Long Way Down

Long Way Down

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds, narrated by the author

Published Oct 2017

I haven’t done a proper book review in awhile on here, but I really wanted to share this one because it was a book I probably would not have picked up on my own, if I hadn’t already been using it as part of a teen verse novel booklist already. It’s not a topic that jumps out at you to pick up. Will’s older brother Shawn is killed right in front of him. Will must follow The Rules (Don’t Cry or Snitch and Take revenge on whoever has hurt your family/friends) and exact his revenge on his brother’s killer. So he puts a gun in his waistband and takes the elevator down from the 8th floor down to the lobby. I liked that the author, in the notes at the end, called the book a combination of “A Christmas Carol meets Boyz in the Hood” and that’s pretty accurate. It honestly took me awhile to figure out if the people were all in his head or actually real. Basically, at every floor in the minute it takes to get from his floor to the Lobby, he sees all these important people in his life that were killed by guns, and each gives insight into Will and his brother Shawn, how things have come to a head with Shawn’s death, and how Will is handling or sometimes not handling his grief.

I also loved that the whole point of the book, according to the author, is for everyone to gain a little empathy into the lives of others, and the author does this by forcing us to experience Will’s pain at his brother’s death and giving us an insight into how things have been for his family and friends. In this review, the author also said “Even though this book is an obvious warning against gun violence, it is also meant to humanize young people in the midst of all of this.” I adored the poetry form that he decided to do the novel in and language he used was gorgeous and rich, despite the hard-to-hear subject matter. I really enjoyed this book and very glad I decided to listen to the audiobook read by the author because only an author knows how to put the right emphasis on the words. Highly recommended for ages 13+, 5 stars.

Kwame Alexander

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I’ve been wanting to read him for awhile, ever since I heard about his Crossover verse novel. So in honor of National Poetry Month, I grabbed a copy of Crush: Love Poems for teens and loved it, because it showed all the different aspects of love and not just the mushy bits. Plus you gotta love any volume that includes Neruda, as I adore his 100 Love Sonnets.  Below are two of my favorite poems (especially the second one) from Crush, 2007.

“I Want You”

 

to think of me      as

Ellington thought of jazz and

Ella thought of scat     as

Lady Day thought of loss and 

Luther thought of love

 

yes, think of me

as the first aria and

the last allegro

in this symphony

of life

 

in other words

let this ancient language of love

be the music

that keeps you 

humming through the night

 

that keeps you

dancing

naked

on the

floor

 

“The Examination (AKA The Before-You-Holla Quiz)”

 

Can you study my heart, and learn to love me with your mind?

Can you lift my spirits, bench press my burdens, exercise my intellect?

Can you get deep like Atlantis, precise like Google, outstanding like 

a Serena Williams serve?

Can you love me like a book of poetry, read me over and over,

uncover the magic between my lines? 

Can you solve me like a quadratic equation, recite Neruda in Spanish?

Forget sexy, can you bring SmartBack?

Can you flirt with me like an E. Ethelbert Miller poem, tease me like

a Bossa Nova song?

Can you sweet-talk me with cotton candy on a rainy day, love me

like Nikki Giovanni loves Tupac?

Can you speak to me with your mouth closed? 

Can you kiss me 100 times with your eyes open? 

Can you love me…with your mind? 

 

 

 

 

 

Margarita Engle

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I first discovered Margarita Engle‘s work with her verse novel, The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano and The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom, both of which were excellent in describing fascinating events and people I knew nothing about and I adored them both. Engle is the Poetry Foundation’s Young People’s Poet Laureate for 2017-19. Based on the author’s note, the poem/verse novel I have selected Drum Dream Girlis:

“inspired by the childhood of a Chinese-African-Cuban girl who broke Cuba’s traditional taboo against female drummers. In 1932, at the age of ten, Millo Castro Zaldarriaga performed with her older sisters as Anacaona, Cuba’s first “all-girl dance band.” Millo became a world-famous musician, playing alongside all the American jazz greats of the era. At age fifteen, she played her bongó drums at a New York birthday celebration for U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, where she was enthusiastically cheered by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. There are now many female drummers in Cuba. Thanks to Millo’s courage, becoming a drummer is no longer an unattainable dream for girls on the island.”

Drum Dream Girl

BY MARGARITA ENGLE, 2015
On an island of music
in a city of drumbeats
the drum dream girl
dreamed
of pounding tall conga drums
tapping small bongó drums
and boom boom booming
with long, loud sticks
on bit, round, silvery
moon-bright timbales.
But everyone
on the island of music
in the city of drumbeats
believed that only boys
should play drums
so the drum dream girl
had to keep dreaming
quiet
secret
drumbeat
dreams.
At outdoor cafés that looked like gardens
she heard drums played by men
but when she closed her eyes
she could also hear
her own imaginary
music.
When she walked under
wind-wavy palm trees
in a flower-bright park
she heard the whir of parrot wings
the clack of woodpecker beaks
the dancing tap
of her own footsteps
and the comforting pat
of her own
heartbeat.
At carnivals, she listened
to the rattling beat
of towering
dancers
on stilts
and the dragon clang
of costumed drummers
wearing huge masks.
At home, her fingertips
rolled out their own
dreamy drum rhythm
on tables and chairs…
and even though everyone
kept reminding her that girls
on the island of music
have never played drums
the brave drum dream girl
dared to play
tall conga drums
small bongó drums
and big, round, silvery
moon-bright timbales.
Her hands seemed to fly
as they rippled
rapped
and pounded
all the rhythms
of her drum dreams.
Her big sisters were so excited
that they invited her to join
their new all-girl dance band
but their father said only boys
should play drums.
So the drum dream girl
had to keep dreaming
and drumming
alone
until finally
her father offered
to find a music teacher
who could decide if her drums
deserved
to be heard.
The drum dream girl’s
teacher was amazed.
The girl knew so much
but he taught her more
and more
and more
and she practiced
and she practiced
and she practiced
until the teacher agreed
that she was ready
to play her small bongó drums
outdoors at a starlit café
that looked like a garden
where everyone who heard
her dream-bright music
sang
and danced
and decided
that girls should always
be allowed to play
drums
and both girls and boys
should feel free
to dream.

