For all that words are often disparaged over actions, they can do quite a lot. Poorly thought out words can hurt horribly, despite their speakers’ denials. But words can also, given the chance, act. A well placed word fights back, sometimes in ways you’d never expect.
In As Fast As Words Could Fly, a typewriter holds the keys to integration for Mason Steele. Mason takes notes for his father, a civil rights activist, and receives a typewriter for his skill. When Mason faces racism from students and teachers, it can’t slow his typing, and he’s grudgingly selected to represent his school in a typing contest. Victory is bittersweet, but hard-earned. Vivid facial expressions and closeups of well-used typewriters set a determined mood for this story, based on the author’s father.
For Neftali Reyes, the very act of writing is revolutionary. His tyrannical father forbids any expression of sentimentality, which makes life difficult for the sickly and sensitive boy. Lush images of flora and rain give atmosphere to this fictionalized biography of the poet–and the name–Pablo Neruda.
But one of the first and best books I read about the healing power of words was James Howe’s A Night Without Stars. The title refers to anesthesia, which Donald explains to Maria the night before her open heart surgery. Donald spends a lot of time in the hospital, having been badly disfigured in a house fire. In his loneliness, he writes abstract poetry–this was also the book that taught me poems didn’t have to rhyme. His recounting of the incident is stark, and I still remember these lines: “Once they called me Spiderman / because of the clothes I had to wear / the year after the fire. / Now they call me Monster Man / because I wear my own skin / and the fire still burns on it.” Donald’s tentative friendship with Maria, mirrored by his learning to rhyme, is well-paced and unsentimental. Through an empathetic playroom nurse, Howe even acknowledges the reasonable distrust bullied kids might have for their peers, and explains that even the nice kids can’t always expect to be trusted automatically. Words are crucial here; their friendship would not exist without careful phrasing and steady listening.
Howe’s more current tween novel, Addie on the Inside, uses free verse again to explore tween and teen issues such as sexuality and changing friendships. Addie’s voice, though often uncertain, is blunt and snarky. “So if I start an animal rights group,/what does that make me?/A giraffe?” she snaps upon catching flak for being a straight ally to her school’s gay rights group. Ultimately, the lines of her poetry fall steadily and firmly, reflecting her growing assertiveness.
It’s fitting that “words” is an anagram of “sword.” The written word defends even if the spoken voice is silenced.