Monday, February 20, 2012

YA Book Review: All the Broken Pieces

Written in free verse poetry vignettes, Ann E. Burg's All the Broken Pieces has all of the earmarks of a writer with something to say.  It will be interesting to see where she goes from here--I have memories of a graduate school contemporary literature course observation that Marilyn Robinson's Housekeeping falls into a short line of authors who write a mighty first book and then--pffft.  Nothing.  Of course Harper Lee and J.D. Salinger lead that list.

I'm not comparing ABP to any of those novels or authors; however, I am pointing out the messages of prejudice, healing, and acceptance in ABP (Burg's first novel) are strong and relevant for a middle school reader.  Burg hefted a great message from her soul and put it into a form that the YA audience can appreciate and middle school teachers can use in their classes.  She does not shy away from the ugliness of the situation, but Berg has an artful hand with the ugly moments and scars and presents them in a way that a middle school brain can digest, process, and discuss them without being curled up in a ball in the corner of a closet.

Of special note for teachers is that this is a book about males overcoming their prejudice, pain, insecurities amid the broiling social climate of early 1970s America.  Without spoiling the story, protagonist Matt Pin was a child airlifted out of Vietnam during the Vietnam War.  His mother passed him on to American soldiers for adoption, saving, redemption.  Operation Babylift was a very real moment in American history.  During the finals days of the Vietnam War and leading all the way to the fall of Saigon, Americans airlifted over 3,300 Vietnamese children out of the country...particularly Vietnamese children fathered by American soldiers.  Fear of what Communists would do to these children of mixed race as well as the great political publicity such a move would generate, President Gerald Ford signed on.  Many critics called it a move to generate sympathy for the war.

This matches so well with Thannha Lai's Inside Out & Back Again (Vietnamese girl flees Saigon for America) and Christina Gonzalez's The Red Umbrella (Operation Pedro Pan & Cuba) and that I think I am going to pitch all as a package during an upcoming curriculum discussion.

Back to book...the male protagonist, Matt Lin, is airlifted out of Vietnam and sent to America for adoption.  His mother willingly gave him up--the only ray of hope she could embrace for her son.
Yet, not everyone is thrilled to see a Vietnamese boy in town in the early 70s, but some use the opportunity for healing.

An angle of particular strength in ABP is the use of the Veterans Voices meetings.  Vietnam War veterans meet each week in the community center to support one another and to continue the process of healing.  Matt is brought to these meetings for both the veterans and himself.  In the process, the veterans begin to see a validation for their efforts and Matt begins to learn to heal as well.

Written in first-person free verse poetry vignettes the voice is not especially youthful.  It balances more between the maturity of an adult author and the experiences of a child.  I imagine the challenge is really difficult to write free verse in the voice of child, let alone a Vietnamese child if that is not your native tongue.  The voice doesn't stumble over words or associations--the thoughts flow seamlessly--yetI did not have a problem with any of it.  The voice hovered over the scene--as if Matt's reflections took him back in time as a ghost and he watched the events play over again, without emotion or prejudice.

My mother talks
slowly and gently.
Her fluttery hands
are folded in front of her,
like we are in church.

Matt you've been through so much,
she says, but we want you
to stop running,
or, at least, to find out
what it is you're running from.

What is she talking about?
I'm not running.
I'm trying to stay.

In my classes, some 8th grade students struggle with learning where to break a line free verse poetry or how to isolate an image or idea.  Some are interested in reading self-selected books built on history or poetry.  Some dig for YA stories about males.  The point is--I see a lot going for this book in a middle school classroom--it digs into several themes:  prejudice, the horrors of war, blame, and adoption.  I find more and more of my 8th grade students digging for and self-selecting books with challenging and serious themes--they are so curious about so many things at their age.  Of course, the books about cloying love and "friends forever" still get pulled from the shelves for good effect and reason, but I have to say that I will be happy to place All the Broken Pieces on my classroom library shelf because it is a great book for the curious and developing mind of the middle school reader...and it just might make an even better teaching tool.

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