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Jan 27, 2022

Picture Book Poetry: The Reverso Poem in AMAH FARAWAY by Margaret Chiu Greanias

craft review by Anne-Marie Strohman

Picture book writing can be enriched with poetic techniques–alliteration, assonance, meter, rhyme, refrain. A picture book text can also be a poem. It’s easy to see poetic form in books that have regular rhyme and meter, like Over in the Wetlands by Caroline Starr Rose and Rob Dunlavey, or All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon and Marla Frazee

But some poetic forms aren’t so easily recognized. (And there are many to choose from! Writer’s Digest lists 186 examples.) The best poem picture books marry content and form in a way that elevates the story. 

Margaret Chiu Greanias’s new picture book, Amah Faraway, illustrated by Tracy Subisak, matches the reverso form with the story of a girl and her grandmother who begin worlds apart (one in the US and one in Taiwan) in a way that enriches both the story and the form.

Amah Faraway by Margaret Chiu Greanias, illustrated by Tracy Subisak

What is a reverso poem?

A reverso poem is structured so that the first half of the poem is repeated in reverse for the last half of the poem. Here’s an example from picture book author and poet Marilyn Singer:

As you can see in this short example, you can change capitalization and punctuation to make both halves of the poem meaningful.

Why does this story work well in this form?

In her Q&A, Margaret talks about wanting to try a reverso form and choosing this particular story because of the travel element–there’s a natural movement to and from that matches the way the poem moves to the center and back out again. 

The poem is also about establishing a closer relationship between two characters who are distant at first. There is a clear moment of change in the middle, and the sensibility of the poem at the beginning is very different from the sensibility at the end. The reverso poem reflects the change from distant to close using the same words.

The Reverso Poem in Action

Let’s look at the opening and closing of Amah Faraway. Watch for how Greanias changes punctuation, and how the words in reverse order have an upside-down meaning as well.

Opening page:

“It was time for a visit.

Kylie squirmed.

[mom in speech bubble]

We can . . . eat yummy new foods.

We can . . . go to pretty new places.

We can . . . have an adventure!

And,

we get to see Amah.

it’ll be so fun.

One hundred butterflies took flight in Kylie’s belly.

Kylie and Amah didn’t visit each other often enough.

Every Saturday,

they connected by computer.

Amah

told stories to

Kylie,

Amah

sang songs to

Kylie,

Amah

showed snacks to 

Kylie,

always speaking simply and slowly.

Last pages:

Always speaking simply and slowly,

Kylie

showed snacks to

Amah,

Kylie

sang songs to

Amah,

Kylie

told stories to

Amah.

They connected–by computer–

every Saturday.

Kylie and Amah didn’t visit each other often enough.

One hundred butterflies took flight in Kylie’s belly.

It’ll be so fun!

[Kylie in speech bubble]

We get to see Amah,

and

we can have an adventure!

We can go to pretty new places!

We can eat yummy new foods!

Kylie squirmed.

It was time . . . for a visit.

What did you notice? Here are three elements that drew my attention.

A closer look: one word lines

Greanias cleverly uses short lines and one-word lines to make the poem exceptionally reversible. We see this in the “Amah / sang songs to / Kylie” which reverses to “Kylie / sang songs to / Amah.” This particular instance allows Greanias to shift from Amah being the active one reaching out, to Kylie being the active one. 

A closer look: inverted meaning

Because of the way the reversed lines change the context around each line, some lines have opposite meanings in the reverse order. For instance, in the opening, the butterflies in Kylie’s belly signal nervousness. In the end pages, they signal excitement. Similarly, the line “Kylie and Amah didn’t visit each other often enough” at first reveals the distance between the two–they don’t visit enough to know each other very well. But at the end of the poem, it signals that Kylie wishes they could visit in person more often.

A closer look: rule of threes

Within the reverso form, Greanias also uses tried and true picture book writing strategies, such as the rule of three. In this example, the mom (and then Kylie) anticipates “new foods,” “new places,” and “adventure.” Another group of three shows up when Amah (and then Kylie) “showed snacks,” “sang songs,” and “told stories.” These work within the formal structure and are effective ways of reaching picture book readers.

What happens in the middle?

The middle of a reverse poem, and of this story, is a turn. The words start going in reverse, and there is a change for our protagonist.

After a day of adventures with Amah in Taipei, Kylie warms up to Amah, and Amah invites her to swim in the hot springs:

Kylie loves splashing . . .

and

the water was warm.

Should

she?

Could

she?

[page turn]

She

could!

She

should!

The water was warm!

And

Kylie loved splashing.

The one-word lines build anticipation and highlight that central moment, and they allow Greanias to turn questions into statements that signal Kylie’s change of heart. While at first Kylie was tentative about getting to know Amah, now she is diving right in. Notice how Greanias changed punctuation (even moving different phrases into different sentences) and emphasis, and even tense in one case, to show the change in Kylie and in her relationship with her Amah.

Greanias leverages the structure of the poem to create meaning. By looking to the features of the structure to inform Kylie’s story and where certain beats occur, she creates a rich story of family.

Level of Difficulty: Very High and Worth a Try

Writing a reverso poem takes a lot of tinkering and revision. It’s not easy! Margaret went through many revisions of her story, including trying it in prose. While she did learn a lot about her story from the transition to prose, she ultimately decided the reverso structure enhanced the story. So she went back and revised some more!

Now it’s YOUR turn!

Working with poetic forms can be like working a puzzle. Don’t worry if you can’t write one in just one sitting. Return to the poem every day for a few weeks and see what tinkering, reimagining, and dreaming does for your poem. That vision and revision may turn it into a picture book!


If you missed our Q&A with Margaret, click here to find out more about Margaret’s writing process!

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