YA issues in verse

Like the sixteen-year-old protagonist of Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam’s Boston Globe–Horn Book honor book Punching the Air, illustrated by Omar T. Pasha, the stars of these YA verse novels use poetry and art as means of self-expression to help them remain true to themselves. See also Five Questions about The 1619 Project: Born on the Water; and New for National Poetry Month from the April issue of Notes. Throughout the month of October, please join us in celebrating the virtual Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards.

Home Is Not a Country
by Safia Elhillo
Middle School, High School    Make Me a World/Random    224 pp.    g
3/21    978-0-593-17705-1    $17.99
Library ed.  978-0-593-17706-8    $20.99
e-book ed.  978-0-593-17707-5    $10.99

Elhillo’s strikingly original novel in searingly honest, staccato verse, nearly all in lowercase, showcases the difficult realities of working-class immigrant families. Nima is a sensitive Muslim teenager, daughter of an immigrant mother, whose life is marked by the absence of a father she never knew, of friends (except one), and of belonging and feeling at home. Haunted by “sepia”-tinted memories “of a country i’ve never seen / outside a photograph,” bullied at school, and excluded by her Arabic-speaking peers, she grapples with a series of what-ifs. A “nostalgia monster” hungry for old photographs and retro Arabic music and films, Nima yearns for a different life, one lived in her imagination as her “ghost self,” Yasmeen. When her only friend is hospitalized after a hate crime, she goes into a tailspin. In a magical realism sequence, she encounters corporeal Yasmeen and travels through space and time to see her parents together, uncovering truths that help recalibrate her life. While Elhillo’s novel draws on her Sudanese heritage, she leaves the family’s country of origin unnamed. Her richly imagined settings bring into sharp focus the nuances of a fractured identity in many diasporic communities. An immersive experience of the intersectionality of gender, class, race, religion, and identity. SADAF SIDDIQUE

Your Heart, My Sky: Love in a Time of Hunger
by Margarita Engle
Middle School, High School    Atheneum    224 pp.    g
3/21    978-1-5344-6496-4    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5344-6498-8    $10.99

Engle (Enchanted Air, rev. 7/15; Soaring Earth, rev. 3/19) once again revisits her Cuban heritage and demonstrates an abiding appreciation of nature in this historical verse novel set during the “Período especial,” the euphemistically named “special period in times of peace.” In 1991, Cuba is hosting the Pan American Games and putting on a prosperous face for the rest of the world, but the Cuban people are starving, due to U.S. trade embargoes and the abrupt halt in aid and food imports from Communist allies after the Soviet Union’s collapse. Two teenagers who have resisted joining the “voluntary” summer labor programs are brought together by a scruffy stray dog as they scavenge for seaweed, shorebird eggs, and any fruit, fish, or fowl they can find, hunt, or steal to ease their relentless hunger. At its heart, this is a tender love story, lyrically presented in alternating poetic voices (including broader observations in third-person poems from the dog’s perspective), but it is also a coming-of-age narrative for the impressionable protagonists, exploring duty to country and family, the consequences of living with hunger and fear, and the costs of individual freedom and ambition. A deeply felt and engrossing look at a time when the grandparents lived “on a menu of memories” while the new generation survived “on nothing / but wishes.” LUANN TOTH

by Reem Faruqi
Middle School    Harper/HarperCollins    352 pp.    g
5/21    978-0-06-304470-8    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-0-06-304472-2    $8.99

Faruqi’s evocative immigrant story in verse follows a young girl from the “land of the pure” to the “land of the free.” Thirteen-year-old Nurah Haqq and her family move from Karachi, Pakistan, to Peachtree City, Georgia, seeking better opportunities. Nurah wrestles with her growing teenage insecurities, cultural and faith-based hurdles, and difficulty fitting in. As she observes the struggles and triumphs of her family, she begins to reshape her life. Each new section (e.g., “Uprooting,” “Replanting”), decorated in floral henna patterns, reflects her state of mind. Slowly, the familiarity of math, art, and swimming as well as a blossoming friendship help her shed her hesitancy and embrace change. Though a lapse into jealousy leads to a poor decision, she learns to stand up for herself and others. Faruqi’s expressive use of free verse folds many disparate ideas of friendship, sibling rivalry, bullying, and terrorism into an ultimately heartwarming story. While other Muslim stories in verse, such as Other Words for Home (rev. 7/19) by Jasmine Warga and The Red Pencil (rev. 11/14) by Andrea Davis Pinkney, deal with immigrant refugees, Faruqi focuses on privileged immigrants whose model minority status doesn’t insulate them from hate crime and Islamophobia. Nurah’s coming-of-age story will inspire readers to step into their own light. SADAF SIDDIQUE

We Are the Ashes, We Are the Fire
by Joy McCullough; illus. by Maia Kobabe
High School    Dutton    400 pp.    g
2/21    978-0-525-55605-3    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-0-525-55607-7    $10.99

When the frat boy who raped her sister, Nor, is found guilty in court, Em feels vindicated and amazed, for it was her drive for justice that first energized her family to prosecute him. Then the judge stuns her family by sentencing the convicted rapist to serve no time at all. Em is shattered, and so is Nor, who suffers the unbearable fallout of misogynist bullying when the case is over. As Em tries to process the egregious injustice, she learns about Marguerite de Bressieux, a legendary fifteenth-century knight celebrated as the avenger of rape survivors. Writing a verse novel about Marguerite and her revenge becomes both therapy and obsession until Em quite literally falls on a sword and has to be rescued. McCullough evokes the fiery rage and hopelessness her protagonist feels about America’s justice system, and especially in realizing that “our world had already decided” that a boy like the one who raped her sister “could take what he wanted from a girl like Nor.” Both in the first-person prose account and in the verse novel (with characterful, medieval manuscript–like decorations), McCullough sustains a one-note pitch of outrage up until the final pages, when, through Em’s friend and family members, she offers some nuanced, constructive critique of Em’s “tunnel vision.” DEIRDRE F. BAKER

From the October 2021 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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