When Lonnie Collins Motion (Lo Co Motion) was 7 years old, his parents died in a house fire. Now, four years later, he is living with his foster mother Miss Edna and learning to write poetry with encouragement from his teacher, Ms. Marcus. Jacqueline Woodson tells Lonnie’s story through the poems that he writes during the year.
Lonnie’s situation is difficult, but this book, like Hush and Feathers, focuses as much on the hope as on the struggle. It’s one of the things I like about Woodson’s writing. She shows kids working through difficult things, but she shows that difficult things can be worked through.
Lonnie’s poems are mostly free verse, but he sometimes plays with other forms, usually because he’s been assigned to write a haiku or sonnet in school. He writes about his memories of his parents, things he observes at school and in the neighborhood, his life with Miss Edna, and his desire to reunite with his little sister Lili. Some of the poems are unremarkable, written perhaps to complete an assignment, like this haiku:
Today’s a bad day
Is that haiku? Do I look
like I even care?
Most of the poems, however, demonstrate some interest in form and even more interest in life. Lonnie uses his poems to remember and to work out his feelings, and as readers, we get to watch this 11-year-old mind come to terms with his world and come to love the magic of words, as evidenced in these lines from the final poem in the book:
This day is already putting all kinds of words
in your head
and breaking them up into lines
and making the lines into pictures in your mind
And in the pictures the people are
laughing and frowning and
eating and reading and
playing ball skipping along and
spinning themselves into poetry.
I think it’s a challenge for authors to write in the voices of younger people and still come across as authentic. It’s possible that some of Lonnie’s insights–and his writing, as depicted by Woodson–are beyond a typical 11-year-old. I don’t have enough experience with 11-year-olds or their writing to say. But some of Ms. Marcus’s comments give me the idea that he might a bit more gifted than his peers as a poet, and I’m not sure I’d want to read a typical 11-year-old’s poems. (No offense to 11-year-olds; I’m also not sure I’d want to read a typical 40-year-old’s poems!)
At any rate, I didn’t find these poems jarringly advanced in their language or their thinking, but there was enough here to make me think and to move me. One prose piece in particular, “Commercial Break,” which appeared early in the book, brought me up short with its startling observations about the way we perceive skin color. In this piece, Lonnie describes a commercial in which a white woman makes her husband a meal that Lonnie thinks looks delicious. Ms. Marcus wonders why Lonnie mentioned that the couple is white:
Now Ms. Marcus wants to know why I wrote that the lady is white and I say because it’s true. And Ms. Marcus says Lonnie, what does race have to do with it, forgetting that she asked us to use lots of details when we wrote. Forgetting that whole long talk she gave yesterday about the importance of description! I don’t say anything back to her, just look down at my arm. It’s dark brown and there’s a scab by my wrist that I don’t pick at if I remember not to. I look at my knuckles. They’re real dark too.
Isn’t that interesting? Lonnie is trying to be descriptive, but his teacher sees the mention of skin color as making a statement somehow. Lonnie observes, “Maybe it’s that if you’re white you can’t see all the whiteness around you.” In this piece, you can see Lonnie working out the significance of skin color and what it means that his favorite teacher, a white woman, just doesn’t see what he sees.
Woodson writes for children and young adults, but her books are good reads for adults too. And don’t let the fact that this novel is in verse put you off. Most of the poems read as quickly and easily as prose, and because they’re free verse, they lack the sing-songy awkwardness you might expect to find in poems ostensibly written by an 11-year-old. The form mostly just forced me to slow down enough to make every line count in my reading, just as Ms. Marcus tells Lonnie to make every line count in his writing.