Novels in Verse! The Why, Which and How
By Kasey Short
Novels in verse have always been a classroom favorite for me and my students. Surprised?
Initially many middle school readers think a book written entirely in poetry will be difficult or boring or both. But I am able to quickly counter that misconception by reading the first poem or two out loud and then (during a quick book talk) showing them how few words are on each page.
My students and I appreciate that novels in verse offer opportunities for quicker reads, almost instantly draw the reader into the heart of the characters, invoke emotional responses, have vivid imagery, dig deeply into complex issues, and tell inspiring stories.
I recommend novels in verse throughout the year and then ask all students to choose a novel in verse for their independent reading during our spring poetry unit. During these weeks, I read a poem each day with the students, and most often I select a poem from a novel in verse to expose them to many different options for their independent reading.
Verse novels are great read-alouds
During the year I also read aloud one novel in verse cover to cover. I spend around five minutes of class each day reading from the book, and they look forward to it.
Novels in verse are my favorite type of book to read aloud because the nature of poetry allows me to give it as much or as little time as I have within a class period with many natural stopping points to choose from.
This year I read aloud Rez Dogs by Joseph Bruchac to my English classes. Joseph Bruchac is visiting my school in the spring, and sharing this book with them has gotten students very excited about this visit.
Suggested questions for novels in verse
✻ Why do you think the author choose to write this story in verse?
✻ How would writing this story in a different format – prose or graphic novel – change the story?
✻ While reading, mark poems that stand out to you. Choose one to share with the class.
✻ Which was your favorite poem from the book? Why?
✻ Choose a time in the story where you wish there were additional details. Write a poem of your own that provides those details.
✻ Choose a poem that evokes strong emotions and explain how it made you feel. Use specific lines from the poem in your explanation.
✻ After reading the novel in verse, what do you still wonder?
✻ Would you want to be friends with the main character in the book? Explain why or why not.
✻ Choose a poem that captures the essence of the main character’s personality. Use specific lines from the poem to explain why.
✻ What does the author teach you about humanity through the novel? Give specific examples from the text to support your answer.
Writing poetry with novels in verse
My Edutopia article, Every Student Can Be a Poet, provides more specific details about writing some of the types of poems listed here:
✻ Create a found poem using the words in the novel that encompass the theme of the novel.
✻ Write a “Word-Scramble” poem using different words within a few poems in the book.
✻ Choose a specific emotion that the character felt and write your own to poem that highlights that emotion.
✻ Make a copy of one or two poems from the book and then create a “Black Out” poem from the words in the poem.
✻ Write a “My Life in __ Words” poem from the point of view of one of the characters in the book.
✻ Use the character’s age to determine how many words your poem should have.
✻ Write a “My Worst Poem” from the perspective of a character in the book.
Middle Grade/YA Novel in Verse Suggestions
Alone by Megan E. Freeman. This story of survival captivates the reader through the experiences of a 12-year-old girl who wakes up to find herself completely alone in her town without electricity or a way to communicate with the outside world. She struggles to meet her basic needs, befriends a dog, worries about the fate of her family, and tries to figure out how to live without any contact with other humans.
Starfish by Lisa Fipps. This story shows the reader the raw feelings of an adolescent girl who is bullied and humiliated by her peers and her family because of her weight, as she learns how to stand up for herself and believe in her own self-worth.
Rez Dogs by Joseph Bruchac. This timely story shows the reader the experience of a Wabanaki girl who is staying with her grandparents on their native reservation during the Covid-19 pandemic. The poetry takes the reader through her experiences making friends with a local dog, missing her parents, struggling to attend school remotely, and gaining valuable experiences spending time with her grandparents.
Rhyme Schemer by K.A. Holt. This funny and authentic story shows the experience of a 7th grade bully who writes found poetry and showcases the power of words. It is a great book for all adolescents to read and addresses what it is to bully others, be bullied, and be a bystander. It also includes engaging found poetry throughout the book.
Rebound, Crossover and Booked by Kwame Alexander. Each of these books in the Crossover Series draws readers in with current, engaging stories about sports, family, friendship, and adolescent experiences. The books can be read independently, but most students seek out all three books after reading one of them.
