I loved poetry as a child. I read a lot of it, memorized some favorite poems, and tried to write my own (very badly, I must say). As I grew up, I wandered away from poetry for the most part, with a few notable exceptions — John Donne and W. B. Yeats in particular.
In the past few years I’ve found myself turning to poetry once again. I am particularly drawn to the verse novel, a form that has gained popularity in recent years, especially in middle grade and young adult fiction. I’m always interested in engaging books that introduce youth to poetry and poetry-writing in a non-threatening fashion, and many of these books do both.
The modern verse novel is distinct from the older verse narrative. Verse narratives, including such classics as The Canterbury Tales, Beowulf, The Iliad and The Odyssey, tend to be in strict poetic forms and rhyme schemes and tell epic stories. The modern verse novel, on the other hand, generally has many brief poems, most frequently in free verse. Verse novels might be told by multiple narrators, such as Sweetgrass Basket by Marlene Carvell, told in alternating poems by two sisters; or Etched in Clay, a marvelous biography of the slave potter Dave Drake by Andrea Cheng, wherein Dave, his family members, his various owners, and others take part in telling his story. Verse novels might occasionally break into prose, as in slam poet Elizabeth Acevedo’s brand-new novel The Poet X. Kwame Alexander’s latest verse novel, Rebound, turns occasionally to graphic novel format. Sometimes the narrating character is herself a poet, adding another layer of significance to the experience. There really are no rules, which is part of the appeal.
Why is it that verse novels, especially in juvenile and young adult fiction, have become so popular in recent years? I don’t pretend to have an answer, but a thread of commonality I see in many verse novels is the way writing in verse — typically free verse, without rhymes or set meter — can liberate a writer to be more expressive of big emotional content and difficult subject matter. Released from the restriction of forming complete sentences, paragraphs, and chapters, writing a novel in verse cuts right to the core of the novel’s content, and for me at least, I can be completely drawn inside the feelings of the characters. Feelings can be expressed in an elemental way. Difficult topics such as loss and abuse can be talked about indirectly while still giving us the full emotional impact.
A good example of this is the hard-hitting new young adult verse novel Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds, told in first-person by a pre-teen boy who thinks he must avenge his brother’s gang killing. The entire novel takes place in less than two minutes of real time, but it packs a heck of a punch.
WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN
we can usually look up and see
the moon, big and bright,
shining over us.
That always made me feel better.
Like there’s something up there
Beaming down on us in the dark.
But the day before yesterday, when
the moon was off.
Somebody told me once a month
the moon blacks out
and becomes new
and the next night be back
I’ll tell you one thing,
the moon is lucky it’s not down here
new. (Reynolds, 2018)
Thanhha Lai’s middle-grade verse novel Inside Out & Back Again tells the story of a Vietnamese family who escapes Saigon for the United States just as Saigon is falling. The spare poetry adds to the feelings of heartbreak and loss:
has come early
In the distance
explode like thunder,
lighten the sky,
falls like rain.
yet within ears,
Not that far away
after all. (Lai, 2011)
Marlene Carvell’s middle-grade Sweetgrass Basket is the wrenching story of two Mohawk sisters who are sent off-reservation to a white-run boarding school around the time of World War I. They are lonely and miserable, cut off from their heritage, not allowed to use their native language, customs, or clothing; not allowed to see their family, not allowed to have any remembrances from home, though at least they have each other. And while they are technically at ‘school,’ they are primarily being trained to be household servants.
We mend. We iron. We fold.
This is school. The routine is clear.
We mend. We iron. We fold.
Sometimes I use a machine.
my right foot pumping up and down
to make the needle move in and out
through the material.
But sometimes I let my hands
do the stitching
instead of the machine,
the way I mended and sewed at home.
Then I do not mind the work as much.
Miss Prentiss stands quietly beside me,
studying the mending intently,
the mending I did with my hands.
“I think I will let you do the finer work,”
she continues, surprising me once more.
She then lifts my right hand,
running her thumb
back and forth lightly
over the tops of my fingers.
A blurry image of my mother
holding my hands
begins to surface,
and her soft voice whispers
somewhere in my memory.
Your tiny hands, Mattie. They are a gift.
I close my eyes,
and I am home,
sitting beside my mother
as we work together,
sewing and mending.
Mother (Carvell, 2005)
A powerful young adult verse novel hot off the presses is Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X. In it, Dominican-American teen Xiomara is struggling to find her way, torn between her own desires for freedom to express herself, and the extremely restrictive path her mother wants her to follow. It’s a compelling read, one I highly recommend. I couldn’t decide which one poem to share here, so I offer two:
How I Feel About Attention
If Medusa was Dominican
and had a daughter, I think I’d be her.
