Review of the Day: Jabberwalking by Juan Felipe Herrera
Not too long ago I taught a six-week summer creative writing course for teens. Now I’ve never taught creative writing before. Truth be told, I had no idea where to start. So, like any good librarian, I hit the books. My idea was to take a different book each week and use it as a creative writing guide for the kids. And since these were teens we were talking about, I mixed up the reading levels on the guides. As a result they took deep dives into The Creativity Project, Writing Radar, Spilling Ink, Bird by Bird, On Writing, and The Secrets of Story. Now on the first day I asked the kids what they liked to write. I got some fantasy, some realism, some humor, and more than one kid said poetry. Poetry. Huh. Well that hadn’t really occurred to me, but sure, that’s creative writing all right. Only, instructional poetry books, besides being few and far between for this age level, weren’t really on my pre-written recommended reading list so I sort of skipped over that aspect of writing. I’m telling you this because of the foot-shaped dent in my lower left shin where I’ve been kicking myself ever since. If I’d been on top of my game I would have realized, the moment those young people said “poetry”, that I was in the unique position of having already seen, what I think may be safely called, the strangest, bravest, weirdest, mind-trip of an instructional poetry guide I’ve ever seen in my whole friggin’ life. Look, if you want a poetry guide that’s going to tell you how many syllables are in a haiku and what a “stanza” is, look elsewhere. If, however, you want an instructional poetry book that feels like what happens when a zine consumes a human from the inside like a xenomorph in Alien and releases an explosion of heat and heart and light and life, there’s really only one choice out there. And it’s from a former National Poet Laureate too.
This is the part of the review where I describe the book. This is the part of the review where I put on my Very Serious Writing Fingers and type out a Very Serious Description that uses lots of long words but does not, no matter how much I want it to, copy the publisher’s blurb. Normally, this is the part of the review I write last because it’s the easiest part. Today it’s the hardest. I’m going to have to try to encapsulate something that doesn’t really want to be encapsulated. So . . . let’s try this. Imagine you were looking at a painting that made you feel inexplicably melancholy. Someone walks up to you and asks how you’re feeling. You tell them, but looking at the same art they can’t feel what you feel. It’s a personal moment for you and just you. Poetry is the same way, but with words, and Juan Felipe Herrera wants to give kids and teens the tools to make it something that frees them in some way. But he also wants to give them some advice on the matter. The solution, as he sees it, is to weave his own story, about going to Washington D.C. and his youth with odd fictional moments and advice given in as eclectic a style possible, telling kids to get up, get moving, get writing, get reading, get to making something of their own. The end result is messy and big and exactly what you need if you want to hotwire a kid’s gray matter into action.
So poetry for kids and teens is hot right now. Don’t ask me why. I have a couple theories but nothing too concrete. It could be that it has something to do with Kwame Alexander’s unrelenting promotion of the form. It could be that poetry is the voice of rebellion and right now we need a little more rebellion in our lives. It could be a confluence of some kind of cosmic convergence in the heavens for all I know. Whatever it is, we may be approaching some kind of a poetry renaissance in children’s literature these days because this book blows to high heaven those preconceived notions of what constitutes “poetry” today. A lot of kids have only ever encountered poetry in its various rigid forms. This is good. You can’t break the rules until you know the rules, after all, so I imagine that encountering Jabberwalking for the first time will be a freeing process for them. If they’re capable and willing to try to pick up what it’s laying down, of course.
When I select a book for kids and decide whether or not to read it, I have this weird process where I try to dive in without any preconceptions. I avoid bookflaps and reviews (as much as possible) and blurbs. Now in my mind, this means that I’m approaching the book fresh, but what actually happens is that my brain, lacking for any kind of tangible or concrete information, starts speculating wildly about what the book might be about. In the case of this book I sort of flipped through the pages, saw it had starred reviews, and came to the not wholly ridiculous assumption that it was some sort of large format poetry book. Not an unreasonable conclusion to draw. Imagine my confusion then when I started to read. I think my thoughts went in the order of, “Wait, is this nonfiction? A memoir? No, it’s . . . is it poetry? No, it’s doing something else. What is it doing?!?” What it’s doing is instructing through action. Show don’t tell, they say, but if you can pull off both at the same time, why not try it? So it was that after an inordinately long amount of time I finally figured out that this was a poetry writing guide, after a fashion. But as I mentioned, I’m used to staid, serious, rote writing guides that are meant to guide kids to write fiction or nonfiction. Poetry, as it turns out, is a whole other kettle of fish.
