The best prose-poetry novels about childhood in a messy adult world

Amanda West Lewis Author Of These Are Not the Words
By Amanda West Lewis

Who am I?

I’m a writer, theatre artist and calligrapher who has spent a lifetime dedicated to the look, sound, texture and meaning of words. Writing in verse and prose poetry gives me a powerful tool to explore hard themes. Poetry is economical. It makes difficult subjects personal. Through poetry, I can explore painful choices intimately and emerge on a different path at a new phase of the journey. While my semi-autobiographical novel These Are Not the Words “is about” mental health and drug addiction, I’ve shown this through layers of images, sounds, textures, tastes—through shards of memories long submerged, recovered through writing, then structured and fictionalized through poetry.

I wrote...

These Are Not the Words

By Amanda West Lewis,

Book cover of These Are Not the Words

What is my book about?

These Are Not the Words takes place in New York City in 1963. It is a semi-autobiographical novel, set in the rhythms of the jazz, beat poets, and the 60s visual arts world.

Twelve-year-old Missy lives the most exciting city in the world. She goes to a great school where she learns about poetry, music, and plays. Missy’s father starts taking her on secret midnight excursions to Harlem and the Village so she can share his love of jazz. But things start to spiral out of control. Missy and her father write poems for each other that become an exchange of apologies as his alcohol and drug addiction begin to take over their lives. It’s a raw journey from innocence to action, and finally acceptance.

The books I picked & why

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I'll Be Watching

By Pamela Porter,

Book cover of I'll Be Watching

Why this book?

I’ll Be Watching is a verse novel that evokes place and character in tight, specific moments. It’s a page-turner that tells a harrowing story of children in 1941 surviving on their own through the brutal winter in a small Prairie town. Nuanced and impressionistic, moments are layered to create a world of childhood without a supportive adult net. I love the restraint and the specificity of Porter’s writing. She has focussed on childhood, during the war, in a very ordinary, very unlikely location and written a thriller.

My Book of Life by Angel

By Martine Leavitt,

Book cover of My Book of Life by Angel

Why this book?

My Book of Life by Angel is an unlikely subject for a novel in verse—the life of a young prostitute on Vancouver’s East side. Drugs, illness, abandonment, violence are all shown in a first-person narrative of incredible sensitivity and honesty. It is a novel that will both open and break your heart as you see life on the street through Angel’s flawed and imperfect humanity. I love the grace and delicacy of Leavitt’s poetry as it contrasts with the horror of Angel’s life.

The House on Mango Street

By Sandra Cisneros,

Book cover of The House on Mango Street

Why this book?

The House on Mango Street is an evocation of a place written in prose poetry vignettes. Families, relationships, and neighborhood emerge as the vignettes are woven to create a narrative. Shards are pieced together as the setting becomes a character that supports, encourages and is the catalyst for young Esperanza’s emerging sense of self. It is this sense of neighborhood that draws me in, making me think of the responsibility of a community to help raise each child.

A Wreath for Emmett Till

By Marilyn Nelson,

Book cover of A Wreath for Emmett Till

Why this book?

In A Wreath for Emmett Till, Marilyn Nelson reminds us of the unique beauty of a life, of the vibrancy of youth at 14 years old. Written as a “crown of sonnets,” where the last line of one sonnet becomes the first of the next, it is a book that bears witness and conveys huge themes of justice, loss, and remembrance while focussing on small moments, gestures, and images. I am in awe of Nelson’s ability to use a very formalized writing style to depict one of the most brutal murders of the twentieth century.

Little Comrades

By Laurie Lewis,

Book cover of Little Comrades

Why this book?

Little Comrades is a memoir written in prose poetry. It is about growing up in a dedicated Communist home in the 1930’s in Canada. It is a home where The Party is more important than the family. Young Laurie and her brother Andy try to understand the world that they are growing up in while their abusive, alcoholic father uses his commitment to the cause to justify brutality and abandonment. In the end, it is a story of triumph but the journey to that “happy” ending is colored by the reaction of The Party, and eventually, the horrors of McCarthyism. Full disclosure—Laurie Lewis is my mother. It was not until she was 80 that she was able to tell the tale, just showing that a story cannot be told until it is ready.

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