The verse novel is a fairly recent but fast-growing addition to the repertoire of children’s literature. Are they self-indulgent or a way into exploration of the human condition at a deeper level? Peter Hollindale explores.
When Melvin Burgess’s Junk appeared in 1996, it became famous (or notorious) for its no-holds-barred depiction of the teenage drug culture and its physical consequences. The effect of the book depended just as much on the manner as the matter of its telling. After a short third-person opening chapter, the narrative switched from one voice to another, all pushing the story forward but also taking us inside each individual skull, showing different points of view on the same self-destructive adventure.
Imagine Junk written not in prose chapters but a sequence of short verse monologues, a rapid succession of voices and viewpoints. Here you have the emerging typical form of the verse novel, a fairly recent but fast-growing addition to the repertoire of children’s literature. Sometimes there may be linking passages with no named speaker, sometimes one voice among many is central and dominant, as Gemma’s was in Junk, and sometimes there is only one speaker throughout, making the novel a kind of fictional autobiography. But the essential pattern is the same: numerous ‘chapters’ of terse verse from single characters – unrhymed, colloquial, dramatic, and rarely more than two pages long.
A passing fashion?
As yet British writers have not been noticeably interested in verse novels, but that is sure to change. In America and Australia verse novels are proliferating, and they are starting to be published here. Several will soon be available at a bookshop near you. They may prove to be a passing fashion, or may represent a major step forward in the genres of children’s literature, a way of bringing verse back into mainstream storytelling for older readers, opening up a new kind of realism and a new immediacy, as well as marking out some common ground where poetry, fiction and drama can meet.
So far the signals are mixed. The verse novels currently appearing here, and those already widely known and sometimes garlanded with prizes in America and Australia, range from outstanding excellence to rubbish. The works of the American writer Karen Hesse, who probably did more than anyone to create the genre, are the product of an extraordinary poetic imagination, acts of historical empathy based in careful research and moral commitment, so profound and enriching that even those on themes and events remote in time and place from the concerns of British teenagers deserve to be read here, because these faraway experiences touch the affairs of all humanity.
But not all writers are of Karen Hesse’s stature, and the temptations she presents to lesser authors are all too obvious. Verse novels are very short. They cover a lot of pages with very few words. If you want to write a full-length children’s book in a hurry, and do not mind letting ‘everyday speech’ excuse banal and lazy language, then you can produce a ‘verse novel’ without much toil, tears and sweat. If you are seeking an excuse for self-indulgent autobiography, your very own equivalent of Wordsworth’s Prelude, the verse novel may present a quick and facile way to a teenage reader’s sympathies. And if your taste is not only for self-therapy but for doing your readers good, the verse novel is a ready-made vehicle for conveying medicinal literature. Things could go either way. So let us begin with the best.
Newly out in Britain is Karen Hesse’s Aleutian Sparrow. Like Hesse’s previous verse novels, Aleutian Sparrow is essentially historical fiction.
It is hard to imagine anything less instantly engaging for a British teenage reader than a story in the form of miniature narrative poems about the experiences of native islanders in the north Pacific during the Second World War. Most people would need an atlas to find where the Aleutians are; I certainly did. Seen on the map, their strategic position is plain. Strung out across the ocean between Russia and Alaska, not far north of Japan, they were an obvious confrontation zone. So the islanders, American citizens, were forcibly evacuated to Alaska for the duration of the war.
The Aleutian islanders were clearly treated with extreme insensitivity and neglect by the American authorities in Alaska, and in their absence their beloved islands were looted, vandalised and degraded by the occupying American troops. The islands’ culture was unique, a combination of Christian observance drawn from earlier Russian influences, and their Spartan, sea-dependent life in a barren, treeless, unspoilt wilderness. From this they were transplanted to a forested encampment in Alaska, environmentally alien to their lifestyle. Deprived of proper medical support and other essential aid, they suffered and some died.
Karen Hesse tells the story of the islanders’ war through the voice of Vera, a teenager, the child of a mixed marriage between her native Aleutian mother and a white American. Told in an impressive tone of calm and stoical indignation, Vera’s verse-narrative is the story of the islanders’ uprooting, maltreatment and eventual return. The miniature verse-episodes are very varied, and the book is a love story as well as a tale of communal misfortune. Hesse’s humanitarian sympathies are expressed through Vera’s experiences and judgements, as in the vivid details and elegiac cadences of this section, called ‘The Spoils of War’:
‘Our fishing grounds and beaches slick with oil,
Our berry pitches crushed under the weight of Quonset huts, our churches looted.
We cannot eat the war-poisoned clams and mussels; soldiers murdered our foxes and our sea lions.
Our very culture stolen or destroyed, not by the enemy, but by our own countrymen.’
