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Find more Classroom Connections: Diverse Verse
Written in verse, these novels, memoirs, and biographies offer a wide range of cultural perspectives and an accessible literary form that appeals to strong and reluctant readers alike.
With roots in ancient epic poetry, the verse novel (or novel in verse) continues to grow in popularity, particularly with tween and teen readers. A narrative unfolds poem by poem, frequently with multiple points of view, plenty of dialogue, and in colloquial language. The best verse novels are built on poems that are often striking, stand-alone works of art. The form offers the generous white space, short lines, and conversational tone that can be very helpful for young readers who are still developing their comprehension expertise, and it can woo many young people both to poetry and to reading in general.
In addition, recent years have seen the emergence of more diverse perspectives in the creation of verse novels, with many new poets to know. In a 2014 New York Times essay, “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?,” Walter Dean Myers, author of several novels in verse, talked about his own development as a reader and a writer. He described the turning point for him: “Then I read a story by James Baldwin: ‘Sonny’s Blues.’ I didn’t love the story, but I was lifted by it, for it took place in Harlem, and it was a story concerned with black people like those I knew. By humanizing the people who were like me, Baldwin’s story also humanized me. The story gave me a permission that I didn’t know I needed, the permission to write about my own landscape, my own map.”
This “permission” has ushered in a whole new generation of diverse writers who have produced verse novels, memoirs, and biographies. In the last five years, we have seen an explosion in the publication of works in verse, particularly written by poets offering diverse experiences, and those titles have received numerous awards.
Seeking out poets who offer many diverse viewpoints enables us to show young readers both the similarities and the differences that make the human landscape so dynamic and interesting. These poets are using the language, experiences, and images of their cultures in ways that are fresh and powerful. The special succinctness of poetry is also an appealing introduction into culture for students. Sometimes powerful points about prejudice, identity, and cultural conflict can be made in a very few words. In addition, we can also rediscover our human universality in poems’ words and feelings, which cross cultural boundaries.
Following is a list of novels, biographies, and memoirs in verse, published within the last five years, that reflect diverse experiences, cultures, and characters. These poets speak of their lives, of their color, of their humanity, of their humor. Some write in dialect; some use rhyme; some focus on racial pride; some share emotional universals. Readers of all cultural backgrounds deserve to know their names and read their works.
Brown Girl Dreaming. By Jacqueline Woodson. 2014. 336p. Penguin/Nancy Paulsen, $16.99 (9780399252518); e-book, $10.99 (9780698195707). 811. Gr. 5–8.
Woodson’s poetic memoir reflects her dual upbringing in her extended family in South Carolina and in New York City, growing up African American in the 1960s and ’70s, experiencing difficulty with reading but a passion for words, stories, and writing.
Caminar. By Skila Brown. 2014. 208p. Candlewick, $15.99 (9780763665166). Gr. 5–8. Also available in an audio edition.
A young boy in a rural village in Guatemala in 1981 is caught between the violence of guerrilla soldiers and local rebels as he tries to defend his family. Brown employs a variety of formats and styles in this novel, which exposes the horrors of war.
The Crossover. By Kwame Alexander. 2014. 240p. Houghton, $16.99 (9780544107717); e-book, $16.99 (9780544289598). Gr. 6–12. Also available in an audio edition.
Twin 12-year-old-boy protagonists who love playing basketball are growing up—and maybe apart—as they cope with middle school, girls, and the expectations of their parents.
Death Coming Up the Hill. By Chris Crowe. 2014. 208. Houghton, $16.99 (9780544302150); e-book, $16.99 (9780544301740). Gr. 9–12.
This novel composed of haiku stanzas follows a high-school senior, whose experiences of first love and parental conflict during the Vietnam War highlight issues of conflict, resistance, and racism.
Dust of Eden. By Mariko Nagai. 2014. 128p. Albert Whitman, $16.99 (9780807517390). Gr. 6–9.
Thirteen-year-old Mina Masako Tagawa and her Japanese American family have been sent from their home in Seattle to an internment camp in Idaho during WWII in this novel written in free verse.
Etched in Clay: The Life of Dave, Enslaved Potter and Poet. By Andrea Cheng. Illus. by the author. 2013. 160p. Lee & Low, $17.95 (9781600604515); e-book, $9.99 (9781600608933). 738.092. Gr. 5–8.
A novelized biography in verse, Cheng’s title is based on the true story of Dave, a slave in South Carolina in 1815, who not only learned to read and write but also carved original poems into the pots and jars he created.
Freakboy. By Kristin Elizabeth Clark. 2013. 448p. Farrar, $18.99 (9780374324728); e-book, $9.99 (9780374324735). Gr. 9–12.
Told in three voices, this novel in verse explores questions of gender identity through multiple characters: a high-school wrestler, his girlfriend, and a transgendered counselor.
