Writers love to write about the saving power of words. That’s why children’s literature is filled with heroic English teachers and life-changing writing assignments – and kid protagonists bettered by this literary intervention.
Free Verse by Sarah Dooley (recommended for readers Grades 5+) covers some of the same territory as other books in this vein, such as Sharon Creech's “Love that Dog” or Mark Goldblatt’s “Twerp.” But main character Sasha’s poetic trajectory is unique in the way that it redefines the catalyst for great art.
True to the playbook for these types of stories, when we first meet 13-year-old Sasha, she’s battling loss and emotional pain. Her older brother Michael’s death in a fire – an on-the-job fatality – is the latest in a string of tragedies that upend Sasha’s life. Without her mother (who ran off when she was five), or her father (dead in a mining accident), Sasha becomes a ward of the state – a terrifying prospect for any child, but especially one as unpredictable and broken as Sasha.
Phyllis, Sasha’s foster mom, is the first hero of this story. Though she isn’t a writer, Phyllis is an artist in her own right, helping to unlock Sasha through music and cooking lessons. The two form a tentative bond as Phyllis gracefully weathers Sasha’s emotional storms and Sasha eases into an unaccustomed feeling of steadiness.
The problem is that little about Caboose, West Virginia is steady – especially for the family members of those who work in the mines. And just as Sasha discovers, and grows close to, a newfound relative, tragedy strikes again. A mine collapse. A terrible loss. Sasha is launched into orbit.
And yet, there is still poetry. A quirky English teacher and a poetry club have already joined Phyllis in comforting Sasha with art and companionship. Sasha is a natural with words. They bubble out of her, spilling emotions onto paper that she couldn’t otherwise articulate. And as she experiments with different forms, Sasha discovers poetry’s double blessing: The structure stabilizes her, while the creativity sets her free.
Poetry also liberates the reader from what could quickly become a downer of a story. While Sasha’s poems do capture the range of her emotions, including the pain and loss that permeate this book, they’re also full of unexpected insights and clever observations. And though there’s no point at which the prose of “Free Verse” gets bogged down, the sections featuring Sasha’s poetry certainly accelerate the read and add a much-needed dose of sweetness and charm.
Where “Free Verse” diverges from the typical words-saved-my-life narrative is in the way it chronicles Sasha’s development as a writer. Like most artists, Sasha initially uses her art as a way to explore her pain. To make sense of the cruel and unpredictable world around her. But as she grows – as a writer and as a person – poetry takes on a new purpose. Refreshingly, it turns her from blight to beauty, and away from loss toward discovery.
Sasha spends most of this book mining the extensive tragedies that have shaped her short life and putting the results on paper. But while pain initially gets the words flowing, it’s love – for her friends, her family, and even her wretched hometown – that turns Sasha into a real artist. And it’s this love, as much as the words that capture it, that ultimately saves her.