Book Review: Long Way Down

long way down cover

Reynolds, Jason. Long Way Down. Atheneum, 2017.

Early in my teaching career, I learned a very hard lesson—for a number of students, school is not a priority. This isn’t necessarily because a student is defiant or lazy. Oftentimes, the truth is much sadder. Students might not have adequate food at home, or perhaps they don’t have a home at all. Students might be struggling with mental illness or self-harming behaviors. Students might be grieving the death of a friend or family member. My students grapple with things I can’t imagine, and it’s understandable, then, when English homework falls to the wayside.

Jason Reynolds’ novel in verse, Long Way Down, reminded me of this particular fact. In Reynolds’ author bio, he says he is tired of “being around young people who are tired of feeling invisible.Long Way Down gives voice to the voiceless, and pulls the reader in for a chilling, nail-biting ride.

Fifteen-year-old William—or Will, as he is more commonly known—admires his older brother, Shawn. Shawn taught Will about girls, how to land the perfect swing off the monkey bars, and about the rules that permeate their neighborhood. The first rule is no crying, no matter the tragedy. The second rule is no snitching. Feign ignorance with the police. The third rule is revenge. After Shawn is shot and killed, Will knows he must follow all three rules, including the commandment on revenge. Shawn’s middle dresser drawer is ajar, and Will knows he will find a gun inside.

Will believes he knows who murdered his brother but, as the rules decree, he doesn’t tell the police. Instead, he retrieves Shawn’s gun and boards the elevator in his apartment building. His plans are to confront and shoot his brother’s alleged killer. But, as the elevator descends from the seventh floor to the lobby, Will is confronted by a number of figures from his past. Is he hallucinating? Is he correct on the identity of Shawn’s killer? Will he go through with his plot for revenge?

Verse is a fitting form for this novel. Will’s thoughts are scattered and sometimes incoherent in his grief, and Reynolds’ decision to showcase this through poetry is much more poignant than traditional prose. Without spoiling the book too much, the end message says a great deal about the cyclical nature of violence and the human being’s capability to put a stop to it.

If there are any downsides to Long Way Down, they perhaps lie in the book’s length. Not only is it a short book, but the poems are sparse, barely filling a page. Readers might feel as though some of their questions go unanswered but, again, this is somewhat fitting for the subject matter.

Long Way Down would be a great addition to any curriculum, particularly for those teaching poetry. This novel is chalk full of similes and metaphors and experiments with different poetic forms, including a shape poem. Poetic devices aside, this is a book that resonate with a number of students, from AP-level to reluctant readers. The book will likely lead to difficult—but important—class discussions.

Book Review: Solo

solo cover

Alexander, Kwame and Mary R Hess. Solo. Nashville, TN. Blink. 2017.

Note: This is a review of an advanced, uncorrected proof.

I have a confession to make, one that might be a bit shocking to my fellow English majors: I’m not a poetry person. I have the deepest admiration for poets, and have read some pieces from Sylvia Plath and Percy Blythe Shelley that have touched me tremendously. While poems can certainly paint a pretty picture, I am drawn instead to the characterization and plot found in short stories and novels.

So, when teaching poetry to reluctant readers, I once found myself at a loss.

Thankfully, that changed when I heard about Kwame Alexander’s book The Crossover, the winner of a Newbery Medal. Written entirely in narrative verse, The Crossover allowed me to teach poetic elements while also providing a timely story that kept my students engaged. I was excited to meet Kwame Alexander at BookCon so that he could sign my copy of The Crossover, and I was even more excited to receive an advanced reader’s copy of Solo, Alexander’s latest novel-in-verse.

Solo follows Blade Morrison, the son of world-famous musician Rutherford Morrison. Rutherford, an addict, is both erratic and neglectful, while Blade’s sister Storm is self-absorbed and shallow. As his mother died unexpectedly during his childhood, Blade’s only moments of happiness come from playing guitar, writing songs, and spending time with Chapel, his girlfriend. Blade is in love with Chapel, even though they must sneak around to see one another. Chapel’s father does not approve of the relationship—Rutherford is constantly in the news because of his bad behavior, and Chapel’s father believes that Blade will follow suit.

After his father embarrasses him at his high school graduation, Blade shuts his family out. He wants to run away with Chapel and never look back; however, in the midst of his anger, Blade receives some shocking news—he is adopted. Will he be able to locate his birth mother? Why did his family keep this secret? Will his relationship with Chapel last? Will he be able to forgive Rutherford?

Like The Crossover, Solo is written entirely in verse, but Alexander experiments with other non-traditional forms. Some sections of the novel are handwritten song lyrics, some are explanations and meditations on famous rock n roll songs, some are text messages. The unique formatting drew me in immediately. The surprises and climatic moments in the text also felt genuine, which makes it a difficult book to put down.

Perhaps verse doesn’t lend itself to a great deal of characterization, but I felt many of the female characters came across flat. Chapel, especially, is the typical high school heartbreaker.

Although Solo is lengthy, it would be a valuable text to pull selections from or read it its entirety. While it is an excellent way to introduce poetry, Solo is also poignant in its contrast of extreme wealth and extreme poverty. This could certainly lead to important—and life changing—class discussions.