I promised myself I wouldn’t cry. Well, maybe a few tears towards the end might be acceptable, but of course, I was dealing with another verse novel by Sally Murphy, so dry eyes were definitely no guarantee.
It’s not just the subject matter of Roses are Blue that tugs at ones heartstrings. Murphy is simply master at massaging sensitive issues into refined, understated yet terrifically moving poetic verse. Her words whisper across the pages with the soft intensity of a mountain breeze. They are beautiful and arresting; a joy to read.
There are no chapters in this novel. The story ebbs and flows organically in a pleasing natural rhythm. Gabriel Evans’ tender ink and painted illustrations cushion the gravity of the story even more allowing the reader to connect with Amber and her world visually as well as emotionally. Youngsters cultivating their reading confidence will appreciate this generous visual reinforcement on nearly every page.
Amber Rose’s world is turned upside down when tragedy strikes her family leaving her mother devastatingly ‘different’. Overnight, everything is altered: there’s a new school, new friends, new home, new secrets and perhaps hardest of all, a new mum to get used to. Amber vacillates between wanting to fit in and appear normal, aching for how things ‘used to be’ and trying to reconnect with her damaged mum.
As Amber’s mother struggles to free herself from her new entrapment, so too does Amber fight to hang onto to their special shared love until, like springtime roses, hope eventually blooms. Roses are Blue addresses the complex issues of normality, family ties, friendships and maternal bonds with gentle emphasis on how all these relationships can span any ethnicity or physical situation.
Q. Who is Sally Murphy? Please describe your writerly self.
My writely self? I try hard to think of myself as writerly – but often fail miserably because I think of other writers as amazingly productive, clever , creative people, and myself as someone slightly manic who manages to snatch time to write and is always surprised when it’s good enough to get published.
But seriously, I suppose what I am is someone who writes because it’s my passion and I can’t not do it. I’ve been writing all my life, pretty much always for children, and my first book was published about 18 years ago. Since then I’ve written picture books, chapter books, reading books, educational resource books and, of course, poetry and verse novels.
Q. I find verse novels profoundly powerful. How different are they to write compared to writing in prose? Do you find them more or less difficult to develop?
I think they’re very powerful too. It was the power of the first ones I read (by Margaret Wild) that made me fall in love with the form. But it’s this very power that can make them hard to get right – you have to tap into core emotions and get them on the page whilst still developing a story arc, characters, setting, dialogue and so on.
Are they more or less difficult? I’m not sure. For me I’ve been more successful with verse novels than with prose novels, so maybe they’re easier for me. But it is difficult to write a verse novel that a publisher will publish – because they can be difficult to sell.
Q. How do you think verse novels enhance the appeal and impact of a story for younger readers?
I think they work wonderfully with young readers for a few reasons, which makes them a wonderful classroom tool. The fact that they are poetry gives them white space and also, room for illustration and even sometimes text adornments.
What this means is that for a struggling reader or even a reluctant reader, the verse novel can draw them in because it looks easier, and gives them cues as to where to pause when reading, where the emphasis might be and so on. They will also feel that a verse novel is less challenging because it is shorter – there are less words on the same number of pages because of that white space.
But the verse novel can also attract more advanced readers who recognise it as poetry and thus expect to be challenged, and who can also see the layers of meaning, the poetic techniques and so on. Of course, once they’ve started reading it, the reluctant and struggling reader will also see those things, meaning there is a wonderful opportunity for all the class to feel involved and connected when it’s a class novel, or for peers of different abilities to appreciate a book they share.
Q. Judging by some of your previous verse titles, Pearl Verses the World and Toppling, you are not afraid to tackle the heftier and occasionally heartbreaking issues children encounter. What compels you to write about these topics and why do so in verse? Do you think a verse novel can convey emotion more convincingly than prose alone?
Afraid? Hah – I laugh in the face of danger! (Sorry, couldn’t help myself). But seriously no, I’m not afraid, because I think these are issues kids want to read about. All kids experience tough times – sometimes it’s the loss of a loved one, or illness, or a tragedy like Mum being sick/injured/absent. Other times it’s a beloved pet dying, or a best friend who suddenly doesn’t want to be friends. Either way, these tough times can feel like the end of the world. I think when children read about tough topics they connect with empathy or sympathy, and thus have the opportunity to experience vicariously something which they may not have. And if they have been through those really tragic tough times, or they do in the future, I hope they’re getting the message that life can be tough but you can get through it. Terrible things happen in the world – but good things do too. It’s really important to me that my stories have happy times too, and even laughs.
For me the verse novel form enables me to convey that emotion, but I don’t think it’s the only way it can be done. If you look at the Kingdom of Silk books by Glenda Millard, for example, you’ll see how brilliantly prose can be used to explore emotional situations.
Q. Many verse novels I have read are in first person. Is this a crucial element of ensuring stories in verse work well or is it something that you fall into naturally?
Off the top of my head I can’t think of any verse novels written solely in third person. There’s no rule that they have to be in first, but I do feel they work best that way for me, although I’m looking forward to experimenting with point of view in a verse novel I’m planning. I think first works so well because it creates an intimacy which the poetic form enhances.
Q. I particularly loved your reference to the Bobby Vinton 1962 hit, Roses are Red. What inspired you to use these lines in Amber’s story?
It’s actually a bit of a nod to Pearl, from Pearl Verses the World, who writes a roses are red poem about her nemesis Prue – but surprisingly no one has asked me about the connection before. I was looking for something for Mum to sing, and there it was. Of course the fact that Mum loves to garden, and their surname is rose means it all ties together nicely.
Q. Gabriel Evans’ illustrations are very endearing. How important do you think it is for illustrations to accompany verse stories?
For younger readers, some visual element is essential, and I am delighted with the way Gabriel has interpreted the story. Who couldn’t love his work? Again, the illustrations can help struggling readers connect with the story, but they are also important for all levels of reading ability. Some people are much more visual learners and thinkers than others, and seeing the story really enhances the experience. And gosh, they’re so gorgeous!
Q. What’s on the draft table for Sally Murphy?
A few things. I’m working on a historical novel (prose), several picture books and lots of poetry. I’m also in the early stages of a PhD project in Creative Writing and, as part of this, plan to produce three new works, all poetry of some form, as well as writing about why/how poetry is important.
Just for fun Question, (there is always one!): If you were named after a gem or colour like Amber and her friends, which would you choose and why?
I can choose a name for myself? That IS fun. I was nearly called Imelda when I was born, and (with apologies to the Imeldas of the world) have been forever grateful that my parents changed their minds. Sorry, that doesn’t answer your question. I think if I could name myself after a colour I’d be silly about it and say Aquamarine, because surely then no one else would ever have the same name as me. It’s also a lovely colour, so maybe some of that loveliness would rub off on me and make me lovely too.
Thanks so much for having me visit, Dimity. It’s been fun, and you’ve kept me on my toes!
An absolute pleasure Sally (aka Aquamarine!)
Walker Books Australia July 2014
Stick around for the rest of Sally’s beautiful blog tour. Here are some places you can visit.
Tuesday, July 22nd Karen Tyrrell
Wednesday, July 23 Alphabet Soup
Thursday, July 24 Kids’ Book Review
Friday, July 25 Write and read with Dale
Saturday, July 26 Diva Booknerd
Sunday, July 27 Children’s Books Daily
Monday, July 28 Boomerang Books Blog
Tuesday, July 29 Australian Children’s Poetry
Wednesday, July 30 Sally Murphy