Verse novels have been around for a number of years now and while they may never flood the market, their appeal is growing and becoming more and more a part of mainstream young adult literature. Desna Wallace introduces us to some of the best.
A verse novel isn't just a bunch of poems thrown together with a common theme - it's a complete narrative. Language and emotion are strong elements in a verse novel and just as important as the characters themselves. At their core, narratives tend to deal with life-changing events and certainly do not shy away from gritty subjects. Rape, death, murder, racism, refugees, child slavery and prostitution, drug addiction, even being on death row, are just some of the topics I have enjoyed reading in verse. Even verse novels for younger readers at primary school deal with hard subjects like death and divorce. There are humorous books around too but they are in the minority.
It is the up-close and personal aspect of a teen life and their struggles which is the appeal to YA readers. The voices in the novels are voices they can relate to, maybe even people they know, maybe, even themselves. The emotional impact is the strength of most verse novels.
One of the things that particularly appeals to me is the surrounding white space on a page. It helps set up the poem, it allows space for impact, and a poem can even dance on the page as word placement spills over, up and down the page. For me, this is where a single poem or line on a page can stop me in my tracks and the white space allows me as the reader, to pause and connect with the narrator of the poem. There is a beauty in this form. Authors using this form know how important the last line of a poem can impact the reader. It can and often does pack a punch so hard that as readers we stop, unable for a moment to go on, while we take in what we have just read. I confess, that on reading many of these verse novels I have been left in tears but I am so grateful for the chance to meet to many wonderful characters and to get to know their stories I such a powerful format.
I like the way Gabriela Pereira defines verse novels. She says verse novels are not watered down versions of poetry and prose.
'The verse novel must, in fact, do double-duty, having all the elements of both genres. This means a verse novel must have the music and imagery that we find in poetry and at the same time character development and story structure of a novel. Verse novelists must write good poetry and a good story, and they must combine the two seamlessly in order for the verse novel to work.'
Here are some of the best verse novels for children and young adults.
Mary’s Monster: Love, Madness and How Mary Shelley created Frankenstien, by Lita Judge
Wow! Based on truth, this is the story of young Mary Shelley and her world, with Percy Bysshe Shelley and other poets of the time. It is a beautifully illustrated book with words and pictures that are dark and haunting. Mary was young and motherless herself when she gave birth to her baby who sadly did not live very long. One of the shortest poems in this novel has so much impact, and proves the age-old theory that less is more:
'I AM SEVENTEEN
I am daughter to a ghost
and mother to bones.'
The poems flow, connected by language which is simply beautiful and where every word counts. There is no room for waffle, just a powerful story of Mary and her arduous journey from young teen into womanhood and marriage to one of the major English Romantic Poets.
Certainly this book deals with everything: misogyny, betrayal, poverty, travel, poets, pregnancy, writing, and yes, mental illness. However, Mary is strong and it is her belief in herself, despite the constant knocks in life, that keeps her going. Her strength and determination was behind her creation of one of the most famous science fiction novels of all time. In fact, it is believed to be the first science fiction novel ever. Frankenstein and his monster remains a classic to this very day. As I read Mary’s Monster I felt so many emotions. Her life was sad, tragic, lonely but also insightful and hopeful.
A beautiful, powerful book which I treasure.
There is an amazing trailer on Lita Judge’s website if you want to take a look.
Long Way Down, by Jason Reynolds, illustrated by Chris Priestley
Long Way Down knocked me sideways. William Holloman’s brother has just been murdered. He wishes he had laughed more at his brother’s dumb jokes because now he will ever get the chance again. After his brother’s death Will knows one thing for sure. He must follow the rules:
1. Don’t cry
2. Don’t snitch
3. Get revenge
William’s story takes place as he travels down an elevator. The people in the story are the ones he meets on his way down. This ride will change his life forever, depending on the choices he makes.
Tragedy seeps through every page but we keep reading because we have to know what happens next. The language is real and gritty. It is powerful, beautiful and tragic. It is raw, dark and very honest. Poverty, gangs, hardship, anger and revenge. William’s world is scary but what makes it even worse, is that this world exists for so many people. It is a hard read, but incredibly powerful with real insight into a world most of us will never know.
One, by Sarah Crossan
Grace and Pippi are conjoined twins who live their lives constantly connected to each other. They know no other way of life. They have only ever been home-schooled, protected from the outside world, sheltered from staring eyes. Now with things changing, they have to face the public eye, attend public school and learn to deal with people’s reactions to them.
Their transition to public life is unique but the story is well written. We are given enough information to understand the girls' situation but it is achieved with sensitivity. The girl’s mother is trying to hold it all together while the father struggles with alcohol. Their world is crumbling but they are also beginning to taste the joys and trappings of teenage life. We see both points of view as each teen shares her poems and thoughts. Decisions are to be made which will have a huge impact on their lives. This is written realistically and once again, with sensitivity.
The Poet X, by Elizabeth Acevedo
Xiomara lives in Harlem where often it is easier to use her fists for talking. She longs to be understood and to understand the world around her. She has a twin brother and they are tight, always looking out for each other. Their Mami is incredibly strict, demanding and hugely religious and X, as she now calls herself, struggles with the whole concept of church, God and Holy Communion. Twin, as she calls her brother, is bright and seems to do everything right, while X continually ends up in some sort of trouble.
X begins a relationship with a boy from school and the consequences, lies and secrets have a huge impact on her and those around her.
I love how X discovers poetry and then finds her voice and the strength to stand up and be heard. Her poetry is a powerful tool for self-discovery.
Other YA novels in verse I highly recommend
Brown girl dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson
Moonrise, by Sarah Crossan
Crank, by Ellen Hopkins
Bronx Masquerade, by Nikki Grimes
Sold, by Patricia McCormick
Saving Red, by Sonya Sones
Shout, by Laurie Halse Anderson
For younger readers
Roses are Blue, by Sally Murphy
This is lovely for younger readers and deals with real issues gently way but still with impact. Amber Rose has a lovely happy family – before the accident that is. Since the accident, things have changed. Amber’s mother now sits in a wheelchair unable to walk, talk, feed or toilet herself.
Amber has had to move from her much-loved home with the garden her mother tended to so happily. Now in a new home, and a new school Amber is struggling to cope. She wants her old mother back! She wants things back the way they used to be. Amber’s story is one of growth and acceptance.
'And I am left sitting at my desk
with no heart,
Love that dog, by Sharon Creech
This is the classic, the one that started my love affair with novels in verse. Funny, sad, but real.
Jack hates poetry, reckons it is something only girls do. His teacher however, has other ideas and Jack has to write. It is not long before he realises just how wonderful poetry can be and he is creating his own poems. I love it.
Desna Wallace is a school librarian, writer, reviewer and blogger. Her TBR pile of books is taller than she is. (Not hard to do). Desna lives in Christchurch with her two cats; one has a nasty temper and the other could do with a little more exercise.