During National Poetry Month in April, I love exploring what's new in this special genre. It's always a good time to build our collections with new poetry that young readers will respond to. The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, for example, won the National Book Award AND the Printz medal this year and captures the anguish of a young Afro-Latina girl struggling with her family's expectations, her changing body, and her powerful desire to share her thoughts through writing. This novel in verse has been a huge hit and draws in readers with its compelling story and distinctive format. Following on the heels of Jason Reynolds' award-winning verse novel, Long Way Down, and Kwame Alexander's Newbery-winning verse novel, The Crossover, we are seeing an explosion of poetry for young people, particularly the novel in verse form.
Long ago, during the mid-1800's, Victorian verse novels for adults by writers such as Tennyson, Browning, and Byron evolved to compete with the mass-market appetite for pulp novels. Writing sonnets, epic poems, pastorals, and ballads paved the way for longer stories in poem form. Students who are immersed in those classics during English class may be intrigued to learn that those older works are the ancestors of the fierce, edgy novels in verse being written today.
After Karen Hesse's groundbreaking verse novel about the Oklahoma dust bowl and the Great Depression, Out of the Dust, won the Newbery Medal in 1998, verse novels really took off. In the last twenty years, this contemporary genre has become very popular, combining the power of narrative with the rich, evocative language of verse blending story and poetry in beautiful ways. Although the narrative structure of a verse novel is similar to a longer prose novel, the story is often presented in a series of short sections, often with changing perspectives. They are often told through multiple narrators in a colloquial, informal register and first person voice. Add to that the generous white space beside columns of short text, and you can see the appeal of the verse novel for reluctant readers, too. Of course, some verse novels contain ordinary verse and very little plot, but the best free verse novels are well-crafted, powerful reading experiences with a strong sense of voice that are engaging and accessible to young readers.
There are so many reasons that finding and sharing novels in verse is worthwhile for young people. In blending a contemporary story with poetic language, verse novels are a bridge across two genres—fiction and poetry—making both genres more accessible for young readers. There are other benefits, as well, including:
- Free verse poetry helps students focus on the arrangement of words on the page and on the description and emotion that those words can provide. Poet and teacher Georgia Heard notes, "How the words are grouped on the page is important. … It's an issue of sound and silence."
- The brevity and short lines of poetry appear manageable and not so intimidating to students learning English or developing reading fluency. Poetry, in particular, can span the grades because of its unique form and use of language and its resistance to being pigeonholed.
- Verse novels can serve as an introduction to or reinforcement of content and information across the curriculum, especially in history.
- Reading aloud or dramatizing verse novels can provide practice for pronunciation and expression and help students develop their oral fluency and confidence.
So, where do we find these gems? They're not usually shelved in the 811 poetry section, since they're often found in fiction (by author's last name). But, we can gather them for display, highlight poets who have created multiple verse novels (like Margarita Engle, Sonya Sones, Kwame Alexander, Steven Herrick, Ellen Hopkins, and Jeannine Atkins, for example), and provide lists or bookmarks for suggested reading. The Poetry Committee of the National Council of Teachers of English issues a regular list of "Notable Verse Novels." The 2019 list is available here: http://www2.ncte.org/blog/2018/12/2019-notable-poetry-books/. Or look for dozens of reviews of novels in verse at the blog, The Verse Novel Review (http://versenovelreview.blogspot.com). Verse novels can also be easily adapted for readers theater performance, with excerpts being shared by multiple voices reading different parts or characters—an instant, ready-made script.
There are even examples of novels in verse for younger children aged nine or ten years and up, such as Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart by Vera Williams or Minn and Jake and Minn and Jake's Almost Terrible Summer by Janet Wong. The Newbery Award–winning novelist Sharon Creech has also authored several interesting novels in verse, including Love that Dog, Hate that Cat and Heartbeat. Other poets who have created novels in verse well suited to the intermediate grades include Andrea Cheng, Helen Frost, Nikki Grimes, Eileen Spinelli, and Tracie Vaughn Zimmer.
Add to this growing body of poetry the emergence of more diverse perspectives in the creation of verse novels with many new poets to know and a whole new generation of diverse verse novelists. In the last several years, we have seen an explosion in the publication of novels in verse, particularly written by poets offering rich, diverse experiences. They've received Newbery recognition (e.g., The Surrender Tree), as well as Printz, Schneider, Batchelder, Coretta Scott King, and Pura Belpré distinctions. Seeking out poets that reflect parallel cultures with many diverse viewpoints enables us to show young readers both the similarities and the differences that make the human landscape so dynamic and interesting. These poets speak of their lives, of their color, of their humanity, of their humor. Some write in dialect, some use rhyme, some focus on racial pride, some share emotional universals; readers of all cultural backgrounds deserve to know their names and read their works. To begin, look for Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson, Planet Middle School by Nikki Grimes, A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks by Alice Faye Duncan, They Call Me Guero by David Bowles, and Redwood and Ponytail by K. A. Holt, among many others.
Poets are using the language, experiences, and images of their cultures in ways that are fresh and powerful. The special succinctness of poetry is also an appealing introduction into culture for students. Sometimes powerful points about prejudice, identity, and cultural conflict can be made in a very few words. In addition, we can also rediscover our human universality in the words and feelings of poems that cross cultural boundaries. If you haven't picked up poetry in a while, it's time to revisit this diverse and engaging genre. Checking out novels in verse is a great place to start!