October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard by Leslea Newman

Cindy: I’ve had this book in hand for a couple of months but couldn’t bring myself to open its pages and relive the pain I felt back in 1998 when this horrible crime was committed. Then came the news reports of the shooting of the lesbian teen couple, Mary Kristene Chapa and Mollie Judith Olgin in Portland, Texas on June 23rd. Olgin was killed and Chapa remains hospitalized–an overview of the crime and updates are available here. I had to open the book. I had to read and remember and redouble my efforts to stand strong against hatred and prejudice. The teens who are the audience of this verse novel, October Mourning (Candlewick 2012) were too young to remember Matthew Shepard (some were not even born yet) but they will unfortunately relate to the book due to continuing prejudice and violence against gays.

An introduction sets the stage and then the poems tell the story, based on facts, but imagined by Leslea Newman, and therefore a fictionalized account of Matthew’s last days. And our hearts break all over again. The poems include a diverse range of voices and poetic forms. The bartender who watched Shepard leave with the men who would kill him, McKinney and Henderson, the biker who found his body on the fence, mothers, policemen, frat boys, and compassionate fellow students all speak…but so do the stars, the truck that carried Matthew away, the doe that tried to warm him, and the fence that held him. Other poems are observations…and a series sprinkled throughout is a powerful homage to William Carlos Williams’ This is Just to Say poem.

A notes section clarify the truth behind the poems, a section on poetic forms explains the structure of the varied poems, and a resources section rounds out this slim, powerful important books. High schools that really want to address the bullying problem would teach this novel. But I’m guessing that many won’t even add it to their library collections. I’d love to be wrong about that, but fear I won’t.

Newman is the perfect author for this collection. She is the author of the often banned Heather Has Two Mommies and was scheduled to speak in Laramie the week of the attack on Matthew Shepard. She gave the keynote address at the University of Wyoming’s Gay Awareness Week’s celebration that took on new meaning in the aftermath of this hate crime. She urged the audience as she does in this book to “think of one thing to do to help end homophobia and do it this week.” She gives suggestions. My thing this week is to write this blog post and encourage each of you to put a note in your calendar for September to find this book and read it. I’ll think of something else for next week. And the week after that. Our work is not done.

Lynn:  Cindy is ahead of me in reading this book but in light of recent events, she felt it was important to bring attention now to this book for teens.  I strongly endorse her sentiments and am resolving not to keep silent when I hear the kind of casual but hateful comments I hear said all the time.  No longer – I am speaking up!  But listen to Cindy – read this book, make sure our teens read this book and take up the cause.

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About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees.

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