Review of the Day: Diamond Willow by Helen Frost
Poetry Friday, lovelies. Check out Writer 2b for the round-up.
The sentence “I told you so!” is deeply satisfying. Granted, the satisfaction you feel when you say it only lasts a minute or two, but for a little while, as you do your “I told you so” dance, you get to feel that thrill of vindication sweeping through your veins. I often feel this way when an author or illustrator I’ve liked over the years starts garnering a little more notice. Admittedly Helen Frost is maybe not the best example I could call up. After all, she won a Printz Honor a couple years back for her book Keesha’s House and her recent picture book Monarch and Milkweed has been getting nothing but sweet sweet loving from professional reviewers. All that aside, I’ve never felt that anyone has ever given Ms. Frost enough attention for her cleverness. When The Braid was published several years ago it was so smart, so sharp, and so interesting that it took everything I had not to bop people over the head with it at dinner parties. “BOP! Read this!” “BOP! Read this!” No such bopping will be necessary with her newest novel, though. Diamond Willow aims younger than Frost’s usual teenaged fare. Examining the relationship between a girl and her sled dog, Frost combines her standard intelligent wordplay with a story that will catch in the throats of dog lovers and people lovers alike.
Take the branch of a willow tree, carve it down, get to the center, polish it, and there where the scar of a living branch remains you will find the shape of a diamond. A diamond willow branch is pretty special but middle schooler Diamond Willow, named after the natural wonder, doesn’t feel very special at all. She has a hard time making friends at school and sometimes it seems like her dad loves his sled dogs more than her. Not that Willow doesn’t love the dogs too, particularly Roxy, the smart and clever lead dog who always knows the way. Willow’s getting older and one day she convinces her parents to let her take the dogs to her grandparents’ house. When tragedy strikes and Roxy’s eyes are harmed along the way, Willow does whatever she can to protect her furred friend from her parents’ flawed intentions. As she does so, secrets long since buried begin to come to light and Willow gets a better idea of who she is and what Roxy really means to her. Every page containing Willow’s thoughts appears in the shape of a diamond, a buried message found at the heart of each of these free verse poems.
Maybe the reason Frost’s The Braid never got the attention it deserved was that it was too clever for its own good. As I recall, Frost braided her poems over and under themselves, weaving sentences and even details like her characters ages into the mix. Or maybe the reason was simpler than that. Maybe people just don’t appreciate it when a poem is smarter than they are. None of this is to say that Frost hasn’t been doing some pretty fancy footwork with this book too.
The fact that a shrub willow’s diamond pattern forms when a piece of it has been roughly hewn away in some matter is more than a little significant to this tale. As with a real diamond willow, the center of each diamond poem contains a dark spot at the center. Often Frost will place certain letters in bold at strategic moments. If the reader chooses to read these dark words on their own, they’ll encounter thoughts and feelings hidden within Willow. Many of these feel as if they are her innermost feelings. The kind of gut reaction or subconscious understanding that she may not even be aware that she feels. On page six, for example, Willow describes her state in life. “In the middle of my family in the middle of a middle-size town in the middle of Alaska, you will find middle-size, middle-kid, me.” It doesn’t look like much when I pull the sentence apart and place it on a page like this, but the message of “find me” is clear as crystal. This is someone who wants to be found, even if she can’t express it directly. Authors always try to find new and interesting ways to have their characters say what they think, and at the same time express what they mean. Frost’s technique is perfect for child readers and may cause them to concentrate a little more as they read each section.
Willow is part Athabascan, a fact that is important to the story. As she continues along her way her narrative, which began entirely with her diamond-shaped thoughts, is broken up by the voices of animals. And a few of these animals appear to be related to her. The first time you see one of these sections, usually written in a straightforward prose-style, it is introduced with, “John, Willow’s great-great-grandfather (Red Fox)”. And sure as shooting, we’re hearing the impressions of a fox who just so happen to have also have been related to Willow in a past life. It’s tricky territory taking any particular ethnicity and assigning a spirituality to it that may or may not belong to the author herself. I’m not saying I was offended, but it’s a difficult path to walk and I don’t know that Frost need have gone that route. Due to the fact that Roxy’s speech near the end wraps up a lot of loose ends, I understand the desire to make someone else talk beforehand, but it’s still sketchy territory. At least Ms. Frost handles it tastefully in any case.
Far more kid-friendly than her previous books, Helen Frost has a knack for writing free-verse novels that never feel like someone took a page of prose and broke it up arbitrarily. Every sentence, word, and syllable in this book is crafted and honed. If a diamond willow branch needs to be polished to look and feel right then I think it’s safe to say that just as much polish must go into Ms. Frost’s four-sided works of art. A dog story sure, but one that definitely (forgive me) separates itself from the pack. Animal poetry done right.
Notes on the Cover: Blue girl, dog, and significant tree. Nice. Peaceful. The art is by one Max Grafe so’s, y’know. Bravo there. But have you noticed that there’s something conspicuously missing from this jacket? I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t have minded getting a glimpse of an actual diamond willow stick. Sure, I know that Frost has included a photograph of some of these sticks at the beginning of her Author’s Note (which, interestingly enough, has somehow ended up at the front of the book rather than the rear). I would have liked a look at the image anyway, though. After all, the story is named after that particular peculiarity of nature. Couldn’t hurt to give it a glance cover-wise.
Other Blog Reviews: Richie’s Picks and The Goddess of YA Literature
- See too Helen Frost’s website.
- And here are the first 16 pages as via the FSG website.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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