In general, I am not a fan of novels in verse. To me the continual line breaks get annoying. I tend to complain: Just get on with the story! And the voice, which is so integral to both poetry and fiction, often seems to wear thin.
That said, I’m a big fan of Diamond Willow, a novel by Helen Frost that is written primarily in shape poems. The story is about a 12-year-old part-Athabascan girl struggling to find her sense of self. She lives in a fictional Bush village in Alaska. The voice is authentic, an almost painful reminder of what it feels like to be a young girl on the cusp of adolescence. The plot is powerful on an emotional level, as a family secret unfolds and issues of friendship and relationships are examined. It is also an adventure story, as Willow survives a blizzard and serious outdoor challenges while dog mushing. And if that isn’t enough, it’s a terrific dog story, as well.
Throughout the story, Willow speaks in shape poems, most often diamonds.
These are not highly structured poems in the traditional sense, which is probably why they work as narrative prose. But look more closely: do you see the words in bold? Each poem contains some. Like a secret message, they summarize the theme of that poem, underscoring Willow’s emotions on that page.
A gimmick? Well, maybe. But it’s nifty and innovative. And it works.
Other characters also talk to us throughout the story. Their voices appear in standard line format, which helps the reader shift from one point of view to another. But even their contributions to the story have a twist: they are all animals, some representing the spirit of Willow’s relatives who have died.
All in all, it’s a great read. It reminds me a little of Stone Fox, both in terms of subject matter (love of family, dog sledding, struggling to find one’s way) and emotional impact. The story is more complex -- its intended audience is older, I’d say 5th to 7th grades – and the main character is a girl. But in both stories that special love of a child for a dog shines through.