Allison's Book Bag

Street Love by Walter Dean Myers

Posted on: February 7, 2013

Have you ever read a verse novel? This week I read my first. It’s called Street Love and is by Walter Dean Myers. To my surprise and delight, I mostly understood the situations taking place and the emotions being expressed. While I may never become an avid reader of the poetic narrative format, I have gained a better appreciation for it.

Street Love is a modern Romeo and Juliet story set in Harlem. It’s about Damien, who is expected to attend college, marry the stable Roxanne, and make something of his life. Then he meets Junice, whose mom has been thrown into prison for possession of drugs. His parents don’t approve of her. Nor do his buddies, one of whom he even fights with to defend her honor. When Junice decides to take a bus to Memphis, where she hopes to give her little sister a better life, Damien faces a difficult decision.

Although I’ve seen fiction before written entirely in the form of poetry, I hadn’t realized before how popular they are with teens. Why would one write a book totally in the form of poetry? When searching for answers, I came across a post on the topic at Ingrid’s Notes. Ms. Sundberg spent some time during her studies at the Vermont College of Fine Art exploring the nuts and bolts of this form. She lists various points, which I invite you to explore by reading her post, but following are the ones that stood out to me.

  1. When it comes to plot, a verse novel can be organized around a series of impressions that one pieces together to see the whole, moments that center around a theme, or a cause and event plot with focus on emotion.
  2. Verse novels emphasize emotions. The use of these emotions can create an impression the way painting of the same form can use its style to create a single feeling or experience. Often, the focus is on the interaction of moments and feelings rather than the creation of entire scenes.

Basically, verse novels seem to be a new way of writing a story that allows authors to create a more intense emotional impact than is possible with regular fiction.

Sundberg points out that verse novels can have the drawback of leaving one desirous of wanting a stronger plot. With Street Love, I always felt comfortable with the plot. Moreover, when reading a typical fictional narrative with multiple viewpoints, I often feel confused by who is the speaker. In the case of Street Love, however, I enjoyed being able to enter the minds not just of just Damien, but his street friends, his parents, and his former girlfriend. Moreover, Myers also allowed me to connect with mom in prison, her two daughters, and even officials at the family court and guards at the prison. Quite a feat! Only on a few chapters, when Myers rapidly switched between the viewpoint of the mom in prison, her older daughter, and the youngest girl did I feel lost.

Verse novels can be an edgy way to engage teens in literature. Myers used this narrative poetic format to successfully draw me into the troubled world of Junice and her family. I also found myself enjoying yet another of his love stories. (The first was Kitty and Mack, one of Myers’ short stories in 147th Street.) His romances feel tough and the kind that we ought to find in the movies, because then couples might crumple less when assaulted with bitter sorrows. I suspect that one of the reasons Street Love resonated so strongly with me is because of Myers’ choice to tell it through hard-hitting poems.

Listen to this  refrain:

When I turned back to Mommy
There was just the little piece of her left
Between the big policeman
My skin was crawling
And my arms were shaking

I don’t remember crying but afterward
Afterward
My throat was sore

Or to this refrain:

Maybe I’ll just meet him at the door
And tell him I’ve changed my mind
And asking him was just
A mistake, a stumble of the mind
Like when the wrong word comes out
From the lips, or a face looks
For a moment familiar but then
Up close it’s clearly strange

What is your experience with verse novels? Do you have favorites? Or have you yet to explore the format? Thanks to Street Love by Walter Dean Myers, I have become open to further exploring the narrative poem.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

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