved way for a sensory experience and prompted me to include smells, taste words and textures. For richness, it was a light bulb moment that elevated the manuscript – I was using culturally iconic items to show color when it occurred to me that many of them were also color descriptors. Like saffron, vermillion, terracotta, and indigo – they do double duty as color shades and culturally relevant items. This gave the colors concept a fresh makeover. Lastly, I tried to “pull” readers into the chaos on the streets by including action on every spread – goats shoving past, rickshaw pedaling, peppers spilling, drums beating, birds pecking, buffalo stomping, and so much more. In the end, it was all about word choice – fun, strong, rich, active vocabulary – for sparse text to be able to grab attention, engage senses, and move the story forward.

At some point, I also introduced a traditional story arc celebrating a child’s love for her mother. This allowed for hook, tension, and a surprise ending in the narrative, all of which helped make it a story that young kids would hopefully want to go back to. Back matter for deeper understanding also boosts re-readability. More than anything, Mariona’s dynamic illustrations definitely give children enough reason to keep going back to the book.

It might seem like I knew exactly how to go about the narrative, however, that’s not true at all. The narrative only grew richer with many, many revisions, plenty of mistakes, lots of guidance from critique partners, and several insightful rejections. Picture book writing is fascinating because it really does take a village, and a very long time, to tell half of a story in a few hundred words. Every word counts they say, and they don’t say it for nothing.

Thanks, Meera! May we move ahead someday to a new tomorrow when cities can bustle once more.

Reindeer, Red Riding Hood and the Nature of Decomposition

When lightning killed 323 reindeer in a remote region of Norway, the park left them in place where they’d fallen, allowed decomposition to set in, so scientists could study it and see how it might change the arctic tundra ecosystem. One element of the Guardian article surprised me, and that was the use of the term, “landscape of fear.” The researchers talked about how solemn it felt to approach a place where so many lives had been snuffed out all at once. 

Excerpt: 

Over the years scientists observed the bloated, fly-infested bodies turn into dry skeletons. The latest paper, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science in June, looked at the creation of a “landscape of fear”, as top predators such as wolverines, golden eagles and arctic foxes took advantage of the carrion.

But then, another surprise. Fear opened up to opportunity for other lives: first scavenger birds, then rodents, then insect-eaters–meadow pipit, northern wheatear, common reed bunting, bluethroat and lapland bunting.

And I loved the term they used for the insects, such as blowfly, that came to life on the carrion. A “bloom” of arthropods.

We don’t like to see rotting carcasses, do we? And yet, there are questions to be pondered in this event. What’s to be gained from letting nature take its course? What have we lost in a couple of centuries of hiding death away, refusing to see what we might learn from it?

In a way, this picture book about rewilding raises similar questions. It reverses the roles of humans and wild animals in a humorous fracturing of the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale. As in the field of dead reindeer, there’s a very real moment of fear, and it’s equally well earned.

The delightful resolution lies, as it should, in human hands. Wouldn’t it be great if we humans could step up as the child in this story does? If we could only do what’s necessary? Too me, it’s particularly gratifying that the joy of Grey’s book lies in her deliberately “de-composing” an old fairy tale trope, and then re-composing it to create newly possible realities. Slender ones, but still, blooms of possibility.

There may be no new stories, but it’s past time to begin decomposing the old ones.

Process Talk: Tziporah Cohen on No Vacancy

The best and brightest middle grade novels hit the sweet spot between lightness and the big questions of life. Here’s one from VCFA grad Tziporah Cohen. I asked Tzippy if she’d tell me more about this whimsical, intelligent novel about 11-year-old Miriam who finds herself transplanted from New York City to the failing motel that her parents, most unreasonably, have chosen to run.

Photo courtesy of Tziporah Cohen

[UK] Your Miriam has a fine sense of the dramatic and tragic. She also has a kind of tenderness and vulnerability, a lively imagination, and a touch of that lovely magical thinking that’s so characteristic of middle grade. Can you talk about how this character grew and came to life for you?

