Sones, Sonya. 2001. What My Mother Doesn’t Know. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers.
2. PLOT SUMMARY
This novel told in verse tells the story of the fifteen-year-old somewhat boy-crazy Sophie. The book jacket itself is in her voice: “This book is about me/ it tells/ the heart-stopping riveting story of my first love. / And also of my second. / And okay, maybe my third love, too.” Her first love, Dylan, lasts until about page 107, whereupon her mysterious online obsession takes the main stage until he says something so gross that she realized she really knew nothing about him. When she runs into the class nerd, Murphy, during Christmas break, she does not intend to spend time with him, much less enjoy his company. But she finds the boy beyond the stereotype and, in the end, is brave enough to be with him despite what the rest of her friends will most certainly think.
3. CRITICAL ANALYSIS
Dr. Vardell reminds us that children’s poetry is not just simplified poetry. Rather, it “is able to convey meaningfully the experiences and perceptions of the child” (110, Vardell). What My Mother Doesn’t Know does successfully capture the highly emotional life of a teenage girl. The short poems in this fast-moving novel vary between a wide range of emotions:
-humorous, “It’s That Time of the Month Again,” (47, Sones) with the especially cute line, “rebooting my ovarian operating system,”
-poignant and sweet, “When Dylan Cried,” (107),
-horribly sad, “All I Want to Know Is,” (148),
-sensually sexy, “Masked Man” (137).
The emotion is strong throughout. There is even dark humor, such as the poem, “Culture Clash,” when Dylan asks her not to mention she’s Jewish to his mother and she replies, “okay, but can I/tell her about/the HIV positive thing?” (74). (Note that the lower-case “o” in 'okay' is the way it is in the poem.)
The poems chronicle Sophie’s absolute teen delirium of being in love, followed by her realization that certain boys aren’t as perfect as she thought, with such memorable lines as, “I used to feel like I was floating/ a few inches above the ground/whenever he was squeaking along/next to me. / But now when I hear those/ noisy Nikes of his/ I feel like/ I want to scream.” (83). Then the story continues until Sophie realizes who she really loves.
There are no illustrations, but the direct and casual language used, reflective of modern teens, makes these poems easy to grasp without images. (The front cover of my book does have a witty image, that we later will realize is Murphy's bulletin board. Other editions just show a girl, Sophie.)
While the poems do include rhyme, Ms. Sones does use various lengths for her lines. The effect creates either smoothness or a harsh staccato sound that works with the poem’s topic. There is a sensual rhythm in such lines as, “The music/ is slow/ and/ saxophony,” which contrasts to the faster-paced “If Only,” in which she writes, “If only/Dylan liked/Ferris Wheels./ If only / I liked/ roller coasters” (81). Her poems are free-verse, though a few use shape, such as the upside down triangular shape of “I Wish” on page 66, in which she wishes she could shrink to fit in Dylan’s pocket.
Also, Ms. Sones cleverly drizzles poems about Murphy throughout the book, so that when Sophie and he begin spending time together, we know who he is and why this is so significant, for example, “Watching Murphy During Art Class,” (15), and “The Meaning of Murphy (69). She also uses the repeated line, “Sometimes I just know things,” starting with her second poem and throughout the book in several of her poems, and concludes the entire book with that same line in a very effective manner. In poetry, elements such as rhythm, sound, language, imagery and emotion are used to convey the meaning of the poem. These poems by Sonya Sones, woven into a novel, use most of these elements to connect well with the readers (Vardell, 124).
This novel is number 31 on the ALA’s Top 100 Most Banned Books of the Decade. According to the website of Ms. Sones, the reason is on page 46, the poem, "Ice Capades,” which is a simple, honest poem about being aware of a newly changing body. I suspect the poem, “Deleted” might also have something to do it with it (110, Sones.) But anyone who thinks that these poems provide any new information for teens is fooling herself/himself.
4. REVIEW EXCERPT(S)
“The poetry is never pretentious or difficult; on the contrary, the very short, sometimes rhythmic lines make each page fly. Sophie’s voice is colloquial and intimate and the discoveries she makes are beyond formula, even while they are as sweetly romantic as popular song. A natural for reluctant readers, this will also attract young people who love to read.” --Booklist Nov 1, 2001. (Booklist Editor’s Choice 2001).
