How fully can an author inhabit an addict’s world and still spin a story coherent enough to engage the teen reader?
In the 1970’s, kids might have turned to the anonymously penned Go Ask Alice (1971), which was billed as an actual diary, but was actually fiction.
Or Hubert Selby Jr’s Requiem for a Dream (1978), which considers a broader spectrum of addiction.
Twenty years later, readers could try on that life via Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (1993) or Melvin Burgess’ Smack (1996), which was titled Junk in some countries.
Another couple of decades afterwards and Ellen Hopkins’ trilogy (which launched in 2004) is the go-to series on the subject.
Stylistically, the books have solved the problem of verisimilitude by adopting the brevity and untraditional style of Selby Jr’s work and combining it with the intimacy of a diary in the form of the narrator’s poetry.
Yup, that’s right: a series of books about substance abuse written in verse.
Unexpected, perhaps. And, yet, it makes sense.
Kristina’s poetry provides a shape to the story of her coming-of-age and addiction which uniquely suits it.
In this form, raw emotions are stated clearly and succinctly, in a way which might have seemed wooden and blunt in straight prose.
And the restlessness and disjointedness, which might have distanced readers from the narrator in a full-length prose work on this subject, is presented in smaller portions.
Readers can absorb Kristina’s experiences at whatever pace is comfortable for them. At times, a hundred pages of this story reads like a dozen pages; at other times, readers will want to read only a dozen pages at one sitting.
The author speaks about her own experience, which led to her writing these books, here. “The story was bigger than my family and my daughter.”
And, ultimately, her motive in writing is to connect with readers who share in this struggle. “No matter what they’re experiencing, they’re not alone in these issues.”
One aspect of the verse which counteracts the heavily emotive content of the story is the occasional use of concrete verse (or shape poems).
The way that specific words and concepts align or intersect offers a distraction in some cases (which might not be every reader’s response, depending on their emotional involvement in the story) and directs emphasis in others.
For the most part, however, the verse falls down the pages in uneven columns, holding the same ragged shape whether it considers the details of Kristina’s shifts at the convenience store or her latest high.
“How, no matter
fought her, Bree
was stronger, brighter,
better equipped to deal
with a world where
everything moved at light
speed, everyone mired
in ego. Where ‘everyday’
for making love with
The verses are titled, but they usually stem directly from the content so there is no sense of disruption, as with “Leigh Has Put On a Few Pounds
And it suits her almost
as much as shedding several
suits me. (You’d be surprised
how much weight you can
lose in two weeks when you
barely eat enough to keep
a very small rodent alive.)”
Readers are solidly in Kristina’s/Bree’s perspective here:
“I don’t see myself that way at all.
Open-minded, yes. A druggie, sometimes.
An unwed teen mother, for sure. But
a sleep-around? No way. Never.”
And this continues throughout the second volume in the series, Glass. (There are no quotes drawn from the second novel, so that there are no spoilers either.)
Sometimes this is overwhelming, but the language is unsentimental.
“That phrase again. Everyone
cares for me. They just don’t
know how to love me.”
The form lends itself to the highly dramatic content.
“Don’t you get it, Mom? I really don’t
give a shit if I die. What,
exactly is there to live for?”
In the third volume of the series, however, there are three narrative voices: Hunter Seth Haskins,
Autumn Rose Shepherd, and Summer Lily Kenwood.
Each of these characters has a relationship with addiction as well.
(Warning: do not go looking for information about this book if you do not want to encounter spoilers for the series.)
As one narrator observes:
“It’s just so hard to feel good,
you know? I do know. And
more than that, it’s just
so incredibly hard to feel.”
Even in a different voice, addiction remains a monster:
“They don’t call it
the monster for
nothing. It chews
people up, spits ‘em
out, often unsalvageable.”
It alters people beyond recognition:
captured there, staring back at me,
is someone I don’t recognize.”
And tough questions loom that much larger when addictions cloud the waters.
Once again, shape poems make the odd appearance. In one poem shaped like question mark, for instance, a cluster of words which forms the period says:
“Who are you really,
and do I love
that person too?”
Although the series begins and continues solidly in Kristina’s voice for more than a thousand pages, there is enough of a secondary cast that many themes can be included even beyond Kristina’s direct experience.
Sexuality, family conflict, rape, teen pregnancy, divorce, abuse and betrayal (whether within or alongside the matter of addiction): Ellen Hopkins’ trilogy doesn’t sidle up to serious subjects, it heads straight for them at a run.
Have you read either her YA novels or her adult fiction? Or, do you plan to?