You know those awkward advice-for-teen-girl books written by clueless adults? Courage: Daring Poems for Gutsy Girls strips all the lame, stultifying, well, prose out of the text, leaving just the raw bones behind. Edited by a triumvirate of poets—Rachel McKibbens, Mindy Nettifee, and local author Karen Finneyfrock—Courage feels like the cool older woman who sits her little sister down, stares her straight in the eye, and gives her the kind of blunt, funny, rude advice that will forever alter the course of her life.
Courage is packed with dozens of stories that lead by example. Patricia Smith's "Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah" tells the story of Smith's own name. Her mother pulled for Patricia Ann, the name of a woman who "would never idly throat the Lord's name or wear one of those sparkled skirts that flirted with her knees." But her father preferred Jimi Savannah, a name guaranteed to "shoot muscle through whatever I was called" and label her "a tricky whisperer with a switchblade in [her] shoe." Smith doesn't clog up the end of the poem with an easy, insincere moral; she just tells her story and gets offstage, which is exactly the right thing to do.
These are not all stories of empowerment. Shanny Jean Maney's "The Thing I Said That During Gym" reflects on a tossed-off cruelty she dropped on another child, something so mean, "I knew I ruined his everything." The poem is a lament, a broken heart spiked on a fence post, to warn other girls who start down the path that it leads somewhere distant and dark.
Many—maybe even most—of us were handed those bad advice books as teenagers by a concerned parent or teacher, the ones with ambiguously threatening words like "CHOICES" fanning across the cover in ropy rainbow print, and photographs throughout of teenagers wearing primary colors mugging for the camera against a pure-white background. They talk about drugs and sex in words so ambiguous and market-tested that they practically smell of chlorine. They're books that help absolutely no one.
By contrast, Franny Choi's "First Blood After" is the kind of message that can save a young woman who's teetering on the edge of despair. It's a slight poem made up of a handful of lines that begins "hallelujah. the sheets/are stained with not." It's a poem alive with relief and anxiety and exuberance at seeing how "the last threat of a family/darkens softly behind my hip bones." Choi continues, "now, i begin the washing and the learning/to be new."
Teenagers seem to inherently understand and appreciate poetry. With its rawness and its intrinsic blend of style and story, a good poem can strike like a dagger to the heart or stand as a symbol, a flagpole on a distant hill for teenagers who desperately need examples. Many teenage girls write poems themselves—often poems that they'd never share with anyone—in which they try to figure out the world. Courage is a book that speaks their language, that calls to them by name—their real names, not the pretty ones they were given at birth. Put this book in the hands of someone who needs it and watch them fall in love.