by Helen Frost
by Margaret Wild
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by Jeffrey Canton
Looking for something a little different? Why not try a young adult novel in verse. Since Karen Hesse's 1997 Newbery Award-winner Out of the Dust, we've seen the growth of a considerable body of blank verse novels that explore some very important aspects of teen life including racism, suicide, homosexuality, single motherhood, literacy, eating disorders, school shootings and first love. These verse novels have an accessibility that makes them attractive to teen readers.
Helen Frost's Keesha's House focuses on a group of seven troubled teens who find refuge and safety from the devastating problems in their lives at Keesha's House. It's one of the ironies in the book that the house actually belongs not to Keesha, a troubled teen herself, but to Joe¨an older man who was himself rescued by an elderly aunt and who has always tried to extend the hand of friendship to kids who need a place to stay¨overnight or for a while¨a kind of quiet angel of mercy who doesn't interfere and lets the teens work out their issues by themselves but in a safe place. While thematically Keesha's House explores what might be called problem teen themes¨Stephie is pregnant and is afraid to tell her parents; her boyfriend, Jason, is on the fast-track to college through his high-flying as a basketball superstar; Harris is struggling to come to terms with his sexuality and has been kicked out by his parents for coming out; Dontay has been abandoned not only by his parents who are serving out prison sentences but by the foster care system which tosses him from one home to the next; Katie, afraid of her abusive and sexually threatening stepfather, and there's Carmen who must come to terms with her drinking-problem. What makes Keesha's House different from many out verse novels is Frost's exploration of different poetic forms from sonnets to sestinas which she talks about at the end of the novel. Frost is an accomplished poet and Keesha's House is an inventive first novel.
Jinx is also a first novel in verse though Margaret Wild is the celebrated author of more than thirty picture books into the award-winning The Very Best of Friends, Jenny Angel and Fox. Jinx is really Jen¨a teenager who has a rather unusual reputation¨she's the girl whose boyfriends die. She changes her name to suit the school rumour-mill. And there is something strange and unusual and just a little off-putting about a girl who is linked to tragedies, isn't there? First, there's the beautiful and mysterious Charlie who hides his despair carefully behind his aura of popularity and who hangs himself, then there's Ben who dies in a street fight, angry because someone has once again made him feel small, always conscious of being short. Is Jen really a jinx? There isn't quite enough exploration of this part of the story to allow readers to make up their own minds. But what Wild does wonderfully is create a sense of Jen/Jinx's family life¨her verse portraits of her mother, coping with divorce, longing for love and trying to be a support to two teenage daughters and her sister Grace, who has Down's Syndrome, are especially moving as are the tight connections she manages to convey between Jen and her closest friends, Ruth, Serena and Connie. Jinx is an interesting experiment and Wild has certainly succeeded in giving us a real sense of who Jen is and what her world is like, but the drama of her "being a jinx" is the weakest part of this engaging verse novel.