Your Own, Sylvia: a Verse Portrait of Sylvia Plath by Stephanie Hemphill tells the story of the poet through a series of poems written from the points of view of different people who knew her. These poems, along with the footnotes than explain each, work together to create a compelling portrait as well as a compelling story. The book becomes harder to put down the further you read.
I was reluctant to get into Your Own, Sylvia at first. I am unfamiliar with Plath’s poetry though I am a big fan of The Bell Jar. (It’s my view that it is far better than it’s male cousin The Catcher in the Rye and would be in every high school English class in the land if you could somehow take all of the sex out.) However, I am suspicious of both verse novels and novels with multiple points of view. There are many excellent examples out there, but I’ve never known a young reader to seek them out. Even when I point out that they could read them in an hour because there are so few words in them, my students are very reluctant to pick them up. I am also not a member of the Plath cult. Ms. Hemphill appears to place much of the blame for Plath’s suicide on her husband Ted Hughes, which is a common position. I place it on her mental illness, no where else.
With all of that said, I did enjoy Your Own, Sylvia. What made it work for me was the way the footnotes played off of the poems. The background for each poem is given in footnotes following the poem. This information comments on the poem preceding it and informs the poems that follow building an interesting and complicated portrait of Sylvia Plath. The story told is quite effective.
I first ran this review on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. in 2008. I’m slowly moving all of my old reviews over to this new blog. It’s going to take some time.
Since publishing this review, I’ve found a book in verse that my students love, Sharkgirl by Kelly Bingham. Since I added it to my classroom book clubs it’s been making the rounds. I will say that I had to push it on my students to convince them to read a book written in poems. They didn’t want to, but once they got started, they’ve all enjoyed the book.