“With its separate free verse poems woven into a fluid and coherent narrative with a satisfying ending, Sophie’s honest and earthy story feels destined to captivate a young female audience, avid and reluctant readers alike.”– Publishers Weekly, Oct 1, 2001
“Sones's poems are glimpses through a peephole many teens may be peering through for the first time, unaware that others are seeing virtually the same new, scary, unfamiliar things (parents having nuclear meltdowns, meeting a boyfriend's parents, crying for no apparent reason).”—School Library Journal, Oct 1, 2001.
“The poems are snappy, and each one strikes a chord that fluidly moves the reader on to the next episode.”- Voice of Youth Advocates, Oct 1, 2001. (Named a VOYA Top Shelf for Middle School Readers, 2003)
“Laid out in a series of mostly free-verse poems, however, the text gets at the emotional state of this girl so completely and with such intensity that a conventional narrative framework would simply dilute the effect." -- Kirkus Reviews, Sept 15, 2001.
-Listed by the ALA as one of the Top Ten most Challenged books (2004, 2005, 2010, and 2011).
-Unanimously chosen an American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults (2002)
-Top Ten Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers (2002).
- Invite students to write a series of poems about their own lives. Keep a journal in the form of free verse poetry for a set amount of time.
- This book could be studied in a series of other books-in-verse, such as Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust (though I could not get past the horrific beginning of that one), Robert Cormier’s Frenchtown Summer and Ms. Sone’s Stop Pretending. The books mentioned here are very intense, but poetry often is. This website has a list of 35 YA/MG novels in verse. Why not choose some of these? http://www.readerpants.net/2012/04/get-your-poetry-on-35-yamg-novels-in.htm.
- This book could also be studied in conjunction with any love story similar in plot, but written in prose. For example, the book Forgive My Fins involves a girl who is convinced that her one true love is one very popular guy, but she ends up falling for someone else, the guy she thought she loathed. Then the two types of writing could be compared/contrasted. Ideally, a book would be chosen that is also contemporary realistic fiction, which Forgive My Fins is not—it is more urban fantasy (mermaid fantasy.)
- It could be studied with the sequel, What My Girlfriend Doesn’t Know, which is from Murphy/Robin’s point of view. Compare and contrast the voices of the two main protagonists.
- Do an author study, with Ms. Sone’s works, What My Girlfriend Doesn’t Know and Stop Pretending.
6. PERSONAL REACTIONS
I loved this book. I write free verse poetry myself and found myself admiring her work the way I suppose sports fans admire a really good game. She simply channels the voice of a boy-crazy teenage girl, one who is really trying to find out who she is, and who has so much potential. My favorite poem was, “Suddenly I see Robin,” pg 252, because it really makes the reader (at least me) root for Robin/Murphy. Who couldn’t love him? My second favorite was, “I Hear Footsteps,” (255) because it provides resolution with the mother. As a mother of two girls, I wanted to know that the two of them would reconnect.
One special note is that towards the end, at the very bottom of pages 231-259, an observant reader will notice that if you flip these pages, the dancing couple from Renoir’s painting Le Bal a Bougival, will lean close and kiss and move back away. While I would not call these tiny corner sketches, "illustrations," the artistic touch makes a lot of sense when you realize that Ms. Sones used to teach animation!
Childs, Tera Lynn. 2010. Forgive My Fins. New York: Katherine Tegen Books.
Cormier, Robert. 1999. Frenchtown Summer. New York: Delacorte Press.
Hesse, Karen. 1997. Out of the Dust. New York: Scholastic.
Mrs. ReaderPants. “Get Your Poetry On: 3 YA/MG Novels in Verse.” Blogger. April 26, 2012. http://www.readerpants.net/2012/04/get-your-poetry-on-35-yamg-novels-in.html
Sones, Sonya. 1999. Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Sones, Sonya. 2007. What My Girlfriend Doesn’t Know. New York: Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers.
Vardell, Sylvia. 2008. Children's Literature in Action. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.