craft review by Anne-Marie Strohman
Katherine Applegate’s novel-in-verse, Home of the Brave, is an intricate story. Kek, a ten-year-old refugee from Sudan, lands in Minnesota in the middle of winter and has to make sense of his new world. It is at once a story of leaving a life behind, engaging with a new world, and exploring how to bridge the two. As Kek’s story unfolds–in a series of first-person poems–Applegate weaves together plot, character, and story elements deftly. As writers, we can learn much from how she threads these elements throughout the novel. Here, we’ll look at ways she introduces threads and varies their length.
Introducing Threads: Using a Direct Approach
In the second poem, “Old Words, New Words,” Applegate introduces an element of the story: language. She does so directly, as Kek describes how he communicates with Dave, the man from the refugee organization who picks him up from the airport:
Sometimes Dave speaks English,
the tangled sounds
they tried to teach us
in the refugee camp.
And sometimes he
uses my words.
He’s like a song always out of tune,
This initial explanation of language suggests that while the poems are all in English, sometimes they are translating what is spoken in another language. It serves a practical purpose–explaining the way the reader should read the poems.
As the story progresses, language becomes symbolic of Kek’s transition into American culture. At the beginning as Kek tries speaking English, his “mouth just wants to chew the words / and spit them on the ground.” Midway through the novel, Kek’s neighbor-friend Hannah says in jest, “This is your punishment for being a moron.” Kek replies, “A moron is a not-smart boy?” Kek is beginning to be able to understand words from context.
Kek’s ESL class threads throughout the novel as well, and near the end of the book, when all the kids groan, he tells us, “That noise is the same in all languages.” The thread of Kek learning English and becoming more comfortable with the language mirrors his increasing comfort in his new home. Applegate introduces this story element–that serves plot, character, and theme–right at the beginning and continues to reference and explore the thread throughout the novel.
Action: Use a direct approach to introduce major story elements near the beginning of your novel.
Introducing Threads: Starting with a Metaphor
Gol, the cow Kek and his cousin take care of on Lou’s farm, is a major figure in the story, and Kek’s connection to cows is repeated throughout the story. But cows are introduced obliquely at the end of the second poem, as he describes speaking with Dave:
We are like a cow and a goat,
wanting to be friends
but wondering if it
can ever be.
Action: Use a metaphor to introduce a major figure or symbol.
Varying Thread Length: Short
We usually think of threads in the novel as themes that run throughout–introduced at the beginning, recurring every few chapters, and contributing to the big punch at the end. However, threads of any length can be used effectively.
In the middle of Home of the Brave, Applegate includes a two-poem thread. In “Helping,” Ganwar, Kek’s cousin, tells Kek that the “machine for washing / was in the way-down-at-the-bottom-of-the-stairs-room.” At the end of the poem, Kek decides to help his aunt by washing the dishes–in the “machine for washing.” In the following poem, “How Not to Wash Dishes,” his neighbor-friend Hannah helps him put money in the machine before realizing there are dishes in it. After the realization, the poem ends with Hannah looking into the washer and saying, “I think this is what they call / a problem with translation.”
This short thread serves a very specific purpose in moving the plot forward and indicating something about Kek’s adjustment to Minnesota. The washing machine isn’t referenced again; however, the broken dishes become motivation for Kek to get a job.
Action: Use short threads to move the plot forward.
Varying Thread Length: Medium
The story ends with Kek, Ganwar, and Hannah herding Gol to the zoo so she can become part of the petting menagerie. But Applegate introduces the idea of the zoo much earlier. About a third of the way through the novel, Kek tells his cousin about his first day of school and his ESL class. He reports, “We’re going to visit the zoo / where animals live.” A little past the halfway point, the poem “Field Trip” centers on Kek’s trip to the zoo and his experience in the petting zoo where
There are goats and chickens and pigs,
a llama and a turkey,
but no cows.
At the end of Part Three, Kek has an idea and thinks “maybe I just found / some sun for Gol.” Part Four, then, focuses on herding Gol to the zoo and finding a home for her there–as Kek has found in Minnesota. Before the final section, there are only two mentions of the zoo, enough to make Kek’s plan reasonable, but not so much as to make it obvious.
Action: Lead up to the climax of your novel with a medium thread–a few mentions to make the climax reasonable but not obvious.
Varying Thread Length: Long
A few threads carry all the way through Home of the Brave: themes of hope and belonging, Kek’s adjustment to speaking English, his relationship with his neighbor Hannah, his waiting for his mom and mourning their separation. All of these threads are introduced early in the story and touched regularly as the novel progresses.
One joke, though, occurs early in the novel and is repeated at the end. The fourth poem, titled “What the Heck,” details the first time Kek sees Gol. He asks Dave to stop by the side of the road so he can visit the cow. After some back and forth Dave says, “Oh, what the heck?” The poem continues,
I have not yet learned
the meaning of heck,
but I can see that
it’s a fine and useful word,
because he turns the car around.
In the final poem, after Kek, Hannah, and Ganwar take Gol to the zoo, the zoo administrators aren’t keen on the idea of keeping Gol. Finally, one of the men, Harold, smiles.
Oh, what the heck, he says,
and once again I see that
heck is a very good word.
The long thread can be a theme, character, relationship, or symbol that repeats throughout. But you can also leave a long thread hidden until the perfect moment.
Action: Include long threads that recur throughout the novel. Also, try a striking moment near the beginning that recurs only at the end.
Tying Threads Together
One of the most powerful things about Home of the Brave is how Applegate links the threads. Kek’s memories of his mom and his hope to see her again are closely tied. But even a short thread like the washing machine provides an opportunity to connect with one of the larger issues of the novel–language and translation–as we saw above. The threads are woven together to create a masterful tapestry.
Action: Look for opportunities to tie threads together.
Consider: How might you deepen your current project by layering it with additional well-thought-out threads? What elements could recur in your novel? And are there threads that are longer than they need to be?
Anne-Marie Strohman writes picture books and is working on a middle grade novel. She is trained as a teacher, an editor, and a scholar, specializing in Renaissance Literature. She lives in the mostly-sunny city of Sunnyvale with her husband and two children. She is an active member of SCBWI. Find her at amstrohman.com and on Twitter @amstrwriter.