In recent years, novels in verse for young readers have garnered wide acclaim. Notable examples include Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson and The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo—which won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in, respectively, 2014 and 2018—and Kwame Alexander’s 2015 Newbery Medal recipient, The Crossover.
The coming months bring numerous works that use the hybrid form to tell their stories (a select list of titles starts on p. 32). PW spoke with authors and editors about how their forthcoming novels in verse convey intense emotion, express issues around identity and difference, and reframe forgotten or submerged histories through the language of poetry.
Song of myself
Poetry allowed Robin Gow, author of a debut novel in verse A Million Quiet Revolutions (FSG, Mar., ages 14 and up), to put into words a story about identity and finding one’s place in history. “I was trying to write a story for myself as a young person who didn’t really have the language to express being a queer person and a trans person,” says Gow, whose previous works include the chapbook Honeysuckle and the poetry collection Our Lady of Perpetual Degeneracy. “Writing through verse helped me explore those concepts in a way that felt more authentic to my own experiences. It helped me bring alive a love story between two transgender boys in high school and also navigate really tough topics.”
Indeed, verse has proven capacious enough to grapple with global problems such as climate change. Ellen Hagan says her latest verse novel, Don’t Call Me a Hurricane (Bloomsbury, July, ages 13 and up), “arrived in poems” for her. In telling the story of a young environmental activist, Hagan found that verse gave her the language and form necessary to address far-reaching issues surrounding climate injustice. “This idea that I was holding this reckless, traumatic, earth-shaking environmental impact in words—it felt like I could hold that tension in poems,” she says. “Each line and line break can create that emotional tension on the page.”
Other writers have discovered verse to be the missing piece that allowed them to tell personal stories. In the Beautiful Country (Quill Tree, June, ages 8–12), Jane Kuo’s debut, is a loosely autobiographical story of a girl’s first year in the United States after immigrating from Taiwan. Kuo initially struggled to tell the story in prose. “I’m covering big events like immigrating, at one point being separated from my father, trying to understand the whole idea of being separate from everything that I’ve ever known and coming into America,” she says. “Really big themes about feeling different, about saying goodbye—how do you process that?”
The answer turned out to be poetry. Kuo explains that verse helped her to bring larger ideas about the immigrant experience into focus for younger readers. “I found that the novel in verse really allows you to zero in and capture these moments, quite minuscule moments, and string them together,” she notes. “They become a wonderful way to tell a story and to take the reader along.”
Another book that draws on the author’s life is Diana Farid’s Wave (Cameron Kids, Mar., ages 10–14), illustrated by Kris Goto, about a Persian American girl growing up in Southern California who loves to surf.
Cameron Kids editorial director Amy Novesky, who edited Wave, emphasizes poetry’s visual storytelling power. “So many of the poems were written in a way that evokes imagery like the wings of a bird or an actual wave,” she says. “That, in addition to the artwork, allows the reader to move through the story.”
Novesky adds that verse’s association with lyrics and musicality further amplifies the book’s subject matter. “The story weaves in themes of songs and songwriting and ends with the narrator writing a song,” she says. “It just made sense—it’s so important that the story and the form match up.”
Caitlyn Dlouhy, v-p and publisher of her eponymous imprint at Atheneum, also sees a crucial link between form and function. Hazard (Atheneum/Dlouhy, May, ages 9–13), the first verse novel by Frances O’Roark Dowell (Dovey Coe), deals with themes of mental health, toxic masculinity, and the experience of being part of a military family.
Dlouhy, who also edited and published the recent bestseller Ain’t Burned All the Bright by Jason Reynolds and Jason Griffin, says that verse’s expansiveness on the page may give reluctant young readers more autonomy as they encounter difficult subject matter. “It’s in an odd way kind of comforting because you’re within a space that gives you room to take everything in instead of feeling like there’s more and more and more,” she adds. “You’re in more control as you’re reading it.”
Into the deep
Writing in verse, editors and authors say, helps reveal certain truths. Great or Nothing (Delacorte, Mar., ages 12 and up) is a Little Women retelling set in 1942, with each March sister’s point of view written by a different author. In this version Beth has already died; her sections are the only ones in verse, giving her an “otherworldly” voice befitting her character, says Wendy Loggia, v-p and senior executive editor at Delacorte. “Verse allowed Joy [McCullough, who writes Beth’s POV] to develop sides of Beth that we normally wouldn’t see—her passions, her desires, her flaws.”
R.M. Romero, who in The Ghosts of Rose Hill (Peachtree Teen, May, ages 14 and up) draws on Jewish and Eastern European folktales, believes verse’s emotional intensity makes it especially attractive to young readers. “Verse novels resonate so much with young people because they’re so passionate and poetry is a really great format for conveying passion,” she says; her debut novel, The Dollmaker of Kraków, was written in prose and for middle graders. “Poetry is all about love and anger and disappointment and joy—it’s this perfect snapshot of those powerful feelings.”
That piercing insight appeals to young people, says Monica Perez, editorial director at Versify, the imprint founded by Kwame Alexander that’s now at HarperCollins: the novel in verse, Perez explains, “lays bare the truth of issues or problems in our society in a very visual, impactful way.” Versify’s forthcoming verse novels include Kip Wilson’s The Most Dazzling Girl in Berlin (Mar., ages 12 and up), set amid the queer cabaret culture of the 1930s; PW’s review said, “It’s the era’s politics—and their connection to the present day—that give the Cabaret-tinged story its urgent momentum.” And Nothing Burns as Bright as You (Apr., ages 12 and up), by When You Were Everything author Ashley Woodfolk, explores the fervent connection between two teen girls.
Perez believes the verse novel format, once considered something of a rarity, is rapidly becoming established. “For a while the novel in verse had that shiny new appeal,” she says. “Now, we’re coming into a period when it’s going to be a staple and an accepted form of literature.”
Don’t Call Me a Hurricane author Hagan sees the verse novel’s growing resonance with young readers as pointing to something fundamental about poetry itself. “It’s a place for young people to be vulnerable and tender,” she says. “There’s a generosity and this alive feeling.” A teacher as well as a poet, Hagan recalls a classroom experience: “I was teaching onomatopoeia to students and they just started making the sounds. It felt like this popcorn moment. Poems are alive on the page.”
Matthew Broaddus is a poet and associate poetry editor at Okay Donkey Press.
Read more from our Children's Poetry 2022 feature:
Children's and YA Verse Novels 2022
Here, a selection of the many new and forthcoming YA and middle grade works in verse.