Archive | January 2014

diVERSEity month: Immigration, Displacement and an Interview with Holly Thompson

Hello everyone! I sincerely apologize for my delayed posts for diVERSEity month. I was so very excited about this, and then I got hired for about seven different writing positions and everything became extremely stressful. BUT I am back. And I will finish these posts before the month, I promise.

Now, without further ado, I have the pleasure of introducing you to verse novelist Holly Thompson! She is the author of two verse novels, Orchards and, her more recent release, The Language Inside. I had the opportunity to interview her on the topic of this new novel which deals with the ideas of immigration through verse.


1. Welcome, Holly, care to tell us a little about yourself?

Thank you! Well, I grew up in Massachusetts, and in college majored in biology with a plan to be a wildlife biologist, but also studied creative writing. After college, I married, taught science and English, then had my first stint in Japan, wrote more and more stories, attended the Creative Writing Program at NYU, and from then on focused on writing and teaching, in the U.S. and Japan.

2. When did you start writing? Did you start with prose, poetry or did you go straight into narrative verse?

I started writing poems in middle school. One of my poems was performed on Zoom, the PBS TV show. Some poems had plot in them. Some I can still hear in my head. Sadly I don’t have copies of any of these. I continued to write poetry and stories all through high school, but in college I shifted my creative writing focus completely to fiction. Still, I was always secretly writing poems, and my prose sometimes seemed to want to be poetry, and my poems often tended toward narrative. So it’s natural and logical that eventually I started writing verse novels.

3. Do you prefer writing with pen and paper or a keyboard?

I always carry small notebooks with me for notes, scribbles, scraps of ideas and plotting thoughts, and poem lines, but I do my serious writing on a computer.

4. What are some of your favorite novels in verse? Do you have verse novelists who are inspirational to you?

I am always impressed by and inspired by Helen Frost, though her approach, writing in form, is quite different from mine. Karen Hesse, of course, has inspired so many of us verse novelists. Sonya Sones and Ellen Hopkins have provided me with such important guidance, encouragement and motivation along the way. And so many poets have inspired me—Lucille Clifton, Garrett Hongo, Gary Soto, Li-Young Lee to name a few.

5. How did you gain inspiration for The Language Inside? What compelled you to tell this story?

While I was a graduate student at NYU, I volunteered at Goldwater Hospital in the poetry workshops led by Sharon Olds. One of the patients I worked with was Julia Tavalaro, who’d had a series of strokes and relied on little more than eye movement for communication. My blog post The Language Inside and Inspiration from Poet Julia Tavalaro tells about this experience and Julia’s incredible tenacity. I knew I wanted to write a story about a girl who works with a woman like Julia, and in The Language Inside, Japan-raised Emma has such an experience when she is moved from her home in Japan to Massachusetts for her mother’s breast cancer treatment and volunteers at a long-term care center to assist the patient Zena in writing poems. The story is about language, communication on many levels, displacement and finding home(s). The richly multicultural city of Lowell, with its significant Cambodian population, was an inspiration, as were my trips to Cambodia—these all gave rise to the character Samnang, Emma’s friend in the story.

6. You live in Japan now, don’t you? Where were you from originally and why did you decide to move there?

I was raised in New England, but I’ve lived in Japan two different times for a total of over 18 years. My husband had already lived there when we met and was eager to go back, so we spent three years teaching in Japanese public high schools early in our marriage, then moved to New York for a number of years. We moved back to Japan when our children were young—and we’ve stayed there since. The culture, language and geography have deeply influenced who I am today and play into all of my poetry and fiction.

7. What was the cultural change like for you, and how did that affect your writing of Emma’s journey in The Language Inside?

Emma is bicultural and bilingual, though not biracial. Internally she feels Japanese, although she is not Japanese. Her situation is similar to my daughter’s and that of other children raised outside of the home culture of their parents. When Emma moves to the U.S., the place of her birth, she feels displaced and disoriented, and is acutely homesick for Japan.

Though I was not raised in Japan, having lived in Japan for so many years, and having raised my children in Japan, I experience similar sorts of culture shock whenever I am back in the U.S. Like Emma we always miss Japanese food!

