By Helen Frost
cover image retrieved 2/23/13 from
Frost, Helen. Diamond Willow. New York: Frances Foster Books, 2008. ISBN 9780374317768
Gentle and heartfelt, this free verse poetic narrative of a young girl’s attempts to make things right following an accident she caused, is an engaging story that draws the reader in unknowingly. Diamond Willow tells the tale of Willow, an Alaskan ‘tween who doesn’t fit in with people and finds solace with her father’s mush team of sled dogs. Roxy, the favorite dog, does what she’s asked to lead the team, until Willow’s guidance error leaves her blinded. Willow fears that her parents will have Roxy put down, so she plots to relocate her to the Alaskan wilderness, at her grandparent’s house. Making mistakes, seeking redemption, and finding resolution that will work for all involved are themes all readers can identify with on some level.
The free verse poetry is written in concrete poetry style. All poems have slightly varied diamond shapes, which serve to connect them to one another and to the title character. The words flow freely, though the author, Helen Frost, must have taken great care to choose words that were the correct length for their position in the poem, while creating the correct emotional connection. Vivid descriptions of the Alaskan wilderness, as well as Willow’s inner turmoil, enable the reader to connect to this story on many levels. Each poem has the bonus feature of a string of bold-typed words embedded in them, which speak a secret message to the reader, revealing Willow’s inner thoughts. She desires to be accepted at school, strives to please her parents (especially her father,) and stretches her limbs as she grows into her own person, which leads to her accident. An unexpected family secret is revealed as the story unfolds, with huge emotional impact. It proves to be very important to the resolution of the plot.
An added dimension to this book is the interspersing of prose narratives. All are written from the point of view of one of Willow’s ancestors, who now live on as an animal in the wilderness. This storytelling technique connects the reader to the native Alaskan heritage that strongly influences the characters. Award-winning poet Frost crafts a touching tale loaded with figurative language, sensory imagery, and evocative scenes. Middle School readers and above will find common ground with Willow’s struggles and triumphs.
Hazel Rochman (Booklist, Jun. 1, 2008 (Vol. 104, No. 19))
Set in a remote part of Alaska, this story in easy-to-read verse blends exciting survival adventure with a contemporary girl’s discovery of family roots and secrets. The casual diamond shape of the poems reflects how precious jewels of wisdom can grow around painful scars. Willow’s bond with Roxy is the heart of the tale.
Kirkus (Kirkus Reviews, June 15, 2008 (Vol. 76, No. 12))
Diamond Willow, a young Alaskan of Athabascan and European descent, doesn't have many friends; she's happiest when she's sledding her father's dogs and visiting her grandparents. When her first solo dogsled trip to her grandparents ends with a terrible crash that blinds her father's favorite dog, Roxy, she sets to making sure that Roxy will live out her days with care and not undergo euthanasia—a decision that leads to an amazing revelation about her family. Frost presents her story in a series of poems in Willow's voice, using a form inspired by the marks on a diamond willow stick; roughly diamond-shaped and no two exactly alike, each contains a "hidden message" printed in boldface that spans several lines and encapsulates the poem. It's a novel idea, and largely works quite well.
Marla K. Unruh (VOYA, October 2008 (Vol. 31, No. 4))
Willow thinks of herself as unspectacular, like the gray and unremarkable bark of the willow tree. Because she is not one of the "sparkly" people in her Alaskan middle school, she wants to ask Grandma and Grandpa to homeschool her. The ancestors who watch over her in the form of forest animals speak in interspersed pages of prose. An engaging survival tale, it is also the story of a girl who finds within herself the grace to grow up.
Best Book Lists
Best Children's Books of the Year, 2009 ; Bank Street College of Education; United States
Capitol Choices, 2009 ; The Capitol Choices Committee; United States
Choices, 2009 ; Cooperative Children's Book Center; United States
Pure Poetry, 2008 ; Voice of Youth Advocates; United States
Cybil Award, 2008 Finalist Middle Grade Novels United States
Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, 2009 Winner United States
Mitten Award, 2008 Winner Michigan United States
They don’t talk
behind your back.
If they’re mad at you,
they bark a couple times
and get it over with. It’s true
they slobber on you sometimes.
(I’m glad people don’t do that.) They
jump out and scare you in the dark. (I know,
I should say me, not “you” – some people aren’t
afraid of anything.) But dogs don’t make fun
of you. They don’t hit you in the back
of your neck with an ice-covered
snowball, and if the did, and
it made you cry, all their
friends wouldn’t stand
Before sharing this poem:
· Give each student a blank piece of paper. Invite students to draw a picture of what frightens them.
· Allow students who are willing to share their drawings or tell the group what scares them.
· Ask students, “Can something frighten one person, but not another?” Allow students to debate that idea, asking them to provide examples of cases where this could be true.
Share the poem by reading it orally. Ask for reactions to the poem.
· Share the poem again, this time displaying it via document camera. Ask for reactions again, now that students see the concrete format and the bolded words.
· Ask a student to read the bolded words aloud. Invite a discussion of how the bolded words relate to the poem as a whole, and if it changes their perception of the messages in the piece.
Offer students another piece of blank paper, or have them turn over their drawing. Invite students to create a concrete poem about something that frightens or bothers them. Challenge students to embed a hidden message that relates to their topic.
Other Books by Helen Frost:
Helen Frost’s website: http://www.helenfrost.net/
Fiction/Poetry for Children and Young Adults
KEESHA'S HOUSE (Young Adult: 12 and up)
SPINNING THROUGH THE UNIVERSE (ages 8 and up; ideal for upper elementary)
THE BRAID (Young Adult: 12 and up)
MONARCH AND MILKWEED (Picture Book / lyrical nonfiction)
DIAMOND WILLOW (ages 8 and up; ideal for middle school)
CROSSING STONES (Young Adult: 12 and up)
STEP GENTLY OUT
Poetry for Adults
Skin of a Fish, Bones of a Bird
National Endowment for the Arts
as if a dry wind
When I Whisper, Nobody Listens: Helping Young People Write About Difficult Issues
Worksheets for Forms
Non-fiction for Children
Coming to America Series (German and Russian Immigrants)
19 Series of Pebble Books for early readers
Why Darkness Seems So Light
Season of Dead Water
Why Darkness Seems So Light: Young People Speak Out About Violence