Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Your Own, Sylvia by Stephanie Hemphill

I really should have thought more about what reading this book would mean, but I was very curious and I love a good novel in verse. The problem is, my friends, that it’s a bummer. I’m sure you’re thinking, “Well DUH, Joanna. S-Y-L-V-I-A P-L-A-T-H. Not synonymous with F-U-N.” I was not thinking, okay. I will say it is a remarkable book. In many ways, it is a book not to be missed this year.

I knew next to nothing about
Sylvia Plath. I know I read her poems in English classes. I never read The Bell Jar. I knew a bit about her tragic life. I have no objection to reading her. I just never got around to it. (I felt this was a pretty good thing going in so that I could potentially be on par knowledge-wise with a teen reader.) I understand the appeal to teens to read Plath. She had a volcanic, talented life that ended early and tragically. She was not a woman of her times and a powerful writer. While her writing (poems, letters, novel and journals) exposed much of her life, more of it remains a mystery as her husband’s estate withholds it from the public.

Stephanie Hemphill's book is "a verse portrait of Sylvia Plath". The project itself is a fantastic undertaking: writing Plath's life in verse in the voices of the people from her life. Plath wrote obsessively, so there is plenty of fuel for Hemphill. She also crafts poems based on poems that Plath wrote. I found that fascinating. And there are footnotes! Footnotes after every single poem!

But here's the kick. I don't see much teen appeal for the whole project. I enjoyed the book very much, but I did get tired. Most of the book is Plath's adult life and, well, adult problems do not necessarily equal appeal for a younger audience. Even gorgeous & sassy suicidal geniuses can wear on the interest. The footnotes are lovely, but they can be cumbersome in their detail. If a teen were to need a book on Sylvia Plath for an English assignment, I would easily suggest this book as a starting point. Actually, it would be a great resource to have while reading Plath's poetry since Hemphill wonderfully offers insight into her poems. Teens who are serious about poetry will find this an excellent book on the construction of poetry in addition to the biographical information. Teens who like novels in verse could like it, if, say, they also watch PBS/BBC documentaries with rapt adoration for intricate detail. This is an intense book. While I applaud the authors beautiful work, it is not something I feel will click with most teens.

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