It’s easy to love sweet teen stories filled with romance and hope, but young adult novels devoted to darker themes and harder struggles have the greatest power to change a young life. One narrative form that’s particularly effective in exploring tough teen stories is poetry—often overlooked, but nevertheless singular in its ability to explore surface and hidden emotions simultaneously. The following books, two wrenching novels-in-verse and one unconventional collection of fairy-tale poetry, seek out hope in the darkness, honoring not only the complexities of teen angst but also the strength required to take it all in stride.
New York Times best-selling author Ellen Hopkins shattered YA expectations with her debut novel-in-verse Crank, the fictionalized account of her own daughter’s addiction to meth. Her newest offering, Tilt, drops emotional bombs on three teenagers (inspired by characters from Hopkins’ adult novel Triangles) caught in the throes of love, sex, death and broken families.
Mikayla has found the boy she wants to be with for the rest of her life, but when she winds up pregnant, she discovers she must make the most difficult decision by herself. Shane struggles with what it means to be a man and, perhaps even more impossibly, what it means to be in love with a boy with HIV. Harley, the youngest of the three, is desperate to make the leap from child to young woman, always in a rush to gain male attention.
These three teens barely know who they are, let alone who they will become. At first glance, their hopes and fears—and those of their friends and family—are polarized and seem crushing to each individual. Perhaps the hardest part of being a teenager is feeling hopelessly alone with the weight of the world, but the verses in Tilt reveal the common ground of each teen’s problem, bringing them together until the crises overlap and are borne by all. Harley hits the crux:
“I Hate How Relationships / Are so fragile. How they / crack / shatter / fall to pieces. / And the hammer is / time / distance / moving forward. / Why can’t people grow / closer / tighter / welded together? / Instead they go / looking / for the next / frail connection. / There must be a way to / stay / in love / no matter what.”
Tilt creates a space where any troubled teenager can lay their fears, big or small, and find strength. With Hopkins’ poetry, they are not alone.
A LOST CHILDHOOD
With My Book of Life by Angel, Martine Leavitt swaps the spellbinding romance of her novel Keturah and Lord Death (a National Book Award finalist) for poetic fearlessness. After the death of her mother, 16-year-old Angel started stealing display shoes at the mall. There, she met Call, who claimed he loved her, doped her up with “candy” and sent her out to turn tricks. On the street, effervescent Serena takes Angel under her wing, guides her during her first months and teaches her to pray “angel, angel” when she’s afraid. When Serena disappears from her sidewalk, Angel feels compelled to help Call’s newest girl, an 11-year-old named Melli. Angel is ordered to show Melli the ropes, but instead she begins a desperate search to save the little girl, a quest she records through verse:
“When you write a poem / you get to be a baby god-girl /and in you is a tiny universe, a dollhouse universe / with planets the size of peas and suns like marbles / all inside you . . . // and if you write it good enough / you could maybe spin the world backwards / maybe I could watch myself walking backwards / walking away from Call and all the men / and putting the shoes back on the display shelf / and walking backwards until I was a dot / and disappeared.”
Angel’s poetry serves as both a record of life on the streets and a way to lift herself above the pandemonium of the world she now inhabits. One of her clients, a professor named John, asks her to read book nine of Paradise Lost when they are together, and her connections to angels grow as she learns about Eve and the creation of knowledge. She never writes of faith; the strength of her belief surpasses her ability to explain it. As Milton gave understanding to fallen angels, Leavitt gives a voice to a girl seeking salvation from an impossible cycle of drugs and violence.
Writers have long recognized the dark shadows between the lines of classic fairy tales: witches eating children, wolves eating grandmothers, curses, poisons. In contemporary retellings, such as those by Gregory Maguire, Jackson Pearce and Marissa Meyer, the simple construct of good vs. evil is replaced by muddier morals and more complex emotions.
Ron Koertge (Stoner & Spaz) goes beyond turning fairy tales upside down; in Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses, he forces them inside out, swapping Ever After magic for something sinister. Each of the 23 free-verse poems is darker than the last: Cinderella’s evil stepsisters garner pity for their loneliness; Thumbelina leaves death in her wake as she searches for love; Rapunzel silently misses her witch’s consuming devotion. Accompanying the poems are high-contrast black-and-white illustrations by Andrea Dezso that resemble Chinese papercutting. Many authors have hammered fairy tales into something wicked, but after reading this collection, the words “Once upon a time . . .” will never sound the same again.