A Trio of New YA Books Written in Verse Form

By Kathryn Caprino

The other day I took my little boy to the local library for the summer reading kick-off event. There were several stations: a bookmark-making station, a take-a-book station, and a bubble station. Joy!

All of these events made me excited to dig into the book pile that’s been accumulating in my home during the past school year. In this post, I’m going to share several new middle grades texts-in-verse that I’ve really enjoyed.

If you agree, I hope you can add them to your classroom library this fall and perhaps use one or more of them to complement your lesson plans in the coming year.

Amanda Gorman’s The Hill We Climb 

Those who watched the inauguration this past January will be familiar with Amanda Gorman. Her poem “The Hill We Climb” was published in a book by the same name. In the piece Gorman explores what it means to have a perfect union.

She writes, And yes, we are far from polished, / far from pristine. / But this doesn’t mean we’re striving to / form a union that is perfect. / We are striving to force our union with / purpose, ….

In a strong poetic voice, Gorman urges the readers to consider all points of American history and to improve: But while democracy can be periodically / delayed, / It can never be permanently defeated. The reader is encouraged to have a sense of hopefulness, to find light within a never-ending shade. For, as Gorman writes beautifully, we live in A nation that isn’t broken, but simply / unfinished.

Gorman’s The Hill We Climb can fit into many areas of the middle grades curriculum. Teachers can, of course, incorporate excerpts or the piece in its entirety to introduce students to poetic language and encourage students to create their own extended metaphor for a particular moment in history and to reflect on this in a poem.

Teachers might also ask their students to compare and contrast the speaker in Gorman’s poem to the ideas of the Founding Fathers. Asking students to respond to the inquiry question “What does it mean to have a perfect union?” as they consider Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb” and other contemporary and historical primary and secondary documents could prove fruitful.

Lois Lowry’s On the Horizon

When I was growing up, my neighbor had been at Pearl Harbor when the bombs were dropped, so I was especially interested to read Lowry’s latest memoir-in-verse. In her collection of poems, the author of The Giver and Number the Stars introduces the reader to various people and objects that were impacted by the bombing of Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima.

There are some indications of the innocence that existed at dawn in Hawaii, as seen when Lowry pens Were there rainbows that morning? / I suppose there must have been: / bright colors, as the planes came in in the poem “Rainbows.” Haunting moments are also portrayed, as in the poem “Silas Wainwright,” which reveals that a young man’s Christmas cards arrive after his death: Back home, in his / small New York town, / friends got Christmas cards / that year from Silas.

Lowry balances tragedy with hope in humanity, as her poems range from “Pearl Harbor” in which she writes, Time will not age them. They are boys still … to “Girl on a Bike” in which the speaker (the poet) rides her bike in Japan. The Japanese kids in the schoolyard look at her with her blond hair and she looks at them. She and Koichi Seii (who moved to USA and became known as Allen) became friends.

The Author’s Note is particularly poignant. Lowry writes:

It has taken many years for me to put these things together, to try to find some meaning in the ways lives intersect – or how they fail to. I guess the important thing is also the simplest: to acknowledge our connectedness on this earth; to bow our heads when we see a scorched tricycle or a child’s message to his lost grandpa, and to honor the past by making silent promises to our fellow humans that we will work for a better and more peaceful future. (p. 71)

That people’s shared humanity can somehow move beyond the past comes through in this gorgeously beautiful text. Teachers can certainly use this book within middle grades units on war, human connectedness, and unlikely friendships.

It also gives voices to particular individuals who experienced the war in myriad ways – voices that are often missing from nonfiction historical texts. On the Horizon can also serve as a mentor text for students who want to write from multiple perspectives about a particular historical moment.

Margarita Engle’s Your Heart, My Sky

I have always enjoyed Engle’s work (I’ve blogged about her The Wild Book), and I was so fortunate to hear her speak at a conference a few years ago. It goes without saying that I was excited to see that she had a new historical fiction-in-verse out: Your Heart, My Sky.

Set in Cuba in the early nineties just as the Pan American Games are about to begin, the series of narrative poems portray the love story of two young people, Liana and Amado, who are brought together by a singing dog Paz and their absolutely devastating hunger.

Many poems touch upon the picture the government paints of Cuba versus the harsh realities its people were experiencing. In “Beachcomers,” Engle writes Liana’s lines: … if any tourists stay, / they’ll probably be fed by the government / on a private beach, in some air-conditioned / hotel restaurant / that hasn’t been invented yet.

Resisting their government’s strict rules, Liana and Amado begin to grow crops of their own in secret. As the time for Amado’s military requirement approaches, he has to make a decision: to stay on the island of Cuba and remain with Liana or to risk it all on a raft to America.

What he decides is the ultimate statement on letting your heart make the final decision. In one of the last poems “Hope Is the Only Cure for Hunger,” Amado claims, We’ll take our chances on hunger’s shore. / We won’t let the ocean / separate us.

Told from three points of views, Your Heart, My Sky provides an introduction to a geopolitical moment in time: Cuba’s hosting of the 1991 Pan American Games. Sharing the insight of two humans and the singing dog, this novel-in-verse provides a personal story that will complement studies of historical moments.

This book provides a segue into discussing what is portrayed of a particular land on media outlets and what are the true experiences of those who live there. Amado suggests as much in “Long Before the Games Begin”: How odd it is that throwing, catching, / or kicking a ball is enough to make people feel like / we’re capable of understanding one another’s / distance. The backdrop of the sports event can be further explored in the middle grades classroom, especially after we will have just finished an Olympics come fall.

Three Dimensions of Poetry

Although these three books are in verse, they each tell their story in a different way. Gorman’s text is a poem written to America. Lowry’s text is a memoir. And Engle’s text is a piece of historical fiction. Providing exposure to the myriad suffering humans have had to endure, each of these texts reveal a particular hope and the commitment of the human spirit to overcome challenges however insurmountable they may seem.

References

Engle, M. (2021). Your heart, my sky. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Gorman, A. (2021). The hill we climb. New York: Viking.

Lowry, L. (2020). On the horizon: World War II reflections. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.


Katie Caprino is an Assistant Professor of PK-12 New Literacies at Elizabethtown College. She taught middle and high school English in Virginia and North Carolina. She holds a BA from the University of Virginia, a MA from the College of William and Mary, a MA from Old Dominion University, and a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Katie researches and presents on children’s, middle grades, and young adult literature; the teaching of writing; and incorporating technology into the literacy classroom. You can follow her on Twitter at @KCapLiteracy and visit her book blog at katiereviewsbooks.wordpress.com.

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