[TC] In many ways, Miriam is like me. I grew up with a strong Jewish identity, but it didn’t always feel rooted. We went to synagogue on the major holidays and had wonderful Passover seders, but also ate sausage pizza once a week and went to the mall on Saturday mornings. I craved something more, but didn’t know what. When I became more religiously observant, I realized that something was community. I loved belonging to something bigger than myself.

I knew from the outset that Miriam would be Jewish, like me, and I also had been wanting to explore religion and faith from a middle grade-perspective. Miriam is at that age, just at the beginning of adolescence, where she is searching for something but can’t yet identify what it is, and I channeled some of my own experience into creating her. Other parts of her struggle come from issues I grapple with as an adult: how religion can bring out the worst in people when it leads to judgment or lack of tolerance, but how it can also be a source of kindness and great good, when channeled the right way.

[UK] I was enchanted by the details of your setting—grape pie, the Myrna-Mabel confusion, and of course the old drive-in theater. How did you go about creating a setting that also grows your character and is very much a part of the conflict in the story?

Photos courtesy of Tziporah Cohen

[TC] The motel setting has its own backstory. The summer after I started my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts, my family and I went to Hershey, Pennsylvania for a mini-vacation. We stayed in a somewhat run-down motel (though not nearly as run-down as The Jewel Motor Inn) owned by an East Indian family from Staten Island, NY who had moved in just three days before we got there. There was a young boy hanging around—their nephew, I think—and I started wondering what it would be like for a kid to move from the diverse big city to live in a motel in a very non-diverse small town. I started my first draft in that motel room!

As I wrote, I brought in details from that vacation and from living in upstate New York while in college. The details emerged over many drafts over many years (I started this story in 2013!), in an interactive, reciprocal way. For example, many motels have a restaurant or diner next door, so I created one, and then Myrna Whitley and her husband made their appearance to work in it. In that instance, the characters grew from the setting. But the setting also grew from the characters: Mrs. Whitley’s granddaughter Kate, who is Catholic, befriends Miriam and pushes her to confront some of her feelings about being Jewish and ask questions about the varieties of faith she notices around her. This led me to (spoiler alert!) the idea of the girls creating the Virgin Mary apparition, as well as the scenes at the drive-in and synagogue, all of which worked towards creating the setting of the small town of Greenvale.

[UK] At one level, this is a quirky, sweet book about friendship and family. But we quickly find ourselves entering more complicated terrain and encountering questions of prejudice and bias, truth and lies, means and ends and taking responsibility. Even so, there’s a lightness to the story that allows a reader to engage with its more difficult questions. How do we create that balance in writing for the middle grades? How did you do that here?

[TC] Such a hard question! Hard because so much of writing this book for me felt like it was happening on a subconscious level. In early drafts, the book had a much more comical approach, sometimes even verging on slapstick. My dad was very sick when I started writing it, and I was also working on another novel that was full of grief, and I needed to write something light. But as the book evolved, the questions Miriam struggled with grew more serious. The world around me also seemed to be changing over the years that I wrote the novel—with an increase in incidents of anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice—and I found myself responding to that as well.

The other thing I’ve learned, from my work as a psychiatrist in palliative care, is that life is a balance of bitter and sweet. We need the sweet to endure the bitter, and the bitter to appreciate the sweet. I hope I was able to convey some of that reality in Miriam’s story.

[UK] Ah yes, the shifting sands of drafts. Thank you, Tziporah Cohen, for this tender middle grade fiction that delivers reality while brushing it with the hope that is so needed by young people (and old ones, really).

Caste in America

Growing up in India, I sensed, long before I had words to express it, that caste and its realities were at glaring odds with the secular, liberal democratic society the country seemed on the way to forging. I used to think that if I ignored caste, it would somehow go away. As a society, in my lifetime, we would surely come to see what a terrible thing it was, how unjust, how divisive. We would, I imagined, outgrow it.