Joseph O. Legaspi and January Gill O’Neil

I was looking up poems on divorce when I found this one. I just like visual imagery of it. Legaspi was born in the Philippines and moved to the US at age twelve. He currently lives in NYC, and works at Columbia University.  In 2004 he cofounded Kundiman, a nonprofit organization serving Asian American poetry.

Joseph O. Legaspi

My Mother’s Suitors
Joseph O. Legaspi, 2017
The moment my mother tells me she’d fallen out of love
with my father, the Santa Ana winds still
for a wingbeat second and the lemon trees
shudder in the backyard, their fruits falling
in a singular hushed thud.
It is a quiet shaking. I sit across
from her at the kitchen table, a man
now, new to shaving. The knowledge
is no revelation to me, not a throbbing secret
made flesh, not a downy egg sac of spiders,
rather, for years, this lovelessness skulks
in our household like mice with bellies full of rice.
How did I earn this disclosure, and why
after a slippery-fingered dinner of sweet pork sausages
and sliced tomatoes swimming in fish sauce?
The Santa Ana resumes its torturous blasting.
My mother then speaks of past suitors:
those who brought her gifts of rose water,
sugar cane, and summer melons; the jetsetters
who promised her the lavish gems of Kona
and Hong Kong; lovers who mastered the rhumba’s
oceanic waves, the tempter’s hipsway of the tango.
It is astonishing what sustains a person,
what we live on, how my mother has blossomed
with age, as she savors her secret history.
I can’t help but envision her by a window,
leaning into the night as her serenading suitors
gather below her, surrounded by sampaguitas,
luminous children in moonlight.

I discovered the next one by looking up poems on eating, and one of the ones it came up with was this gem about one of my favorite Southern foods, okra. It is awesome fried with some cornmeal but is also great in curry. The author was born in Norfolk, Virginia though she now lives in Massachusetts. She is, according to this bio, “the executive director of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, O’Neil also serves on the Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ board of directors and teaches at Salem State University.”

January Gill O'Neil

In Praise of Okra
January Gill O’Neil, 2009
No one believes in you
like I do. I sit you down on the table
& they overlook you for
fried chicken & grits,
crab cakes & hush puppies,
black-eyed peas & succotash
& sweet potatoes & watermelon.

Your stringy, slippery texture
reminds them of the creature
from the movie Aliens.

But I tell my friends if they don’t like you
they are cheating themselves;
you were brought from Africa
as seeds, hidden in the ears and hair
of slaves.

Nothing was wasted in our kitchens.
We took the unused & the throwaways
& made feasts;
we taught our children
how to survive,
adapt.

So I write this poem
in praise of okra
& the cooks who understood
how to make something out of nothing.
Your fibrous skin
melts in my mouth—
green flecks of flavor,
still tough, unbruised,
part of the fabric of earth.
Soul food.

Bairdston

Bairdston

Bairdston by Robert Cook

Published Dec 7, 2015

Karim and Salima Kufdani are two orphaned street kids from Tangier, Morocco. They are rescued from anonymity by Alejandro Muhammad Cuchulain (Cooch) and educated by his team, which include a martial arts expert and a mathematical genius. After spending some time with them, they are shipped off to a Scottish boarding school called Bairdston to receive a more rounded Western education. But will they be able to survive this new climate, in the face of racism and bullying? Recommended for ages 14+, 2-1/2 stars.

I originally picked this book because I thought the subject matter was interesting. Two Muslim kids from Africa trying to adapt to life in the bitter cold of a Scottish boarding school. What I did not know until I read someone else’s review and the author’s note at the end of the book (which really should’ve been in the beginning), was that this story came from a brief mention in the author’s last book Pulse, an adult thriller. That book is all about Cooch, a half-American/half-Bedouin former CIA agent who becomes the guardian for the teens in this book. You could tell that the author had never written a book for teens before as the writing was pretty dry and didn’t really draw you into the lives of the characters, but kept things mostly on the surface. I didn’t feel like this book had an ending; the story just sort of stopped. Karim and Salima are pretty viciously bullied by teachers and students alike, but nobody seems to want to help them, with the exception of their caregivers and that response is pretty brutal. The only time Islam is really mentioned is at the end when Karim tries to “educate” his teammates on what Islam is and really means. Honestly, the only part I found really fascinating is when Karim joins the soccer team and the author vividly describes a soccer game that the team has with a rival team, and really puts you in the minds of the players.