Monday, April 15, 2013

When life gives you lemons...

Make Lemonade
Make Lemonade, by Virginia Euwer Wolff, is the first book I've ever read that was written in free verse.  I read this via audiobook and I must admit - I could not tell at all that it was a novel in verse.  Not sure if that is a good thing or a bad thing, but it certainly wasn't what I was expecting.

Make Lemonade is about two very different girls from inner city Philadelphia.  LaVaughn is a high school freshman who has plans to go to college and make something of herself, to leave her neighborhood behind her.  Her mother is supportive and strong and pushes her to succeed.  To save for college, LaVaughn decides to get an after-school job.  She starts baby-sitting toddlers Jeremy and Jilly while their mother, 17-year-old Jolly, works at a factory.

Jolly's life story has a very different arc from LaVaughn's that comes up as the story continues.  She sees herself as a victim, which LaVaughn doesn't tolerate, but she also has had a really difficult life to date, and very few role models.  She doesn't live in a nice place at all, and she barely has money to buy toilet paper.  When she gets unfairly fired from her job, she's unable to pay LaVaughn to babysit any more and the relationship between the two girls begins to evolve.  LaVaughn pushes Jolly to go back to school and make something of herself, and Jolly learns to take charge of her life and its trajectory.

This is a very short book - it was only three hours on audio, and I was surprised at the depth of detail and character that fit into such a short amount of space.  I wonder if I would have liked it more or less if I had read it rather than listened to it - I have a feeling I would have gotten so wrapped up in getting the proper cadence of the poetry, following the rhythm, that I would have stressed myself out.  But at the same time, by listening to the audio version, I may have missed the beauty and thought that went into certain turns of phrase and how they look on the page.

Oh, well.

I enjoyed this story a lot.  I think what I most appreciated was how real the characters were to me.  LaVaughn wanted to make money, so she looked for a job.  She saw a teenage girl with two kids and drew the same conclusions that I'm sure many of us would draw.  They were incorrect.  Jolly viewed herself as a victim in almost every situation until she finally learned that she could take charge of her own life.  She still whined every once in a while, but she at least tried to solve problems herself.  Jolly's refrain throughout this book is "Nobody told me."  Nobody told me that I could get help for my kids.  Nobody told me that I need to get my GED.  Nobody told me that literacy is required for almost every job.  At first it was hard to feel sorry for her, but just as LaVaughn came to realize how fragile Jolly's support system was, I did, too.  It's true that nobody told Jolly about how to take care of her life, and she didn't have anybody to turn to - no family, no friends, no job.  She existed on that terrifying precipice, where just one thing going wrong (such as her son getting chicken pox or needing glasses) could send her into a panicking tailspin.

LaVaughn was easier to like, but that may have been the result of her strong, clear narrative voice.  She was one determined 14-year-old and the difficulties she faced felt very real.  For example, was it right to charge a person for baby-sitting when you knew she had no money to pay for anything?  And if you don't think it is, should you continue baby-sitting for free to help or try to find another way to make some money that you can save up for college?  It's a hard decision to make, and I didn't blame LaVaughn at all for struggling with it.

It was really enjoyable to see both Jolly and LaVaughn grow up and make decisions for themselves.  It was also a good way to learn more about how the other half lives - paycheck to paycheck, if paychecks even exist, and without the support network that so many of us take for granted.

 I am not sure if I would say Make Lemonade is a good introduction to poetry for those of us who are daunted by poems.  In a way, it is, because I couldn't tell it was a poem.  But does that count?  Shouldn't an introduction to poetry actually make clear that it's a poem?  I think it probably did, in physical form, but in audiobook, I couldn't tell.  But it made me less frightened of books in verse and that's a good start, right?

11 comments:

  1. I *love* this book. Love, love, love. I read it (on the page) and taught it, and I love it. Wolff really looks at the difference between being poor and true poverty AND my favorite thing is that she doesn't assign any race or ethnicity to the girls (even though most of my students thought they were brown).

    You should read it on the page. It's a fast read, and you can really appreciate the concentration of language.

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    1. Yes, you put it well - the difference between being poor and being poverty-stricken. What a great point.

      I admit I, too, assumed the girls were African-American. I think because of the name LaVaughn.

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    2. LaVaughn, yes, I can see that. but lots of poor whites have interesting hybrid names as well. Of course, we don't encounter them as much in media, so the assumption when we see that type of name is African-American. Not true!

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  2. I read a book in verse on audio, and I get what you are saying about not even knowing it was verse. I think for some reason, my mind sees the structure of the poem on the page and wants to shy away from it, when in reality, it's just another piece of writing.

    I also love the sound of this one, and think that it would be an excellent choice for me. It sounds really different than what I had thought it would be about, and it excites me that you liked it so much! Off to see if I can find it...in audio, of course!!

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    1. Yes, I think you would enjoy it, Heather, and am glad to know that it's not just me who didn't even notice free verse!

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  3. I would also recommend reading Make Lemonade in print as well. When I read it, I also had no idea I was about to read a poetry-style book (I probably wouldn't have bothered if I'd known ahead of time, which would have been an absolute shame). The flow fits great on a page... I think it's worth experiencing.

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    1. Thanks for the suggestion. I was going to do the next two books in the series on audiobook, but now I think I'll try to find them in print form so I can experience what you did :-)

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  4. I love this whole trilogy so much. I'm glad the third one finally came out!

    Honestly, I love novels-in-verse and don't think you should shy away from them! I tend to find them very easy to read, flowing.

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  5. I loved the first two on audio, back when I listened to more YA than I do now, and I keep forgetting to check out the third one.

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