Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Sonya Sones

Sones, Sonya. STOP PRETENDING: WHAT HAPPENED WHEN MY BIG SISTER WENT CRAZY. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1999. ISBN 0060283874.

Sonya Sones’ debut book of poetry is a verse novel accounting of her own childhood experiences. For years, Sones buried her feelings about her big sister’s mental illness in her very private journals. Finally, according to her author’s note, she took a poetry class at UCLA taught by Myra Cohn Livingston, where this collection of free verse poems was born.

These poems contain many examples of poetic language: metaphors (“when the sun/licks through the gauze/fluttering at my window”), alliteration (“shrouded with a sheet”),and simile (“holding tight/like feathers to the wing of a bird.”). Sones uses an occasional ending rhyme (“I could have been the one./Run, Sister, run!”) or repeated phrase to emphasize her point (“Stop pretending./Right this minute./Don’t you tell me/you don’t know me.”). And even though they’re written in free verse, some of these poems have a very regular meter:
     “Suddenly I’m running, stumbling,
     Sister’s demons chasing after,
     Leering, laughing,
     right behind me
     lurching at my heels
     remind me...”
Other poems, because of their choppy, irregular rhythm, invoke the anguish that mental illness must bring to both the patient and those close to her:
     “’Isn’t that what Alice did
     in that Disney movie?
     Isn’t it?’ she demands. “Alice was the one
     with the ruby slippers. Wasn’t she?”
     Sister stomps her foot,

     Then she clicks her heels together three times
     and whirls and twirls
     like she’s caught in a cyclone
     until she collapses onto her bed,
     curling up into a tight fist.”

In her author’s note at the end of the book, Sones explains that her sister has led a productive life even though she has continued to need occasional hospitalizations, and has given Ms. Sones her blessing for sharing her experiences. Sones even provides a list of addresses and websites for readers who have further questions about mental illness or need help for themselves or a family member.

Like most of the genre of verse novels, this book is aimed at primarily high school aged readers. These poems can be read alone, but together they create an ongoing story of a family’s struggle with mental illness and a sister watching her beloved older sister’s illness and feeling totally helpless. The storyline moves from disbelief to anguish to finally cautious hope. My favorite poem is one of the very last ones:

     I’m tucked
     Between my mother and father,
     snuggling on the couch
     under the quilt that Grandma Ruthie made,
     watching an old movie on television,
     eating popcorn.

     And tonight,
     for once,
     it feels okay
     to just be


Awards, Honors, Prizes:
Christopher Awards, 2000 Winner Ages 12 and up United States
Claudia Lewis Award, 1999 Winner United States
Los Angeles Times Book Prize, 1999 Finalist Young Adult Fiction United States
Myra Cohn Livingston Award for Poetry, 2000 Winner United States

Michael Cart (Booklist, November 15, 1999 (Vol. 96, No. 6))
One Christmas Eve, 13-year-old Cookie's big sister has a nervous breakdown…. Following this manic moment, the sister is institutionalized. This haunting novel, told entirely in Cookie's first-person poems, is the story of what happens in the wake of this emotional disaster…. The poems--some as short as five lines, none longer than three pages--have a cumulative emotional power that creeps up on the reader, culminating in a moving, unexpected line or phrase: "I blink / and there you suddenly are / inhabiting your eyes again. . . and I'm feeling all lit up / like a jar filled / with a thousand fireflies." Such small moments become large in the context of their promise of healing and their demonstration of life's power to continue. Based on Sones' own family experience, this debut novel shows the capacity of poetry to record the personal and translate it into the universal.

Kirkus (Kirkus Reviews, 1999)
Individually, the poems appear simple and unremarkable, snapshot portraits of two sisters, a family, unfaithful friends, and a sweet first love. Collected, they take on life and movement, the individual frames of a movie that in the unspooling become animated, telling a compelling tale and presenting a painful passage through young adolescence. The form, a story-in-poems, fits the story remarkably well, spotlighting the musings of the 13-year-old narrator, and pinpointing the emotions powerfully. She copes with friends who snub her, worries that she, too, will go mad, and watches her sister's slow recovery.

Horn Book (The Horn Book Guide, Spring 2000)
When her older sister becomes mentally ill, an adolescent girl describes her own tumultuous feelings in a series of free verse poems. The simple verses are occasionally glib, but more often sensitively written, gathering cumulative power as they trace Cookie's feelings of loss, despair, and loneliness as Sister is institutionalized, undergoes shock therapy, and ultimately makes small steps toward recovery.

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