8. What do you think the difference was between you, moving to Japan, and Emma, moving to America? Was that difference hard for you to understand and write about?

Emma’s situation in Massachusetts is that of someone who does not appear to be an outsider—she’s a Caucasian American who speaks fluent English—and although she is expected to feel and behave like an American, she feels completely like an outsider. She is an invisible bicultural in the U.S., and people around her don’t see or expect her to identify as an outsider. Americans can be frustratingly uncurious about life outside the U.S., and for a teen from another culture, that lack of curiosity can lead to intense feelings of alienation.

In Japan I am visibly an outsider, and will never be accepted as an insider, regardless of how long I stay. I am often “other”ed, and am lumped together with non-Japanese people of all different backgrounds and races. Non-Japanese are all others, gaijin, together—this is why Emma finds the “white girl” references so startling—she’s never really felt herself being defined by her race.

In Japan I’m considered an outsider within groups of Japanese even when I feel like an insider, but I’m considered an insider with groups of non-Japanese of all different backgrounds. Whenever I return to the U.S., I tend to feel a bit like Emma—an outsider in my home country where people think I ought to feel like an insider. It’s complicated!

9. How do you feel about the themes of immigration, displacement and fitting in in young adult literature? Do you think that Emma’s voice is an underrepresented one?

I feel that mixed culture kids and cross-cultural experiences are so common these days, yet mixed culture characters and cross-cultural novels are still few and far between. And stories set in cultures outside the U.S. are rare in YA literature. I hope that we’ll soon start to see more variety of experience in YA lit. I’d love to see more YA characters with varied backgrounds, more mixed characters, whether mixed by heritage or by life experience.

10. Friendship is really important to Emma’s choices about where she wants to live. Is this a common thing for many young immigrants, do you think?

I think the need for friendship motivates all teens, immigrants included. Teens want to feel that they belong, that they are accepted, wherever they are. Samnang plays a big role in Emmas’ decision, but the decision was especially painful because Emma realized quite keenly her love for Japan after the tsunami and earthquake of 2011.

11. Who was your favorite character to write?

I’m not sure who was my favorite—at different moments I’d say Emma, at others Zena and at others Samnang. Samnang was certainly the most fun to research—he led me to the Angkor Dance Troupe in Lowell and to the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh, as well as a small Cambodian village to better know his mother’s experience.

12. What part of the story was hardest to write? What kept you coming back to it, even when it got hard?

Weaving together all the different plot elements was an enormous challenge—the story touches on illness, genocide, alienation, displacement, home, love—big topics! Braiding together all the elements took time and patience. The story also includes examples of poetry, so all of that poetry had to be written or referenced, and, of course, the story is told in verse. There was nothing simple about writing this novel! Thinking of Julia Tavalaro, as well as thinking of the victims of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, kept me persevering.
13. Do you have any future projects that you’d like to drop some hints about?

My third verse novel is about a non-Japanese boy in a Japanese school who practices aikido hoping it will help protect him from the rough kids. Again there are insider/outsider issues. And I’m working on a time travel novel and another set in two different time periods that intersect. Lots to do!

Thank you for this, Holly! I hope you all learnt something about this awesome woman and her awesome verse writing!


Now, to accompany Holly’s interview, I’m going to give you a quick reading list of more books on Immigration and Displacement in verse, so if you loved The Language Inside you’ll be sure to love these jems as well.


Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall, Inside Out & Back Again by Thanha Lai and All the Broken Pieces by Ann E. Burg all focus on immigration in the way we commonly think of it: people from elsewhere moving to the US. Most YA verse is contemporary, I’ve noticed, so it was interesting that, not one, but two of these novels take place during the Vietnam War.


Now, these three focus on people who have spent their lives in one place moving to another. I wouldn’t call in immigration, exactly, as these characters do not plan to settle in these new places, but are simply forced to live their for a time. Tropical Secrets by Margarita Engle focuses on German Holocaust refugees hiding in Cube during WWII. Karma by Cathy Ostlere deals with a young Indian-Canadian girl during the turmoil in India in 1984 (look, two more non-contemporaries already!). The Weight of the Sky deals with a young girl who leaves her small life behind for a summer in Israel.