Red, White and Whole by Rajani LaRocca. These heartfelt poems tell the story of an Indian American girl who feels pulled between wanting to be like the other students at her school and respecting her family. Then her life becomes even more complex when she finds out her mother has leukemia.
Your Heart, My Sky: Love in a Time of Hunger by Margarita Engle. These deeply moving poems tell the story of two young people and a dog living in Cuba in the early 1990’s during a time of hunger and humanitarian crisis. The poems illustrate their love, bravery, hope, fear, and the impact of hunger.
Unsettled by Reem Faruqi. This coming of age story brings the reader into the heart and mind of a young girl who moves from Pakistan to Georgia. The book is engaging and expores complex family dynamics, immigration, belonging, identity, assimilation, and bullying.
Before the Ever After by Jacqueline Woodson. This book uses poetry to tell the story of a young boy whose father was once a successful pro football player and is now dealing with severe side effects of concussions such as memory loss and personality changes.
The Canyon’s Edge by Dusti Bowling. This powerful novel tells the story of a young girl who is dealing with loss after her mother was murdered and then finds herself alone and without any supplies in the desert. This is a story of physical and emotional survival and will captivate readers as they follow her journey of real and imagined nightmares.
The Lost Language by Claudia Mills. This heartfelt story shows the perspective of a 6th grader who is struggling to maintain boundaries with her best friend, trying to develop her own identity, and then is suddenly confronted with the difficult truth that her mother attempted suicide.
Moo: A Novel by Sharon Creech. This book tells the humorous story of a girl who moves from the city to a rural community in Maine where her parents volunteer her to work on an eccentric farm nearby. Through this experience she befriends an obstinate cow and learns about friendship and kindness.
Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough. This story is based on the experiences of Artemisia Gentileschi, a female artist in the early 1600’s, and weaves in the biblical stories of Judith and Susanna. The book is filled with raw emotions and shows Artemisia’s struggles and trauma as she works to become a painter and find her voice in a society built to deny her those opportunities.
Land of the Cranes by Aida Salazar. The story follows the experiences of a young Latinx girl whose father is deported by ICE and then she is sent to a detention center with her mother who is pregnant. She uses poetry to help her cope and connect with others in the detention center.
Death Coming Up the Hill by Chris Crowe. This profound historical fiction novel is written entirely in Haiku poems. It tells the story of a teenager in 1968 who is navigating his pro-war father and anti-war mother as he experiences the tense political climate, falls in love, and is forced to make difficult choices.
Everywhere Blue by Joanne Rossmassler Fritz. This novel tells the story of a 12-year-old girl whose brother has disappeared from college and the devastating impact his disappearance has on her and her family. The book skillfully addresses the climate crisis, mental health, friendship, and a family in crisis.
The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta. This insightful coming-of-age story shows how Michael finds belonging at the Drag Society after navigating his identity as a mixed-race, gay teen growing up in London. This young adult book sends readers messages of self-love, empowerment, and the value of being true to yourself.
Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo. This book alternates between the perspective of two girls who lose their dad in a plane crash and then discover they are sisters. Their lives very different with one growing up in Puerto Rico and the other in New York City, but they come together to grieve, navigate family secrets, and find connections.
October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard by Leslea Newman. This deeply moving story was written in remembrance of Matthew Shepard, a gay teen who was murdered in 1998. The poems are written from many different perspectives including objects, animals, and family members and show insight into this horrific tragedy.
Love That Dog: A Novel and Hate That Cat: A Novel by Sharon Creech. These books are a perfect introduction to novels in verse. They engage readers with humor, animals, and relatable stories about a middle school boy who is navigating school and finding out how to express himself through poetry.
Also see Katie Caprino’s article:
A Trio of New YA Books Written in Verse Form
Kasey Short (@shortisweet3) loves to share ideas from her classroom and writes frequently for MiddleWeb. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and earned a bachelor of arts in middle school education with a concentration in English and history. She went on to earn a master’s in curriculum and instruction from Winthrop University. She is currently an eighth grade ELA teacher and English Department chair at Charlotte (NC) Country Day School.