Friday, March 6, 2009

Sketches from a Spy Tree - verse novel Book Review

SKETCHES FROM A SPY TREE: Zimmer, Tracie Vaughn, 2005. Illustrated by Andrew Glass. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company ISBN-13: 978-0-618-23479-0

Sketches from a Spy Tree is not your typical verse novel. Most of this genre is written for teenagers, but this novel is aimed squarely at middle schoolers. Tracie Vaughn Zimmer has written an intriguing collection of free verse poems that can be read individually. Read as a novel, though, they follow narrator Anne Marie, her identical twin Mary Anne, and their best friend May Ching, over the course of a couple of years as they explore their neighborhood, feelings, and learn to cope with life’s ups and downs. It also paints a ray of hope for upper elementary and younger middle schoolers who are struggling with a parent's remarriage.

At the beginning of this novel, 10 year old Anne Marie tells us about how her father left her mother and 3 daughters a couple of years before the story begins. Over the course of the novel, we learn about Anne Marie’s new stepfather, the neighbors, the frightening dog who lives 2 blocks away, the new baby sister, and how Anne Marie finally learns to care for her stepfather. Ms. Zimmer skillfully crafts this progression, with lines moving from “I’m the one with hate/painting my heart black.” (“The Twins”) to “I bite the side of my cheek/until after the I do’s/and clamp my eyes tight/for the kiss” (“The Kiss”) to “Our last name/is not the same/as Momma’s anymore/and there are days/I dislike him/just for that.” (“Names”) to the day when Mike, her stepdad, gives her the art supplies her father left behind when he left, “But right now I think I’ll/paint a picture/to fill the black spot/he wiped clean/in my heart.” (“Potential”). In the last poem, Anne Marie is carefully wrapping a self-portrait: “It’s a Father’s Day gift/for my stepdad, Mike.” (“Self-Portrait”). The very last page is a wonderful painting of Anne Marie with a sketchbook in hand and wide grin on her face. Could this be the self-portrait she gave to Mike? If so, Anne Marie has come a long way since the beginning of the novel.

Andrew Glass’s illustrations are primarily sketches and paintings which we are led to believe come from Anne Marie herself. Mr. Glass has used a combination of paintings, sketches, and collages to bring the poems to life. The paintings, especially, are vibrant, and filled with movement – after all, Anne Marie leads an active, typical 10 to 11 year old’s life. But she has her quiet moments too. The poem that gives the book its title, “Maple Street” is illustrated with a photo collage, and is my favorite from the book because I also had a tree I sat in to hide from the world when I was Anne Marie’s age.

Maple Street

There’s no doubt
where our street
found its name:
the gigantic maple tree
in front of Jamie Hamlin’s house.
His nose may run
green slime all year,
but he shares
the stale chocolate bars left over
from his family’s corner store
and besides,
like I said,
there’s his tree.

With my sketchbook and colored pencils,
I climb
the four largest limbs
into my tower,
the perfect place to draw
what I see:

Mary Anne and Emily
swinging higher and higher
their hair like two flags
in the wind

Paul and Carrie O’Brien
practicing karate moves before their four o’clock class.

From my tower
I can see the whole neighborhood.
But no one can see me,
hidden by these green and paper leves,
creating sketches
from a spy tree.

Both Tracie Vaughn Zimmer and Andrew Glass are twins. Tracie is an identical twin and Andrew is a fraternal twin, although he tells us in the dust jacket, “As fraternal twins, Alex and I never looked anything alike. He was a strapping football player type, while I was a skinny, artistic guy. Yet it was not unusual that as soon as people learned we were twins, they suddenly stopped being able to tell us apart.” Knowing that both the poet and artist of this book are twins just like their main character, gives this book a unique appeal.

Graphic from: accessed 3/6/2009

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