I look and feel like a myth,
A story distorted, waiting for others to stop
Tight curls that spring like fireworks
out of my scalp. A full mouth pressed hard
like a razor’s edge. Lashes that are too long
so they make me almost pretty.
was Dominican and had a daughter, she might
wonder at this curse. At how her blood
is always becoming some fake hero’s missions.
Something to be slayed, conquered.
If I was her kid, Medusa would tell me her secrets:
how it is that her looks stop men
in their tracks why they still keep on coming.
How she outmaneuvers them when they do.
Every time I think about Aman
poems build inside me
like I’ve been gifted a box of metaphor Legos
that I stack and stack and stack.
I keep waiting for someone to knock them over.
But no one at home cares about my scribbling.
Twin: Oblivious–although happier than he usually looks.
Mami: thinking I’m doing homework.
Papi: ignoring me as usual . . . aka being Papi.
Me: writing pages and pages about a boy
and reciting them to myself like a song, like a prayer. (Acevedo, 2018)
Kwame Alexander has forged a very successful career as a poet and verse novelist. His fourth juvenile verse novel, Rebound, was released just this month, following Solo, Booked, and The Crossover. One might not instinctively imagine sports-themed stories as well-suited to verse novel form, but Alexander has produced several award-winning examples. The poems in his verse novels vary widely in form, including shape poetry, and other devices such as this basketball scene from the Newbery-winning The Crossover:
The game is tied
when JB’s soft jumper sails
through the air.
The crowd stills,
and when his last-second shot
the clock stops.
The gym explodes.
Its hard bleachers
and my head
aches. (Alexander, 2014)
Reaching for Sun by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer is a moving middle-grade verse novel told through the voice of a girl with cerebral palsy. The way she views and interacts with the world is a thing of beauty, even though her life is anything but easy.
When poppies first
out of the ground
they look like a weed–
hairy, grayish, saw-toothed foliage–
easily a member
of the ugly family.
When I push
sounds from my mouth
it’s not elegant either.
I wrestle to wrap
struggle with my tongue
to press the right points.
When poppies bloom
the same red
as a Chinese wedding dress–
satiny cups with ruffled edges,
purplish black eyes–
they’re a prize for patience,
and if I take all that trouble
to say something,
to make it worth
the wait too. (Zimmer, 2007)
Of course, these stories of heartbreak, anger, and loss are tempered with hope, so no story is without its happy moments. And naturally, other verse novels tell more upbeat stories.
For younger readers, The Dancing Pancake, Summerhouse Time, and others by Eileen Spinelli are fun reads. Minn and Jake by Janet Wong is a story for elementary-aged readers about two quite unlikely friends — Minn who is the tallest girl in her class and taller than all the boys as well, and Jake, who is so short he looks more like a first grader than a fifth-grader. Jake doesn’t even like lizards! But Minn befriends him anyway, and over the course of a school-year-worth of verse, they learn to appreciate each other.
How NOT to Choose a True Best Friend
There are lots of good ways
to choose a friend.
You can choose a friend
because you like the same games,
or because you live on the same street,
or because your parents work together,
or because you need to borrow a pen.
Or you can choose a friend
because she smiles at you
And makes you feel good.
Minn is not smiling at Jake.
No one is smiling at Jake,
and Jake does not feel good.
His new teacher, Mrs. Moss,
is almost smiling.
She seems to be trying to smile,
but she has a worried look,
a look that says,
Boy, do I have a headache—
are we ever going to finish this chapter
And all the kids
are staring at Jake
Who is this new kid?
Why is he coming into fifth grade
in the middle of the year
in the middle of the week,
in the middle of Morning Reading? (Wong, 2003)
Some other amazing verse novels I can recommend are Dust of Eden by Mariko Nagai, Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse, Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson, Forget me Not by Ellie Terry, House Arrest by K. A. Holt, All the Broken Pieces by Ann Burg, Frenchtown Summer by Robert Cornier, and Macy McMillan and the Rainbow Goddess by Shari Green.
Thank you for letting me share some of my favorite verse novels. They are written for children and young adults, but make great reading for any age. If these have whetted your appetite, you might want to check out this blog about young adult verse novels, with a top-100 list, and these thorough annotated lists of verse novels, from middle-grade to adult for more ideas. Whatever your favorites turn out to be, happy reading, and Happy National Poetry Month.
Acevedo, Elizabeth (2018). The Poet X
Alexander, Kwame (2014). The Crossover
Carvell, Marlene (2005). Sweetgrass Basket
Lai, Thanhha (2011). Inside Out & Back Again
Reynolds, Jason (2018). Long Way Down
Wong, Janet (2003). Minn and Jake
Zimmer, Tracie Vaughn (2007). Reaching for Sun