Twenty years ago, novels-in-verse for children and young adults were all but nonexistent. Ten years ago, they were edgy. Today, they are proliferating at such an exponential rate that they have become part of the mainstream publishing world. Novels-in-verse have a reputation for their special appeal to reluctant readers. A generous amount of white space on each page, an economic use of language, and dramatic storylines that elicit strong emotions are all features that make them easy sells to kids who are intimidated or bored by traditional fiction. Yet, these same books also entice eager readers who love word play and the subtleties of language. That’s one of the joys of any kind of poetry; it can be enjoyed by many different kinds of people on many different levels.
However, a common criticism leveled against many novels-in-verse is that they are not really poetry at all, but rather prose that has been chopped up into lines of varying lengths. I’d argue that most novels-in-verse are more poetic than critics give them credit for. Poetry can be about so much more than rhythm and rhyme. I love Rita Dove’s definition of poetry as “language at its most distilled and most powerful.” Other intriguing definitions include William Wordsworth’s (“the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”) and Marianne Moore’s (“the art of creating imaginary gardens with real toads”). Rarely, if ever, do definitions of poetry include anything about alliteration, metaphor, imagery, onomatopoeia, or any of the hundreds of other terms one might find in a glossary of poetic terms.
Certainly, though, there are novels-in-verse that are more poetic than others. Some authors have a way with language that leaves the reader simultaneously breathless and inspired. Often, authors of novels-in-verse are even meta-poetic, drawing attention to their work in some way as works of poetry. Below are ten novels-in-verse that I believe truly stand out as especially poetic, and would be fabulous for educators looking for something to use with students during a poetry unit (or poetry month). You might have different ideas, and if so, I’d love to know which are your favorite particularly poetic novels-in-verse!
The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander
Alexander’s novel-in-verse won the 2015 Newbery Award and is an absolute delight. Dazzling poems fizzing with energy reflect not only the main character’s love of basketball, but also the intensity of his emotions.
Love That Dog, by Sharon Creech
Jack thinks he hates poetry until a teacher shows him how poems can help him deal with his grief over losing a beloved pet. This early (2001) novel-in-verse for the elementary set is truly a “mentor text” in an every sense of the phrase, as it not only sets a high standard for the genre, but also shows Jack making meaning of various classic poems, and eventually writing a special poem of his own.
Bronx Masquerade, by Nikki Grimes
Any novel-in-verse by Nikki Grimes could be on this list, and all of them deserve to be, but Bronx Masquerade was a groundbreaker. Published in 2002, well before novels-in-verse were a common literary form, the book is told through the voices of 18 urban high school students sharing their lives with each other through the poems they write in an English class.
Shakespeare Bats Cleanup, by Ron Koertge
This 2006 book is the one that launched my personal interest in novels-in-verse. Here, baseball fanatic Kevin is diagnosed with mono and turns to writing poetry to keep boredom and frustration at bay. This novel-in-verse is unusual in that it tells a story using not only free verse, but also a wide variety of formal styles of poetry. A real standout in the genre.
Pretty Omens, by A. LaFaye
Set in an Appalachian mining town, this 2015 novel-in-verse published by independent press Anchor & Plume is uber-poetic. The language is rich, musical, and evocative. Readers will be swept up in the highly emotional story of Cass Anne, a supposed “devil child” beloved by her mother but shunned by her community because of her gift for foretelling the future.
Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson
Jacqueline Woodson’s 2014 multiple award-winning novel-in-verse memoir is free verse at its best. She writes about growing up during the civil rights era longing to become a writer: “I want to catch words one day. I want to hold them then blow gently,/ watch them float right out of my hands.”
How I Discovered Poetry, by Marilyn Nelson
Amazingly, Marilyn Nelson also published an award-winning novel-in-verse in 2014 about growing up in the civil rights era longing to become a writer. Aimed at a slightly older age group, she claims that the book is autobiographically inspired rather than a true memoir. Nelson is one of—perhaps the—most talented poets writing for children and young adults today, and this book of fifty stunning unrhymed sonnets is a treasure.
The Wild Book, by Margarita Engle
This 2012 novel-in-verse set amid the political unrest of early 20th-century Cuba features a dyslexic heroine, Fefe, who learns to love reading and writing by immersing herself in poetry. Engle’s grandmother was the inspiration for the book.
May B.: A Novel, by Caroline Starr Rose
This 2012 novel-in-verse is written in a spare, compact, but highly poetic style that reflects its stark Kansas prairie setting. May, the heroine, is deemed uneducable because of her (undiagnosed) dyslexia. But although others give up on her, May does not give up on herself, and much like Fefe in Engle’s The Wild Book, she finds that poetry helps her to understand how to make meaning out of letters and words.
Crossing Stones, by Helen Frost
Helen Frost is a master at blending form with function in her novels-in-verse. Here, interconnected sonnets form stepping stones, and free verse tumbles down the page like a river. The story is told from the perspectives of three young adults dealing with love and loss during the first world war.
(Note: Part 2 to my earlier post, Feeding the Grown-ups, is forthcoming!)