Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Poetry: Things I Have to Tell You

Bibliographic Data
Franco, Betsy, ed. Things I Have to Tell You. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 2001. ISBN 0763609056.

Plot Summary
Betsy Franco has amassed a collection of heartfelt free-verse poems and essays, all written by teenage girls.

Critical Analysis
These poems incorporate a wide range of emotions - first love, what it means to grow up female, sexual abuse, self-respect, independence, and family. Some of the poems talk about their loss of virginity. Some poems mention exploring their sexuality. One of my favorite poems is Apricot Bath:

          Apricot Bath
          by Lindsay Henry, age 17

          I don't want to be sexy right now
          I don't feel like arranging myself
          in positions that will delight your eyes
          Arranging myself so that my stomach doesn't show
          so that you can't see my feet
          I don't feel like making the effort
          I want to sit next to you
          in an apricot bubble bath
          and talk about why your politics conflict with mine
          without your staring at my breasts
          I want to sit cross-legged
          lean forward with my elbows on my knees
          and listen to your reasoning
          without your peering down between my thighs
          I want us to be two sexless beings
          Watching the steam curl off the water

          But if you must love me
          Love the little smooth scar on my knee
          not my eyes
          Love my round belly
          not my legs
          Love the two freckles on my neck
          that look like a vampire's kiss
          not my lips
          Love my square pudgy toes
          not my smile
          I want to inhale the apricot fumes
          brush the bubbles from your shoulder
          and argue with you over our beliefs
          I don't want anything to be sexual
          even though we're both naked and
          our feet are kissing under the tepid water
          I want us to stay in the bath
          until we don't know
          where water ends and skin begins
          Until I know
          Why you are who you are
          Until you love me
          for my flaws and what I believe in (30-31)

I don't remember being that intelligent at 17, to understand so deeply the difference between love and sexuality.

These young women also think about their future vs. their present:

   To Live
   by Miriam Stone, age 16

                                          reacting with phosphorus      learning without
                                          I don't react                          knowing
   I sit in my                         I see through the paper          without room
   crunched-in                      and my pen writes                  to learn how
   restraining                        poetic equations                    to know myself
   desk, they call it,              my mind plus my life              to be myself
   with my paper                   equals                                  trial and error
   and my pen                      something beyond this           minus lab write-up
   and I am                           doodles litter my                   feeling without
   supposed to see               notebook like snowflakes        a thesis
   the blackboard                  dancing through the trees       learning youth
   around the tall boy            beyond the window                 mi futuro
   en frente de mi                 the lined paper                       learning how to live
   and my mind on my          lines with soul                       without a textbook
   text and my pen on           forgetting cosines                   without a teacher to
   the page I am                   life without phosphorus           correct grammar
   supposed to                     and my life                             to live to learn myself
   for me                              mi futuro                                to live to know myself
   para mifuturo.                   beyond desk-chairs                 to live to be somebody
   but my head                     And dull muraled halls             who's learned how
   won't translate                   j.v.varsity and                         to live (58)
   this language                    setting the curve          
   log base b of a squared;     school play and G.P.A.
   carbon monoxide               textbooks

These young poets show surprising depth through their writings. They have so much to say, but being teenage girls, it's hard for them to get somebody to listen sometimes: "Look out--I opened my mouth/and out came ideas/you don't think are pretty" (13). Some are exploring their feminie wiles, as in the selection below - make sure you read this passage out loud to get a sense of the strong rhyme and rhythm:

          This conquette can get
          Any man she's set
          Eyes upon--
          A female Don Juan.
          The best, I confess,
          Cannot help but obsess
          Over me,
          Devil walking,
          In one hell of a dress. (23)

The poetic imagery is also very strong in this collection, such as in "I am stuck inside this cocoon" (29), and "I look for my shield/and find my mask under the bed/I slip it on; it's warm and secure/but still a little uncomfortable" (32), and "my friend and i/got caught in a storm/with tears for rain,/and shouts for thunder, lightning fists/lashing out" (41).

These young women have a lot to say, and Betsy Franco has created an outlet for their deepest thoughts. There are poems in here about drug abuse, thoughts of suicide, and "A Man's Strength, But a Woman's Mind" ( 24-25). Maybe these thoughts, written out as they are to share with the world, may help another young woman when she needs support through a crucial time.

Awards and Honors
Amelia Bloomer Project, 2002; American Library Association-SRRT; United States.
Best Books for Young Adults, 2002; American Library Association-YALSA; United States.
Best Children's Books of the Year, 2002; Bank Street College of Education; United States.
Middle and Junior High School Library Catalog, Ninth Edition, 2005; H.W. Wilson; United States.
Middle and Junior High School Library Catalog, Supplement to the Eighth Edition, 2002; H.W. Wilson; United States.
Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, 2002; American Library Association-YALSA; United States.
Senior High Core Collection, Seventeenth Edition, 2007; The H. W. Wilson Co.; United States.
Senior High School Library Catalog, Sixteenth Edition, 2002; H.W. Wilson; United States.
Young Adults' Choices, 2003; International Reading Association; United States.

Review Excerpts
Korbeck, Sharon.(School Library Journal; May 2001(Vol. 47 Issue 5))
"In allowing the words of teens from across the nation to shine through, without polishing or pushing, Franco has succeeded in compiling one of the brightest collections out there today. In a mixture of prose and poetry, the young women express their fears, dreams, relationships, and angst. There are some poetic turns of phrases here ("we put on our chatter/like red lipstick/with the same amount/of greasy enthusiasm") and some strong language. And while the poems are triumphant in their realism, the book is elevated by the inclusion of gritty, unposed black-and-white photographs. These pictures, not taken to illustrate the poems, do so in an exemplary fashion. Like snapshots from personal photo albums, the images of a multicultural array of "everygirls" are harmonious complements to this outstanding collection."

Horn Book (The Horn Book Guide, Fall 2001)
Several striking entries in this compilation of poems and prose lift it above the majority of such offerings; all of these writers take on issues of family, love, body image, drugs, and sexuality with clarity and insight. The black-and-white photographs are neither literal illustrations of the pieces nor portraits of the writers; they reflect the emotional currents of the writing and provide further expression of a diverse group of young women.

Book Hook
Pair this book with Betsy Franco's You Hear Me?: Poems and Writing by Teenage Boys (Candlewick, 2000).

Online Connections
Betsy Franco's website can be found here.


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