The theme is in the title, ladies and gentlemen! This book has no changing of countries, but rather leaving behind one’s home – displacement. Funny how that worked out!

That’s all for today! I promise the posts will be more frequent as we near the end of January: diVERSEity month. I hope you’ve all found something new and exciting to read today!



diVERSEity month: Racially Diverse Characters

So, as I have been researching for these posts, I have learned a lot about verse novelling! This category has possibly the most novels in verse of any of them – even psychiatric disorders! There are even more than the ones I have included, but some of them had to be saved for later posts. Regrettably, I am unable to tell you about the characters in these novels, as I have not read most of these novels (I’m getting to it, I’m getting to it!) and even I don’t really have the time for that. So, without further ado, Racially Diverse Characters, Day One of diVERSEity month!

First of all, let’s start off with our great collection of Afro-American literature.



These four novels written in verse show the lives of young men and women from Afro-American decent during heir struggles with growing up and fitting in. MAKE LEMONADE by Virginia Euwer Wolff never divulges the race of her characters, but trickily, we are able to tell how we were intended to see them.

Next up, we have characters of Asian, or American-Asian decent. I grew up having mostly Asian-Canadian friends, so I’m sort of partial to these novels.

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ORCHARDS by Holly Thompson focuses on a mixed race Japanese/Jewish-American girl who spends a summer in Japan, and SEEING EMILY by Joyce Lee Wong talks about a Chinese American young woman. Patricia McCormick’s SOLD takes place in the brothels of Nepal, which is a very different world from that inhabited by the other two heroines – I somehow don’t even feel like this belongs here…

Next, we have two novels about Native American culture, though both are from very different tribes.

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SWEETGRASS BASKET by Marlene Carvell tells the story of two sisters from the Mohawk tribe, and Karen Hesse’s ALEUTIAN SPARROW is about a young girl from the Alaskan Inuit tribe known as the Aleut.

Our final category of the night is books that feature POVs from characters of multiple races. Of course the afore-mentioned novels also talk about us white folk, as well as intersperse the various races, but these are particularly special due to the changes in point of view.

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KEESHA’S HOUSE by Helen Frost features a medley of diverse characters living in a safe place, away from their dire situations, whereas AFTER THE DEATH OF ANNA GONZALES by Terri Fields expresses the suicide of a high school freshman through the poetry of many of the school’s students.

That’s all for Racially Diverse Characters. Hope you have some new reading from this list! See you Saturday for Immigration/Displacement in Verse!


January is “diVERSEity” month!

Gabrielle and I have been discussing something very exciting of late, a series of posts featuring the much-discussed topics of diversity in YA (and, as of now, in verse novels). We have the usual race and sexuality questions, of course, but we’re also thinking a little outside the box for this series. We have interviews, we have reviews, we have roundups. I’m just so excited about this that I feel an outline is in need.



Featuring a reading list of verse novels exploring a variety of racially diverse characters and their stories.


Featuring an interview from Holly Thompson to accompany an review of her new novel, The Language Inside. There will also be a reading list of some other great immigration-inspired verse.

PSYCHIATRIC DISORDERS: Wednesday, January 15th

Featuring a list of verse novels featuring characters and themes dealing with psychiatric disorders.


Featuring a list of verse novels featuring physically or mentally disabled characters.

SEXUALITY/GENDER ISSUES: Wednesday, January 22nd

Featuring a review of Freakboy by Kristin Elizabeth Clark and a list of other similarly inspired novels.

DIVERSE NOVELISTS: Saturday, January 25th

Featuring a list of verse novelists from diverse backgrounds accompanied by their novels.


February is equally exciting, but I can’t give anything away quite yet. Have a great diVERSEity month, everyone!


Cover Poll – Book 1 or 2?

So maybe you’ve noticed since it’s all over my social media but I have a new cover! Yes, the second book about my crazy heroine Ella has it’s own pretty look. And it’s oh so pretty. Take a look at them together:

bothcovers copy

Nice, right? I can’t decide which one I like best so I thought I’d put it out for a vote. Which one do YOU love more?