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Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Novels in Verse

If you are familiar at all with juvenile or young adult fiction you may have noticed that novels written in verse are a current trend. For those of you not as acquainted with youth literature a novel in verse is exactly what it sounds like; a novel length story told through poetry rather than prose. Unfortunately, even when these books are beautifully written and get rave reviews they are slow to check out.

One of the main reasons that readers are wary of novels in verse is probably because poetry seems so inaccessible.  Most of us have an incorrect assumption that poetry has to be difficult to understand. I cannot be the only one who has nightmares of analyzing Wordsworth in high school English class. (If you are a huge Wordsworth fan please don't send me angry messages. I really do think that his poetry is beautiful I just don't want to agonize over what every metaphor means.)

Boys especially seem to avoid novels in verse like the plague because they believe that poetry is not a "boy" thing. Well, obviously this is complete nonsense. I think that the word poetry brings up images of sappy love sonnets written in Shakespearean English for a lot of boys (and girls). Of course, men and women can be poets and poems and novels in verse can be about any subject from sports and music to history and current events.

Sadly, I have also seen parents deter their children from picking up a novel in verse because it is "not a real chapter book". I totally get wanting your kid to be challenged when it comes to reading and all of that empty white space in a novel in verse makes it look too easy. Also, novels in verse tend to have low AR levels and points because they are usually shorter and have unusual sentence and paragraph structure compared to traditional chapter books. I am not going to get into AR (Accelerated Reader) right now other than to say that these numbers are only meant to be a guiding tool and (in my opinion) should never be used to discourage a kid from picking up book.

So, I have given you a few reasons why I think people may bypass novels in verse. Now, let me tell you why you should give one a whirl. First and foremost, many are just fantastic stories with amazing characters, settings, etc. (even though they are not written in traditional prose). Secondly, all that white space (that makes some parents say no) is a huge selling point for reluctant readers. Even if you are an avid reader sometimes you  need something that isn't a huge time commitment. Especially if you are a student with a ton of homework, practices, lessons, etc.  Finally, we all get into reading ruts. I have seen kids who will read nothing but Goosebumps and teens who won't touch anything that isn't a paranormal romance. I myself prefer fantasy. Trying an unfamiliar genre may be difficult but you also just might discover something incredible! That being said here are a few of my favorite novels in verse.

For middle grade readers I highly recommend Love That Dog by Sharon Creech (even though they will probably cry). The story is told in free verse by a boy named Jack who doesn't want to write a poem for his teacher, Miss Stretchberry, "because boys don't write poetry.  Girls do." Gee, I think I have heard that sentiment before.  Anyways, Jack discovers that poetry is not just for girls and it gives him a wonderful way to express his feelings. The back of the book contains several of the poems that Miss Stretchberry introduces in her class as well as a sneak peak of Hate That Cat, the sequel to Love That Dog. Even struggling readers will be able to finish these sweet stories in less than a day, but they are sure to think about them much longer.

Karen Hesse is another juvenile/young adult author who has written several novels in verse including the 1998 Newbery Medal winner, Out of the Dust. The novel is set in Oklahoma during the dust bowl years of the depression.  I know. Kids are probably screaming right now that they are not going to read poetry AND history.  However, Out of the Dust is an amazing way for kids to learn about the depression and dust bowl because it is more about the people and emotions they experience versus dry dates and facts. I cannot imagine any reader not being moved by 14 year old Billie Jo's tragic yet ultimately hopeful story.

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander is one of my absolute favorite novels in verse. Twelve year old twins Josh and Jordan excel at basketball, but life off of the court is not always so easy. Sports fanatics will appreciate the basketball setting, but The Crossover is so much more than a sport book; it is about growing up, choices, change, and consequences.
My daughter and Kwame after he autographed her copy of The Crossover!

If you think that The Crossover is just for boys or basketball players YOU ARE SO WRONG!!! My daughter, Zoe, read The Crossover (because I made her). She was reluctant since it had a basketball player on the cover, but she ended up loving it.  Her comment was that it had basketball, but it was so much more than that.

If you enjoy The Crossover check out Kwame Alexander's other juvenile novels in verse, Booked and Rebound. Last year he also came out with Solo, which is a spectacular novel in verse for teens!

Speaking of novels in verse for teens Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds was the BEST book that I read last year. I know, I know that I have talked about Jason Reynolds in multiple posts. What can I say? I think he is an absolutely amazing author, speaker, activist, inspiration, role model, etc. Long Way Down is the story of Will, an inner city kid determined to avenge the murder of his older brother. With a gun in his waistband, Will boards the elevator of his apartment building. Instead of heading straight for the lobby, though, the car stops at every floor and a new passenger gets in the elevator. Each of these passengers is someone from Will's past who was a victim of gun violence. Are they ghosts or just figments of Will's conscience and will they be able to convince him of the futility of vengeance and violence? Long Way Down is an incredibly powerful story told in a fascinating way. I cannot recommend it enough!

Jason Reynold's latest book for teens is also in verse but it is almost more of a letter than a novel. It was originally performed live at the Kennedy Center at the unveiling celebration at the new Martin Luther King Jr. monument in Washing D.C (how cool is that!). For Every One is just that; something that everyone, young and old should read and I am so happy that it was published in book form. The poem is all about the importance of dreams and not just big dreams like being a rock star or an award winning author. Your dream may be to be a parent or a teacher (or a librarian) and those dreams are just as beautiful and significant. I actually cried while reading For Every One and I made my kids read it too. Honestly, I plan on buying copies for all of the graduates that I know because I cannot imagine more inspiring words to carry them through the next stage of their lives.

A more recently published novel in verse is Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. The story was so compelling that I couldn't put it down and ended up reading it in one sitting. That is another great thing about novels in verse is that you can read them in one sitting and it isn't going to take you all night. I loved how sassy and strong the protagonist, Xiomara, was and I also appreciated being introduced to the Dominican culture which I had no previous knowledge of . Through Poet X Acevedo stresses the importance of creative writing and and especially poetry as an outlet for kids who do not feel heard and want to express themselves. I hope that lots of young people want to give slam poetry a try after reading Poet X and listening to Acevedo perform.

I hope that you are encouraged to check out a novel in verse after reading this post. Here are a few more outstanding selections.