How wrong I was.

Now Isabel Wilkerson, author of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is nudging me to think of caste, the concept, to use it as a lens for looking at power and privilege, oppression and history, in the country to which I immigrated back on 1979.

In a Throughline podcast interview, Wilkerson says:

“So much of the history that we have received, as Americans, has been from a singular perspective, and we are only now beginning to hear the voices of people who have been in the shadows–not seen, not heard. And that means we have not had the full history. We have not had the full experience of knowing what the complete picture is of our country…”

She looked at India, and at Nazi Germany, trying to understand how institutionalized hierarchy uses the language of oppression. No coincidence that the Nazis studied Jim Crow laws, or that Martin Luther King, Jr., on his famous visit to India in 1959, suddenly found himself thinking that he himself was a kind of untouchable in his own country.

In India, I see that Wilkerson’s book is subtitled The Lies That Divide Us.

Wilkerson says, “This is the house that we have inherited.” I am presuming, then, as a woman who left India for America, to lay claim to more than one house. They are both crumbling structures, and Wilkerson has convinced me that caste has been foundational to them both. She, however, sees “caste” as a more useful term than race, because to her, it’s simply descriptive. It doesn’t come loaded with emotional baggage. Me? I think that long-lasting damage wreaked in the name of caste and caste divisions, the crimes committed–all of it still exists. At this moment, one of my countries is waking up to the existence of this wound upon its being–the other, alas, is leaning into the structure of caste. That structure may, in fact, be more adaptable, and therefore more malleable and capable of manipulation, than Dr. King could have foreseen in 1959.

History and Self in Everything Sad is Untrue

Here is the debut offering from an exciting new press—Levine Querido—notable in contemporary children’s and YA publishing for the minds behind it and for its focus on building a platform for previously underrepresented voices.

Everything Sad is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri is autobiographical. It’s fiction. It’s history. It’s memory. It’s truth. Spanning three continents and carrying influences from a 6,000-year old history, it is told in the sharp yet tender voice of a young narrator and his adult self. Sad without being sentimental, this is no memoir about becoming American. Instead, it elevates complexity, hunts it down in past and present and makes us look it in the eye–family history, the personal traumas of being a refugee, the experiences of generations who have lived in an ever-changing world, and the intricacies of inherited myth. Truth? Lies? Where does memory fall?

But this isn’t an intellectual exercise in pushing the limits of a memoir, either. The story grabs readers and tosses them into the narrator’s life, starting at three with the slaughter of a bull, a normal family, and a larger than life grandfather, Baba Haji. But also Scheherazade and an entire mythic history and poetry and politics and a thousand sensory images. You, reader, suggests Nayeri, you’re the king, and these are tales of marvel. Then he upends the expectations, switches time and place, and we’re hanging on for the ride. Poop stories, God (or not), what it feels like to be sutured without anesthesia, a toy sheep weighted with the longings of childhood, Pringles chips as symbols of welcome. As welcome as is this book, with its multiple layers and its fierce refusal to accept a hyphenated American status for its characters, choosing instead to embrace their humanity.

Truth, Facts, and Story

Marion Dane Bauer’s last nonfiction book resides in the space where facts and truth overlap, collide, and blaze into story.

In her blog, she discusses that space and what it has come to mean to her.

Excerpt:

…facts told in the right cadence, gathered into the right form, shaped toward the right meaning can move us.  And feeling is all.

Thus my latest picture book, The Stuff of Stars, published by Candlewick in 2018.  Thus two new recently acquired picture books, We, the Curious Ones, which explores the tension between science and story over the centuries, and One Small Acorn, which tells the story of a single acorn within the story of a forest within the story of us.

To hold The Stuff of Stars in your hands, to turn its luminous pages, is to encounter magic.