01 Apr / Eleven Diverse Audiobooks in Verse [in School Library Journal]
April is National Poetry Month. Of course, reading, writing, and performing poetry can and should be done any time of the year, but April encourages newbies and doubters to give verses a try. Audiobooks are a particularly effective medium for poetry, with well-chosen narrators enhancing and amplifying the written text; reluctant readers could especially benefit. Novels in verse often combine gorgeous words with affecting narratives, making these recent #OwnVoices titles revelatory this month and beyond.
Fipps, Lisa. Starfish. Nancy Paulsen. 2021. Read by Jenna Lamia.
Eleven-year-old Ellie has been bullied most of her life for being fat. The mean girls are bad enough, but her weight-obsessed mother might unintentionally be her worst enemy. With the help of a new therapist, Ellie learns to bravely confront her bullies, breaks her own self-destructive “Fat Girl Rules,” and accepts the unconditional love she so deserves. Debut author Fipps finds an ideal collaborator in Lamia, whose Spanish fluency enhances Ellie’s growing friendship with new girl Catalina.
LaRocca, Rajani. Red, White, and Whole. Quill Tree/HarperCollins. 2021. Read by Priya Ayyar.
“I have two lives. / One that is Indian, / one that is not.” That’s how 13-year-old Reha introduces herself. During the week, she “swim[s] in a river of white skin” at school; “on weekends / [she] “float[s] in a sea of brown skin and black hair and dark eyes.” Reha’s Indian immigrant parents seem to be at odds with her longing “to be like everyone else / to fit in.” But then everything changes when Reha’s mother falls seriously ill, and the family must come together for an unimaginable future. The perennially youthful voice of Ayyar, who is South Asian American, shines through Reha’s burgeoning independence and courageous resolve.
Park, Linda Sue. The One Thing You’d Save. Clarion. 2021. Read by a full cast.
“Imagine that your home is on fire. You’re allowed to save one thing. / Your family and pets are safe … / Your Most Important Thing. Any size.” With that, teacher Ms. Chang challenges her class to name their Most Important Things. “For once we got good homework,” the kids respond. Ever-versatile Newbery Medalist Park uses a 14th-century Korean poetic form, sijo, to share the students’ choices which reveal just as much about themselves. A full cast, led by Nancy Wu as Ms. Chang, energetically embody the young, diverse voices whose things-to-save prove to be practical (phone, wallet), self-reliant (saved-up-to-purchase sneakers à la Jeremy Lin), sentimental (Gran’s hand-knit cardigan made from Dad’s unraveled sweater), and inspiringly altruistic (Mom’s insulin). Even Ms. Chang gets a revelation at assignment’s end.
Warga, Jasmine. Other Words for Home. HarperAudio. 2019. Read by Vaneh Assadourian.
When violent unrest arrives in Syria, Jude’s family is cleaved in half. She and her pregnant mother leave behind her father and older brother to live with her uncle’s family in Ohio. Jude perseveres with English, an unfamiliar (sometimes unwelcoming) culture, establishing new friendships and creating a community. Listeners get a bonus glimpse into U.S.-born Arab American Warga’s childhood that caused her to be “ashamed of her own culture.” Warga reveals she “wrote Jude for [her] 12-year-old self, who never saw a brown girl in a book who was proud of her family and where she came from.” Iran-born, Los Angeles–based Assadourian makes her aural debut.
Woodson, Jacqueline. Before the Ever After. Listening Library. 2020. Read by Guy Lockard.
The “Before” was when ZJ’s football-star father was “everybody’s… next great hero,” but to ZJ, world-famous “ Zachariah 44!” was “just my dad… which means / he’s my every single thing.” For most of 12-year-old ZJ’s life, Daddy was the very best parent, playmate, music-maker, nurturer, supporter, and more. But the debilitating consequences of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a direct result of repeated concussions, is making Daddy unrecognizable. For ZJ, his family, friends, “the Ever After” offers no cure. Lockard returns for his second Woodson title with enviable versatility and elevates Woodson’s already stupendous latest.
Acevedo, Elizabeth. Clap When You Land. Quill Tree Books. 2020. Read by the author and Melania-Luisa Marte.
