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Room 214: A Year in Poems

Review

Room 214: A Year in Poems

Helen Frost is a former teacher whose work is greatly inspired by the students and teachers she has worked with. In ROOM 214: A YEAR IN POEMS (which was previously published ten years ago as SPINNING THROUGH THE UNIVERSE), she gives voice to these students, allowing them to tell their own stories in keenly perceptive poems, each of which is like a little window into the complex lives and personalities that make up any diverse group of children.
 
The fifth graders in Mrs. Williams's Room 214 are studying explorers, we learn in the first poem in the book, narrated from Mrs. Williams's own point of view. "I write my plans," Mrs. Williams writes. "Reading—themes / of love and courage. Social studies—the explorers' dreams." Themes of love and courage --- and dreams of a better world --- do run through the poems shared by Mrs. Williams's students. There's Andrew, who "borrows" Jon's bike just so he can fix it and return it, meanwhile nurturing aspirations to join the school's gifted program. There's Eddie and Veronica, harboring secret crushes for one another. There's Laura, whose concerns about popularity pale in the face of worries about her mom, who's struggling with breast cancer. And there's Monique, whose father is fighting overseas and who may never return home.
 
Readers will come away from ROOM 214 inspired by the power of poetry and of storytelling in tandem.
 
Each student tells his or her story through a distinctive verse form. Some will be simple or familiar, such as the several haikus written by the class artist, Naomi. Others are more ambitious or unfamiliar, such as the rondelet (a seven-line poem with a strict structure of rhythm and refrain) or the raccontino (a series of couplets in which the last word of each odd-numbered line tells a story). Frost helpfully explains each of these forms in detail at the end of the book, and also provides some worksheets as inspiration for readers to write their own alphabet poem, tercelle and tritina. It's easy to imagine ROOM 214 being used in real-life classrooms as a jumping-off point for a unit on writing poetry.
 
But ROOM 214 is far more than a mere classroom exercise. It's also a well-realized novel, structured more broadly in two parts. The turning point involves Monique's father, and the second half allows each speaker either to revisit the subject of his or her earlier poem or to show how she or he has grown beyond it. In the first half of the book, for example, Maria reveals that her father physically abuses her, and her best friend Sharrell agonizes over whether to tell an adult. In each girl's second poem, we learn about the choices she's made in the meantime and about how life has changed as a result. It's perhaps not intuitive that so much plot and character development can take place in these highly constrained, fairly spare verse forms, but that's exactly what Frost does. Readers will come away from ROOM 214 inspired by the power of poetry and of storytelling in tandem.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on April 9, 2014

Room 214: A Year in Poems
by Helen Frost

  • Publication Date: March 25, 2014
  • Genres: Children's, Fiction
  • Paperback: 128 pages
  • Publisher: Square Fish
  • ISBN-10: 1250040094
  • ISBN-13: 9781250040091