A Summer Story in Poems: WHEN MY SISTER STARTED KISSING

Lynn: For many lucky families, summer means time at the lake, with swimming, boating, fishing, cozy cottages on rainy days, and the ever-present sights and smells of the water.Helen Frost’s new verse novel, When My Sister Started Kissing (2017), gets all these details just right.

Ten-year-old Claire, her older sister Abigail, and her widowed father have always spent summer at the lake. But this summer, things are different in so many ways: her dad has remarried, a new baby is expected at any minute, and the two girls resent their new stepmother. For Claire, there are even more unwelcome changes. Thirteen-year-old Abi is like a different person. Having discovered boys, makeup, clothes, and kissing, she is testing restrictions while exploring her new powers of attraction, and Claire is both mystified and stricken by the new dynamics.

In tender, evocative poetry, Frost uses three narrative voices, slipping readers into the minds and hearts of the two sisters during one pivotal summer. Yes, three: the lake has a voice too, an omnipresent reflection of the natural order of life, growth, and inevitable change. There is such sweetness in this lovely story, laced with moments of spot-on humor. This is perfect for tweens taking their first tentative steps into adolescence. And, oh, the wonderful format! Cindy explains more about that below.

Cindy: Frost’s poetry is always excellent, but this book might be her most accessible, especially for its intended tween audience. The cover and title will certainly draw in many of those readers, but the story of Claire and Abi’s summer of changes will keep them turning the pages.

I recently read a Facebook post by Frost in which she discusses one element of her writing process in this book. Here is an excerpt, used with her permission:

I wrote an entire draft where there was a lot of drama having to do with people mistreating each other, and I asked myself how much of it was necessary. In rewriting the story, whenever I came to a decision about how the characters would behave in a conflict, if I found myself tempted to include meanness or aggression, I asked, “What if this didn’t happen?” Could there be drama and a compelling story without it?

There is definitely conflict in several of the relationships in this story, and in the wrong hands the attempt to wrestle with the meanness could result in something not believable, but Frost is successful here in maintaining tension without being unnecessarily cruel.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the poetry form used here. A “Notes on Form” page explains the variations used for different voices in the book. Claire’s poems are mostly written in quatrains except for her kayak poems. The last word in each line is in boldface type and can be read separately down the page for more about what Claire is thinking. Abi’s poems are in three-line stanzas shaped to look like the lightning that factors into the family’s story. The lake speaks too, in acrostic poems. The first letter of each line when read down the page spells out a line from a famous poem, sourced in the notes.

As if that weren’t enough fun, readers who buy their own copies might be tempted to spend some time between chapters coloring the wavy pages that feature the design from the front cover. I might even encourage it in my middle school library copies. 😉 Shhhh . . . don’t tell!

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About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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