Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Genre #3: Poetry - KEESHA'S HOUSE

Bibliographic Data:

Frost, Helen. 2003. Keesha’s House. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 0374400121

Plot Summary:

In this story told through verse, Frost presents seven teenagers facing a wide range of problems in their lives. Stephie is pregnant; Jason is Stephie’s boyfriend, but faces pressure to choose his all-star role on the basketball team over his girlfriend and her pregnancy; Keesha’s mom has died and her dad drinks too much; Dontay’s parents are in jail, so he lives in a foster home that is a world of difference from his other life; Carmen is put in juvenile hall for another DUI; Harris tells his father that he is gay, resulting in him being kicked out of the house; and Katie leaves her house because her stepfather is visiting her bedroom at night and her mother refuses to believe her or do anything to stop it.

As the teens tell their stories and the backgrounds that have led to their current predicaments, references are made to Keesha’s House, a home that takes in teenagers, no questions asked. This place of refuge is a constant throughout the book as all the characters consider it when they feel they have no other place to go. Each character’s feelings and weighing of the decision on whether or not to go to Keesha’s House highlights their unique emotions and the realistic approach that Frost uses in writing this book.

While the focus is on the seven teenagers, Frost also includes a section in which the adults in the teens’ lives speak and give insight into their feelings about the situations. The reader hears from Jason’s basketball coach, Dontay’s caseworker, Stephie’s mom, Carmen’s grandmother, Katie’s English teacher, the Assistant Principal at the school, and Joe, the owner of Keesha’s House. With these perspectives added, Keesha’s House conveys the heart-wrenching stories of adolescent difficulties and the ways that such troubles affect all involved.

Critical Analysis:

This novel in verse combines wonderful elements of storytelling with those of poetry. Frost’s use of sestinas and sonnets with varying line lengths adds familiarity to each chapter as each character tells his/her story, yet allows each poem to be unique.

The format of the sestina itself allows for a rhythm to develop through the repetition of certain words. Frost breaks many thoughts mid-sentence, allowing for the shorter lines to establish a rhythm as it relates to the story that the character is telling. There are some instances of rhyme and matching sounds, but those do not occur as would be expected in a rhyming poem. The uniqueness of the frequency of the rhyming words contributes to the individual nature of each poem and the character who is telling it.

Frost incorporates deliberate sounds and language to bring the reader into the characters’ lives through the poems. Word choices such as ‘nothin’,’ ‘playin’,’ and ‘you don’t hafta…’ remind the reader that these are teenagers’ lives, making the poems even more authentic and real because they build on the language that reflects the age of the characters.

This novel in verse leaves a strong emotional impact on the reader because of the short poetic glimpses into the characters’ lives. The alternating viewpoints, the free verse of short lines mixed with longer lines, and the use of stream-of-consciousness all help Frost put a voice to the difficulties that these teenagers face.

Frost wraps up the novel succinctly by providing notes on the two poetry forms that she uses in the novel itself – the sestina and the sonnet. She offers instructions and details on these poetic forms, offering the reader a glimpse into the world of creating poetry.

Review excerpts:

A Michael L. Printz Honor Book

Booklist – “This moving first novel tells the story in a series of dramatic monologues that are personal, poetic, and immediate."

Starred review from School Library Journal – “Frost has taken the poem-story to a new level with well-crafted sestinas and sonnets, leading readers into the souls and psyches of her teen protagonists...engaging…”

VOYA – “Spare, eloquent, and elegantly concise."

Personal Reaction:

I absolutely loved this book because it presented such heartbreaking stories through verse, yet presented a glimmer of hope through Keesha’s House and the safe haven that the characters found there. Frost did a wonderful job illuminating the inner thoughts and conflicts that teenagers often face during adolescence, furthering my interest in following these characters through their ups and downs.


· Choose one of the characters and write him/her a letter offering advice for his/her situation.

· Write a poem in either the sestina or sonnet format, using the description found in the back of the book.

· Compile a list of resources in your local community that are available to teenagers who are in trouble or who have run away.

· Write a skit based on one of the character’s situations and poems. Act out the skit with other students.

Related Readings

Growing Up and Teen Issues
Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff

True Believer by Virginia Euwer Wolff

The Skin I’m In by Sharon Flake

The First Part Last by Angela Johnson

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Other Books by Helen Frost
The Braid

Spinning Through the Universe

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