February 07, 2006

Spoken Word Novels: Breaking Out!

There's something really cool about Paul Fleischman (aside from him being the son of the bearded and fabulous writer Sid Fleischman). I first encountered him years ago when I picked up his 1989 Newbery Medal-winner A Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices, and read it aloud with my class. His exuberant poetry on the secret lives of insects was perfect for my middle graders who had trouble reading books with full paragraphs, giving them the feeling, for once, of getting the sometimes serious, sometimes silly punchline along with everyone else.

This latest book of Mr. Fleischman's was a National Book Award finalist in 2003, and there must have been something else fabulous out that year to bump it from the winner in the Young People's category. It's an amazing novel that is part spoken word performance, part novel and all about an amazing girl name Del.

At 17, Del is sick to death of being bounced around in foster homes. An observant smart mouth and a relentless mimic, Del knows L.A. 'types' inside and out, and knows when it's time to blow out of town and start over. In a terrifyingly gutsy move, Del fakes her own death, blows off the last of the dippy foster parents and heads South to Arizona... before being stopped cold by the mother of all traffic jams on the L.A. Freeway.

Now reel the tape forward eight years. It's opening night at a one woman play written by and starring a woman named Elena. The show is called Breakout, and it's all about... an L.A. traffic jam. The novel bounces back and forth between the 17-year old Del, who renamed herself Elena and Elena as an adult. Teen Del is scared and improvising. Adult Elena has learned that improv is a valuable life skill.

In Breakout, Fleischman has created a multiracial character, unattractive and bounced from pillar to post, who takes on multiple personalities in an attempt to camouflage herself into some identity group. In the end, though we don't see the stages or the steps it takes, she emerges as more than a character just to be taken on as a mask, but as unique in her own right. A deftly written and subtle piece that is really fun to read aloud -- and it's not often that this can be said about a YA novel. The spoken word element shines through this remarkable novel eloquently, and once again I'd recommend it to teachers trying to find books to entice reluctant readers -- teens this time -- to read.

That's what's cool about Paul Fleischman. He's got something for everyone.

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