Nikki Grimes. Garvey’s Choice. Honesdale, Pennsylvania: Wordsong, 2016. 978-1-62979-740-3, hardback, 108 pages.
An earlier tanka book for children, one with similar issues, is Garvey’s Choice by Nikki Grimes, published in 2016, aimed at an older audience than the preceding two picture books. It’s an example of the trend of young adult verse novels, where a story is told in poetic stanzas, in this case using “tanka.” The story’s main character, Garvey, is about twelve years old, and readers see through the window of the book’s poems into his middle-school world. But why tanka, and what does the author think it to be? In a note of explanation at the end, Grimes says she chose to use the 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic form, but adds that “Not every American poet follows a syllable count for tanka poems, but I think of a syllable count like a puzzle. Each word is a puzzle piece, and I like figuring out which words fit best” (107). Of course, as with haiku, the “puzzle” of tanka has greater challenges than merely counting syllables, and we see almost no attempt in these poems to meet those more significant challenges (the same was true in her prior book of haiku for children, A Pocketful of Poems, a gorgeous publication from Clarion Books in 2001). The author does say she tried to give each tanka a “mood,” but acknowledges that her focus “is more centered on telling a story” (107). Indeed, the book presents prose that is arbitrarily broken into verses of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables. Although the line breaks are usually artfully done, that’s not always the case, and most of the poems cannot work alone as independent poems, especially so in the following middle verse of three under the heading of “Saturday Play” (21; Angela is Garvey’s sister) and the third verse of four from “It’s Manny Now” (61):
and it goes like this:
Dad juggles his ball like a
hot potato, asks,
“Who’s up for running passes?”
Angela always rises.
are you staring at?”
“Nothing. I’ve just never seen
a sandwich like that.”
“Mmm,” Manny hums between bites.
“You don’t know what you’re missing.
The book’s narrative succeeds on its own inspirational and timely terms but readers will be hard-pressed to find justification for the text’s presentation in “tanka” form. Verse novels have been a recent trend in children’s literature, but here the presumed form for tanka seems incidental and arbitrary to the plot and characters (and the same issue would be true if another form of poetry had been used—many verse novels seem similarly gimmicky). The verses make no attempt to explore tanka aesthetics or most strategies commonly used by tanka poets—they just redistribute bits of prose as syllable countings (although not without care). The sets of “tanka” do give the book pacing, however, and the titles are not so much titles of individual poems as they are of “sequences” (each developing the plot or the characters in some way), even when many of the book’s sequences have just one poem. Here is the book’s title sequence, “Garvey’s Choice,” presenting the moment when Garvey acts on his decision to join his school’s chorus at an audition (54):
Ignoring my nerves,
I march into the classroom,
squeak out why I’ve come.
Feeling numb, I take a breath,
tickle that first note, then soar.
My voice skips octaves
like a smooth stone on a lake.
That’s when they tell me.
“Well, class,” says the director,
“Guess we found our new tenor.”
As mentioned, the book is far more successful as a story than as tanka, and on this level Garvey’s Choice comes well recommended. Garvey is pressured by his dad to play sports, but that isn’t what the boy wants to do, and Garvey doesn’t understand why his dad wants to do sports together (we learn later that the dad is hoping to bond with his son, rather than just trying to promote a sport or being more “macho”). Garvey is also bullied at school, but thanks to good friendships he learns to stand up for himself, ignoring teasers and name-callers. Garvey joins the school chorus because he loves music, and through music he builds a stronger identity. Perhaps his interest in music is the thinnest possible connection to tanka, as if tanka is thereby a musical way of telling the story, but that seems to be the closest we come to understanding why tanka was used for this story. Garvey’s friends Joe and Manny “get” him, and understand his love of singing and other interests, and his lack of interest in football and basketball. Garvey also struggles with his weight, but starts jogging, inspired by his friends. He finally connects with his dad when his dad rejoins the old band he was in, as a singer—inspired by his son’s choice to join the school chorus. This is a book about self-esteem and ultimately identity, presenting issues that any middle-schooler might face, including relationships with parents. Here’s how the book ends, with a single poem under the heading of “Summer Duet”:
Dad’s old band tunes up
at our house on Saturdays.
You should hear how his
bluesy bass rhythms rock my
We should all wish for positive endings like this, whether “tanka” is used to get there or not. Tanka poets may well find themselves distracted by the usurpation of tanka in this manner, but if they can look past that, they will find a beautifully written story. This is a characteristic that all three of these books share in common, and we might hope for a more informed sort of tanka to find its way into future children’s books, but for now we can celebrate at least small steps in the direction of more and more tanka appearing in books of poetry for children.