The lives of two teens are irreparably altered when a Dominican Republic-bound flight crashes, leaving no survivors. Waiting for a father who never arrives is Camino, raised by her aunt in the DR while her father works in NYC nine months of the year. Waiting for a father who will never return is New Yorker Yahaira, whose recent silence toward him now can never be broken. Born almost 17 years ago, two months apart to different mothers in separate countries, Camino and Yahaira are suddenly connected by the same dead man, in need of navigating brave new futures. Dominican American Melania-Luisa Marte makes her pitch-perfect audiobook debut as Camino. YA powerhouse Acevedo ciphers her printed poetry into aural alchemy as Yahaira. Together, the dynamic duo transforms strangers into sisters.
Browne, Mahogany L. Chlorine Sky. Listening Library. 2021. Read by the author.
Debut YA author Browne takes aural control of her novel-in-verse, enhancing her pages with her soft, determined rhythms. “ME & LAY LI AIN’T TALKING,” Browne opens, “cause she think she cute / cause she think I ain’t.” Bff-ship with Lay Li seems to be over, adding to the “ain’t”s that make the narrator feel like she’s never enough. Her mother is mostly absent, her older sister wavers between dismissive and attacking. Not until the final pages can she discard the damning labels of being “… & ugly & stupid,” and proudly claim her voice and her name: “SKY SAYS … I am Sky & / I got now.”
del Rosario, Juleah. Turtle Under Ice. Listening Library. 2020. Read by Cassie Simone and Donabella Mortel.
Chamorro Filipina American del Rosario’s sophomore title is a haunting elegy, revealed in the back-and-forth voices of two troubled sisters. Rowena is the soccer star, Ariana the artist who might not graduate. They’re students at the same high school, but the older hardly acknowledges the younger; at home, the distance lengthens and lingers. Their Chamorro American mother died years ago, then Dad married Maribel—they are both Filipino American—and the family began to grow back together until the tragedy of Maribel’s miscarriage splits the sisters further apart: Ariana disappears one snowy night, leaving Row in desperate search. Cassie Simone as Row and Donabella Mortel as Ariana cipher del Rosario’s raw, unadorned verses.
Grimes, Nikki. Ordinary Hazards: A Memoir. Recorded Books. 2019. Read by the author.
Perhaps only the legendary Grimes could properly narrate her own memoir, an achievement in both art and life. Paranoid schizophrenia robbed her of a caring, supportive mother. Her father abandoned the family. Her grandmother refused to provide a safe haven. After being shuttled between unstable homes, five-year-old Grimes lost access to her older sister in separated foster care. As a tween, she left a caring family to give her mother a chance at parenting again, setting in motion more tragedies to follow. Reading and writing saved her life.
Kaur, Jasmin. If I Tell You the Truth. HarperAudio. 2021. Read by the author.
Introduced in When You Ask Me Where I’m Going, mother Kiran and daughter Sahaara return in this timely hybrid prose/verse novel deftly combining the perils of being undocumented and surviving sexual assault. Kiran enters Canada from India on a student visa, already pregnant with Sahaara after being raped by her would-be brother-in-law. Kiran chooses motherhood after severing ties with a family more concerned with saving face, then lives in relentless fear. And yet Kiran manages to raise Sahaara into a strong young woman who will someday inspire her mother to tell her truth to the world. Punjabi Canadian Kaur returns to voice her sophomore title, enhancing her text with affecting accents, rhythms, pauses, and emotions.
Zoboi, Ibi and Yusef Salaam. Punching the Air. HarperAudio. 2020. Read by Ethan Herisse.
What a striking confluence here: National Book Award finalist Ibi Zoboi’s co-writer, Yusef Salaam, is one of the Exonerated 5. Debut narrator Ethan Herisse portrayed the teenage Salaam in Ava DuVernay’s acclaimed film When They See Us, and here gives voice to Zoboi and Salaam’s timely, haunting collaboration. Inspired by Salaam’s tragic wrongful incarceration, the co-authors present fictional Amal Shahid, a 16-year-old artist and poet. An accusation of assault gets him arrested; his Blackness and the other boy’s whiteness get Amal convicted. Desperate Amal must quickly learn to survive prison. Tentative friendships, a caring educator from the outside, and literary packages help to save his life.