What Mr. Herrera is doing here . . . okay, I had to cheat to find the right way to describe it. Let’s go to the professionals, shall we? Horn Book said the messiness of the text, “send[s] the message of encouraging young writers to let their words flow unstopped by convention or constraint, and to allow themselves to jump around and go on tangents and not worry about it.” Kirkus said the, “metafictive exploration of the poetic process dips in and out of imagined reality as easily as the Cheshire Cat winks in and out of sight.” PW said it shows how, “riotous verbal exuberance births poetry.” And all the while you’re watching as the poet talks about his own life and then leaps to fictional parts involving a Jabber Girl named Zandunga García from Bunion Junction, then to instructions for writers and around and around again. It’s dizzying and freeing all at the same time. He’s basically just giving readers permission to do whatever they want on the page. For a lot of them, it’ll be the first time anyone’s ever even suggested that such a thing could be done.
Trying to compare this book to any other book out there is a bit difficult. I think it’s fairly safe to say that it’s literally unlike any book published with kids in teens in mind in America before (from a major publisher anyway). The closest approximation I’m able to come up with is maybe Shel Silverstein meets Ulysses. The Ulysses part of that is pretty self-explanatory, what with the stream of consciousness that isn’t actually a stream of consciousness. The Silverstein has more to do with the tone (Uncle Shelby would definitely have approved of Jabberwalking) and the art. And the art isn’t something that you might think much about but as far as I can tell (and I have scoured the publication page of this puppy until there wasn’t a word left unscathed) Mr. Herrera did the art himself. Now how about that! A Poet Laureate that is also someone with a wacky urge to doodle outside his own margins.
Of course nobody’s quite sure what age to market this to. The publisher (Candlewick) was selling it pretty clearly for kids in the 9-12 year old age. Kirkus Reviews, however, said 12-16, no bones about it. Publishers Weekly said 10 and up, School Library Journal said 7th grade and up and frankly nobody agrees on nuthin’. Of these, I’m going to side with PW on this one. While it is true that teens might have more patience sticking with Herrera as he jumps, leaps, and bellyflops from one idea to another, do you remember that writing course I gave for teens? Well as any good librarian will tell you, do any kind of program for older kids and you’ll get younger ones just clamoring to take part. At least half my classes were filled with “teenagers” ← note the quotation marks. These kids were smart as whips, creative as all get out, and they would totally eat up what this book is dishing out. So as far as I’m concerned this is a book for anybody with a yen to give it the old college try.
Because at its heart, Herrera is putting his mouth where his money is. He’s doing everything in his power to show the messiness of poetry in its roughest forms. To show how poetry is something raw and spontaneous and as much a feeling as a form. He’s actually making as clear as anyone can why people love poetry. The end result is that this book isn’t going to be for everyone. You’re going to get a fair number of kids (maybe those haiku lovers) that get three pages in and then call it “weird” and walk away. But for every five or ten or maybe even twenty kids that turn away, there’s going to be this one that can’t resist it. That colorful splatter on the cover. The heft and size of it, like even the publisher understood that the words on show here needed something substantial for maximum importance. And when the man writing this book tells you that “Your burbles are going to become a Seismic & Crazy Epic Poem!” that kid is going to believe what he says. Maybe write more poetry. Maybe write better poetry. Maybe start walking and observing and drawing on the parts of their lives that they never thought they could write about. And maybe something inside this book is going to stick with them for a long long time. Mr. Herrera could have written a normal instructional book for young writers. Instead he decided to fill his readers’ “burrito head[s] full of incandescent Sparkles” with fire and frenzy and risk and flavor. It doesn’t all work. Writing doesn’t. But if you seriously have a kid that wants to write poetry and isn’t afraid to take the advice of a man that can write a phrase like “crazy, fuzzy, putrid blue-cheesy planet-frijol-bean” with a straight face, there’s nothing else you can hand them BUT this. And that’s the Jabberwalking truth of the matter.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Here’s the book trailer
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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