Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Burg, Ann E. All the Broken Pieces (3 stars out of 4)
I admit it: I am a poetry snob. I buy all of the new, level-appropriate poetry books for my libraries; I support and recommend poetry to the students who like it (and some who do not); and I teach poetry forms, concepts, sounds, and devices; however, I must confess that my real love is the DWGs (dead white guys) many of us learned about in school. Give me Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, Tennyson, and a forest to walk in, and I am a happy camper. However, young people do not have the same relationship and history with poetry that I do, and they will never have the opportunity to develop their tastes without exposure to more than Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky. Having enjoyed verse books like Virginia Euwer Wolff’s moving urban drama Make Lemonade and Marilyn Nelson’s insightful biography Carver: A Life in Poems, I decided to read All the Broken Pieces by new author Ann E. Burg. Employing straightforward free verse, Ms. Burg does a capable job in telling the story of a Vietnamese immigrant’s challenges in growing up in post-war, divided America.
It is the 1970s and the Vietnam War has ended. Matt Pin is one of the lucky children airlifted, by his biological mother’s request, out of the horror of war-torn Vietnam: “In choking mist / and wailing dust, / through sounds / of whirring helicopters / and open prayers, / I hear her. / You cannot stay here, / she says. / Here you will be like dust. / Bui Doi. / Dust of Life” (2). Matt is adopted by a loving American family, and although he is safe from the ravages of war, he harbors a tangle of feelings. He experiences guilt over leaving his mother and crippled brother, shame in having an American soldier (who abandoned his mother) he never met as a biological father, and fear that his American parents do not actually want him: “My parents say they love me . . . / But what about / my mother in Vietnam? / Didn’t she say / she loved me too? (67). When Matt tries out for the school baseball team, he encounters another roadblock, peer prejudice created by the bitterness and loss of an unpopular and deadly war: “When tryouts are over, / Rob Brennan bumps into me. / I fall into the bleachers. / When I stand up again, / he hisses into my ear, / My brother died / because of you” (48). Matt’s burden is overwhelming for an adolescent: he must come to terms with survivor’s guilt, find a way to accept two sets of parents separated by a gulf of fire and shame, and find a way to be an Asian-American boy and man at a time of high resentment against everything even remotely Vietnamese.
I will not pretend that All the Broken Pieces contains great poetry; Ann E. Burg is no Stephen Dunn or Billy Collins. She takes no risks; her poetry feels more like bulleted lists than innovative or distinctive lines, and those lines would be prose in another author’s hands who did not feel the need to break them into chunks and pretend they are poetic. I might even suggest that I would have enjoyed it more as a prose morality play like Sid Fleischman’s simply brilliant The Entertainer and the Dybbuk. However, she does not need to be brilliant to be effective, and her simple but poignant free verse, more potentially appealing to middlers than to English majors/teachers, is capable of moving and inspiring students to read and possibly write more poetry, and for that, she is to be commended. Although the characters lack concreteness and place (we never find out how old Matt is, where he lives, or background about everyone’s lives), they successfully make the author’s points about the tenuous relationship between prejudice and pain, guilt and remorse, and love and hate. The emotionally-charged images that Ms. Burg occasionally conjures evoke the alienation, fear, and insecurity every middler lives every day. In All the Broken Pieces, author Ann E. Burg invites readers to explore the issues surrounding a painful part of our collective history, and students who did not grow up with the Vietnam War as a backdrop to their lives will benefit from an initial exploration of the myriad ways the war affected America and Americans. I think my students will enjoy it, and like Mari Mancusi’s Gamer Girl, another book I did not like that much but that I heartily recommend to my students (even adding, because they are suckers for reverse psychology, that I did not like it), I will promote it. I just wish there was more for me in Ms. Burg’s spare poetry.

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