Sunday, April 05, 2009

Highly Polished Diamonds

Each of Helen Frost’s poems in Diamond Willow–a coming-of-age story about a young half-Athabascan girl whose inexperience sledding dogs nearly costs one of the dogs his life–glitters like a highly polished diamond.

It’s not just the words that sparkle and shine with such radiance, it’s that Frost has arranged each poem on the page to resemble a diamond–the same diamond pattern that appears in the wood of a diamond willow, so called because of the shapes that are hidden beneath the bark.

Frost says in the introduction that she got the idea for Willow’s story from a lamp made from diamond willow that she remembers as a child and from a diamond willow walking stick that she received as a gift and which hung in her study as she thought about the story and wrote the poems

“Diamond willow grows in northern climates,” writes Frost. “It has rough gray bark, often crusted with gray-green lichen. Removing the bark and sanding and polishing the stick reveals reddish-brown diamonds, each with a small dark center.”

By including at the center of each poem a “hidden” message in darker ink, Frost replicates those small, dark centers within the diamonds and adds another dimension to each poem.

The result is quite stunning.

Not only does the reader move through the story in the voice of Willow, the young narrator, but the reader is able to grasp her emotions hidden beneath the surface and which are revealed (much like the small dark centers are revealed after polishing diamond wood) in the darker print at the center of the poems.

What’s truly stunning about these poems–even more than their delicate architecture–are the voices that emerge from them.

In addition to Willow’s voice, Frost offers readers the voices of her mother and father, her grandparents, her best friend, and, amazingly, the voices of ancestors now inhabiting the creatures (dogs, foxes, spruce hens, mice, lynx) who help guide Willow and protect her as she searches for a way out of a potentially life-threatening dilemma.

It’s risky for a writer to rely on such techniques. Some readers might feel the diamond-shaped poems with the dark centers are mere gimmicks.

But in this case, Willow’s story is so strong, the emotional undercurrents so compelling, that the technique used here, rather than interfere with the storytelling, actually draws the reader into the story and takes the reader to a deeper level inside the main character.

The diamond images echo throughout the story and don’t feel imposed on the poems. Rather, they seem to emerge naturally out of Willow’s relationship to the natural beauty surrounding her.

Maybe that’s the key to the question that’s tugging at the back of my mind and which some readers voiced in their reviews of the book: when is it appropriate to use unusual techniques like this?

My sense is that if the technique helps deepen the reader’s understanding of the character and her world without feeling artificial, then it’s ok to use.

If not– if it feels like an added layer that the author has imposed on the story, a distraction–then it’s best to forgo the technique and tell the story in the traditional way.

If you’ve read Diamond Willow, or any other book that relies on an unusual device to tell a story, let us know your thoughts when you get a chance.

For further discussion of Diamond Willow, visit:

And to read more about Helen Frost, visit her website:


laurasalas said...

I loved this book! I'm actually not a big fan of folktale or fable, and this book has some elements, I think of them. But Willow's story is so individual, so precise and emotional, that it never feels like an archetype's story.

Even the climactic revelation sounds a bit too much for me if I say it aloud now, but in reading the book, it so totally worked. I cried and smiled.

I loved the technique of the diamonds, and with poetry, to me, half the fun is in playing with form. Would these poems naturally spill out this way from a girl Willow's age? No, I don't think they would. But they completely work because they're so well written.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure how long ago this thoughtful comment was left--hi Laura--but I'd like to respond to the suggestion that poems for children, in a child's voice, should appear to have been written by a child. I've never heard of anyone saying this for prose fiction. The voice is the child character's, the art is the adult artist's; we all know it takes years, decades, to learn our craft, and it wouldn't make sense to try to pretend we haven't learned it. Hope this makes sense!

laurasalas said...

Hi Helen--You're right, of course, about the voice being the key thing. But with prose, if it'a a picture book written in a 5-year-old child's voice, I want each line to sound like it could be said by a 5yo. I know that a whole picture book's worth of text wouldn't naturally come out of that child, but each sentence is crafted in a way that it feels like you could hear a kid say it. At least in my favorite first-person picture books.

With poetry, I waffle on this issue a lot, both as a reader and a writer of poems. I only started giving it much thought after I heard several other readers complain about first-person poems in kids' voices.

I'm still not quite sure how I even feel about the issue. Sometimes I think it's a ridiculous requirement to think a poem should sound like it could have been written by a child. Other times, I find myself slightly put off by poems in a character's voice that I know that character couldn't have written. I experience this more often with free verse or poetic forms than I do with light verse.

Anyway, those are just my garbled thoughts...

By the way, I read Keesha's House sometimes in the past year or so and loved it. Looking forward to Hidden, too. It's on my TBR list!

Thanks for weighing in!