Aleutian Sparrow speaks on behalf of all powerless native peoples the world over, whose traditional ways of life have been damaged or destroyed by war or the actions of uncaring governments. There are many counterparts of the Aleutians across the globe, and Hesse’s humane political insights probably counted as much as her literary gifts in bringing Aleutian Sparrow to British children.
If so, then readers here should also have the chance to read her earlier verse novels, Out of the Dust (which won the Newbery Medal) and Witness, even though their subjects may appear more localised in American history. Out of the Dust, narrated like Aleutian Sparrow by a single 14-year-old girl protagonist, is the story of the Oklahoma dustbowl during the Depression years of the 1930s, and Witness, told through many voices from an imaginary small community, is the story of attempts by the Ku Klux Klan to implant its vicious racial persecution into civilized Vermont in 1924. Witness, probably the finest of all Hesse’s books to date, is a topical warning that no place is immune to the politics of hatred when the times are dangerously right for it.
Hesse’s books are documentary historical novels in verse, fully researched and imagined, beautifully written, and relevant everywhere.
Interweaving the elements
No one else yet equals Hesse, but other good work is appearing. Sharon Creech, a Carnegie Medal winner, is really an Anglo-American writer, and her Love That Dog was a kind of verse novel for the very young. For older readers she has now written Heartbeat. Annie, aged about 12, tells her own verse story of life with her pregnant mother, affectionate father, loved and fading grandfather, and friend Max. Although family life, with its cycle of imminent birth and death, gives overall structure to the story, at its centre is Annie’s love of art and above all of running.
Heartbeat is a hymn of praise to the joy of running. Annie and Max run barefoot for sheer pleasure. But pleasure for Max is mixed with ambition. He sees competitive running as his passport out of restricted small-town America, whereas Annie resists all efforts to lure her into team athletics. She runs simply in order to run. And that is the book’s ‘message’, a wise one if sometimes over-explicit: do things not with ulterior purposes, but for their own intrinsic sake. It would be misreading Heartbeat to see it as a politically correct tirade against team sport; it is much more positive than that, and admirably done. And it exemplifies the capacity of verse novels to trace and interweave the varied elements of growing up, discovering and sorting out your expanding life.
Steven Herrick’s Australian verse novel The Simple Gift is another book in this category, but the comparison does it no favours. Told mainly through three voices, it is the story of 16-year-old Billy’s escape to freedom from his drunken, violent father. Taking to the road and the hobo life, he fetches up in deserted railway carriages outside a small Australian town. Here he befriends Old Bill, the beer-swilling drop-out in a neighbouring carriage, and attractive Caitlin, who works in McDonalds.
The Simple Gift is not so much drop-out as cop-out. Chance and accident make Billy a Club Class hobo. Old Bill the human wreck just happens to have his own house and an investment income, while Caitlin just happens to have a rich father (whose generosity and hopes for her she unappealingly belittles). This is a fairy story masquerading as teenage realism, and its lifeless, prosy apology for verse betrays its falsity and thinness. If verse novels become too fashionable, we risk many more turgid imaginings such as this one.
If things go really badly, though, this promising new form will fall hostage to outright bibliotherapy. Some recent American verse novels might well carry their own version of a familiar warning. ‘If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this poem, then please call Poetry Doc. Restore your emotional balance with bedtime reading!’ In America, and no doubt soon in Britain, you can find a verse story about discovering you are gay, a verse story about anorexia nervosa, a verse story about child sexual abuse (inflicted, as so often in life, by another child). This last is Ann Turner’s memoir Learning to Swim, and the dangerous temptations inherent in this new genre are apparent in Turner’s afterword about her book:
‘By taking something so painful and transforming it into words, rhythm, and images, the experience changed inside. Memories took on a cadence, almost a loveliness, so that it became a gift instead of a tragedy.’
Tosh. Honestly exploring childhood ordeals is one thing. Glamourising them is quite another. Self-indulgence of this kind is a world away from Karen Hesse’s intelligent and unselfish explorations. Verse novels provide rich opportunities for both. Fingers crossed.
Peter Hollindale, formerly at the University of York, is a freelance writer and teacher.
Aleutian Sparrow, Karen Hesse, Simon & Schuster, 0 689 83776 3, £7.99 hbk
Out of the Dust, Karen Hesse, available via amazon.com
Witness, Karen Hesse, available via amazon.com
Love That Dog, Sharon Creech, Bloomsbury, 0 7475 5749 7, £4.99 pbk
Heartbeat, Sharon Creech, Bloomsbury, 0 7475 6902 9, £9.99 hbk
The Simple Gift, Steven Herrick, Egmont, 0 7022 3133 9, £4.99 pbk
Learning to Swim, Ann Turner, available via amazon.com