Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Novels in Verse: my top ten + two more to read (ages 9-12)

Novels in verse have particular power speaking to kids. Some really like the way that there are fewer words on the page. It can make reading them feel less overwhelming. Others like how much they can "read between the lines", letting their imaginations fill in the gaps. Others love the way these poets play with language.

Today, I'd like to share my personal top ten favorites (in alphabetical order). I adore sharing these with students. But know that there are many others that my kids love. At the end, I'll share two books on my "to be read" (TBR) pile.
Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson
I have loved talking with my students about this book, how they can relate to Jackie's experiences, how they can see themselves in the book, how they can feel some of her own journey even if their experiences are different. Winner of the 2015 Coretta Scott King Award, the 2014 National Book Award, and the 2015 Newbery Honor.
The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander
You can read this incredible novel as a basketball story, as a family drama, or as a novel written with a modern ear using rhythms and rhymes infused with music and motion. It speaks to kids in all sorts of different ways. Winner of the 2015 Newbery Award, and the 2015 Coretta Scott King Honor.
Heartbeat, by Sharon Creech
In flowing free verse, Annie describes her love of running, the changes in her best friend Max, the birth of her baby brother and her grandfather's growing confusion and dementia. Annie's world feels as if it's unraveling with all this change. As she runs for the pure pleasure of running, thoughts and questions race through her mind.
Love That Dog, by Sharon Creech
Oh, how I love this book. We start with Jack, who's dreading writing his own poems, forced to keep a poetry journal for his teacher. But as we get to know Jack and as he gets to know different poems, we start to see a fuller picture of a boy, his dog and his feelings. Check out this terrific reader's theater through TeachingBooks, starring Sharon Creech, Walter Dead Myers, Avi and Sarah Weeks.
The Red Pencil, by Andrea Davis Pinkney
I was fascinated when I asked Andrea Davis Pinkney about why she chose to write this story in verse. She explained how she wanted to tell a story for elementary students about the Sudanese conflict, and she felt that a novel in verse would allow them more space. She was able to keep some of the more difficult scenes quite spare, so that students could infer the tragedies rather than be faced with the brutalities that her character experienced. My students continue recommending this to each other, talking about what a powerful story it is.
Rhyme Schemer, by K.A. Holt
Kids are attracted to Kevin's attitude and sass, but it's his journey that stays with them. Kevin is bullied by his older brother at home, but he then turns to bullying classmates at school. By taking pages torn from library books, he makes funny but oh-so-cruel found poems and tapes them up at school. When another student discovers Kevin's journal, he turns the tables and Kevin must find a way to make peace with his victim-turned-aggressor. This is a great choice for 5th and 6th graders who might have liked Love That Dog when they were younger.
Serafina's Promise, by Ann E. Burg
Our students were immediately drawn to Serafina and could connect with her situation, even though it was so different from their own. Serafina dreams of becoming a doctor, but she knows that she must go to school to reach her dream. This is no easy feat in modern rural Haiti. How can she do this when her mother needs her help at home, especially with a new baby on the way? Ann E. Burg writes in free verse poetry, conveying Serafina's struggles in sparse, effective language.
The Way a Door Closes, by Hope Anita Smith
This slim book reads almost like a short play in three acts. In the first 12 poems, CJ describes how he feels warm and content as part of his close-knit family. But then, everything changes as his father loses his job and then abruptly leaves home. In the 13th poem, when his dad leaves, CJ describes how it felt: "The door closed with a / click. / I felt all the air leave the room / and we were vacuum-sealed inside. / - I can tell a lot by / the way a door closes." This is a powerful book that takes readers on CJ's roller-coaster emotional journey.
Words With Wings, by Nikki Grimes
As a friend of mine wrote, this is a "peek into the mind of a daydreamer" and a wonderful teacher who encourages her in just the right way. Her teacher recognizes that Gabby is coping with her parents separation, and that daydreams are a way she escapes. He helps channel her imagination, encouraging her to let her daydreams come to life in her writing. This is a wonderful, uplifting story of a young girl finding her own voice, staying true to herself.
Zorgamazoo, by Robert Paul Weston
I loved the inventive poetry, the rhythm and rhyme, the creative fantasy. Best way to it: Dr. Seuss meets Lemony Snicket, with a healthy dose of Roald Dahl throughout. The story is fantasy, macabre, silly, and truly great fun to read aloud. The illustrations and book design add a tremendous amount to the story. Absolutely terrific wordplay, combined with a plot that keeps kids racing along with it.

My own "to be read" pile: 2 new novels in verse:

Blue Birds, by Caroline Starr Rose
Historical fiction, showing the friendship between a Native American girl and an English girl who's traveled with her parents in 1587 to Virginia. From the publisher's description: "Amid the strife, Alis meets and befriends Kimi, a Roanoke girl about her age. Though the two don’t even speak the same language, these girls form a special bond as close as sisters, willing to risk everything for the other. Finally, Alis must make an impossible choice when her family resolves to leave the island and bloodshed behind."
Red Butterfly, by A.L. Sonnichsen
Friends are including this in their favorites of 2015: a beautiful story, beautifully told. From the publisher description: "Kara never met her birth mother. Abandoned as an infant, she was taken in by an elderly American woman living in China. Now eleven, Kara spends most of her time in their apartment, wondering why she and Mama cannot leave the city of Tianjin and go live with Daddy in Montana. Mama tells Kara to be content with what she has … but what if Kara secretly wants more?"

I just love it when a character's thoughts and moods meld with mine in my mind, growing and becoming part of me. Novels in verse - usually written in free form poetry - have a particular way of doing this, where the narrator's voice almost flows into me.

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©2015 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books


  1. I adore Love That Dog! Just read and loved The Crossover, too. I'm going to have to check out some of the others here!

  2. Great choices. Can I add Out of the Dust?

    1. Oh yes, a terrific choice. I've had trouble getting kids to read this -- I need to try again. I have a group of kids who especially like stories that tug at their heart strings and I think this might appeal to them.

  3. Great list!! I need to read a few of those! I also liked Inside Out and Back Again

    1. Yes! I just read Thanhha Lai's newest book and it is fantastic.

  4. I agree with Angie, Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai is a great addition to this already wonderful list :)

    1. Yes, my students definitely love Inside Out & Back Again. Thanks for the suggestion.

  5. Thanks for the list! I would like to add three of my students' favorites. Yellow Star by Jennifer Roy, Hidden, Salt and Diamond Willow by Helen Frost.

    1. Terrific suggestions! I especially loved Hidden. Do you share this with 5th graders, or 6th & 7th graders?