Fairy tales are about reversals of fortune. A cinder-covered girl who cleans the hearth dons a gown and wins the prince. A pair of poor children goes into a forest and emerges with riches. But what about a poem that tells the points of view of both Sleeping Beauty and the “Wide-Awake Prince” who releases her from her spell? That’s what Marilyn Singer does with the poems in Mirror, Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse, illustrated by Josée Masse.
With this collection, Singer may well have invented a new form of poetry. She presents the same poem both forward and backward—phrase by phrase, altering only the occasional line break, capitalization or punctuation. Thus, a poem can offer Little Red Riding Hood’s perspective in one direction and the wolf’s in the other. She calls the poems “reversos.”
Singer says that the inspiration for the first “reversible verse” came from observing her cat napping on a chair. “The cat needed the chair,” she says, “and the chair needed the cat to complete it.” She also remembered a doll that her uncle gave her as a child. “She was dressed in a raggedy dress and a shawl and wore a babushka on her head. You took the shawl off, and under the dress, you pulled down a string and she had a ball gown, and under the babushka was a crown,” says Singer. “I wasn’t a doll person, but this doll fascinated me because it reversed.”
Singer’s first reverso was about Cinderella. “Writing is this weird combination of the conscious and the unconscious,” she says. “I’m not getting Freudian, but somewhere in memory, there are things that haunt you.” Once she settled on a fairy-tale theme, she had to find others that worked as a reverso. “It’s like you turn your brain inside out,” she says.
When Singer tried out the poems with teenagers who weren’t necessarily poetry fans, she discovered that they responded to the puzzle aspect of the pieces. One told her, “I’m not a poetry person, but damn these are clever.”
The author of more than 80 books of nonfiction, folk tales, novels and poetry, Singer admits that poetry is her favorite. “I feel like I’m using a different part of my brain when I’m writing it,” she says. “There’s an interesting combination of both the stimulating and the calming.”
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Mirror, Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse
Illustrated by Josée Masse
Dutton/Penguin / March / 9780525479017 / $16.99 / 6 & up