How I Discovered Poetry. By Marilyn Nelson. Illus. by Hadley Hooper. 2014. 112p. Dial, $17.99 (9780803733046); e-book, $10.99 (9781101635391). 811. Gr. 7–12.
In 50 chronological sonnets, Nelson’s memoir explores her childhood and early teen years as she moves often with her military family, copes with Cold War fears, encounters racism firsthand, and discovers a passion for words, language, and poetry.
Inside Out and Back Again. By Thanhha Lai. 2011. 272p. Harper, $16.99 (9780061962783); paper, $7.99 (9780061962790); e-book, $7.99 (9780062069726). Gr. 4–8. Also available in an audio edition.
The 10-year-old heroine of this taut novel in verse, Hà, narrates the story of her experience as a refugee from Vietnam in the 1970s. Lai based this multi-award-winning title on incidents from her own life.
Jumped In. By Patrick Flores-Scott. 2013. 304p. Holt/Christy Ottaviano, $16.99 (9780805095142); Square Fish, paper, $9.99 (9781250053985); e-book, $9.99 (9781466837157).
Sam is a loner, abandoned by his mother, and disengaged from school and life until a caring teacher connects him with fellow student Luis in a competitive poetry slam. Luis’ poems are folded into the short, free-verse chapters.
Karma. By Cathy Ostlere. 2011. 528p. Razorbill, $18.99 (9781595143389); paper, $9.99 (9781595143846). Gr. 9–12.
While traveling to India with her Sikh father to return the ashes of her Hindu mother, who committed suicide, Maya is separated from her father and taken in by a stranger. This novel in verse makes the most of its form with lines of dialogue that bounce back and forth in columns across the page and singularly beautiful metaphors and similes that convey potent detail and emotion.
The Language Inside. By Holly Thompson. 2013. 528p. Delacorte, $17.99 (9780385739795); e-book, $9.99 (9780375898358). Gr. 7–10.
Emma, an American girl raised in Japan, moves in with her grandmother in Massachusetts after her mom becomes ill. She feels out-of-place and homesick until she volunteers at a long-term care center and connects with a patient there, as well as with Samnang, a Cambodian American teen who shares many of her sensibilities. Excerpts from poems by other writers enhance this fluid novel in verse.
The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist. By Margarita Engle. 2013. 192p. Harcourt, $16.99 (9780547807430); e-book, $16.99 (9780547807478). Gr. 7–12.
This historical novel in verse is based on the true story of Gertrudis ‘Tula’ Gómez de Avellaneda (Tula), who loves to write, resists an arranged marriage, falls in love with a freed slave, and courageously fights for justice with her writing. Link this with Engle’s The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano (2006) and The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette’s Journey to Cuba (2010).
October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard. By Lesléa Newman. 2012. 128p. Candlewick, $15.99 (9780763658076). Gr. 8–12. Also available in an audio edition.
Newman explores the events and perspectives surrounding the horrific attack and death of gay college student Matthew Shepard from a variety of human and personified points of view in poems that are gripping, compelling, and heartbreaking.
Odette’s Secrets. By Maryann MacDonald. 2013. 224p. Bloomsbury, $16.99 (9781599907505); e-book, $16.99 (9781599909257). Gr. 5–8.
Based on a true story, this novel in verse follows Odette, a young Jewish girl living in France during WWII, whose parents send her to live with a Catholic family in the country, where she is hidden in plain sight.
Orchards. By Holly Thompson. Illus. by Grady McFerrin. 2011. 320p. Delacorte, paper, $9.99 (9780385739788); e-book, $9.99 (9780375898341). Gr. 7–10.
In the aftermath of a classmate’s suicide, in which she may have played a part, Manhattan teen Kana travels to Japan to spend time with her mother’s family. There she works in the family orchards, bonds with her relatives, and comes to terms with her role in bullying her classmate. Thompson writes in spare verse about issues readers will want to discuss.
Planet Middle School. By Nikki Grimes. 2011. 160p. Bloomsbury, $15.99 (9781599902845); e-book, $12.99 (9781599907277). Gr. 5–8. Also available in an audio edition.
Joylin’s journey from childhood to young adulthood isn’t easy. Moving from basketball-playing tomboy to a girl who worries about clothes and crushes has her wondering how she can be both, and she describes her universal early-puberty conflicts in free-verse poems.
The Red Pencil. By Andrea Davis Pinkney. Illus. by Shane W. Evans. 2014. 336p. Little, Brown, $17 (9780316247801); e-book, $9.99 (9780316247818). Gr. 4–8. Also available in an audio edition.
Amira’s life in her peaceful Sudanese farming village is shattered when attackers decimate the town, and she must journey to a refugee camp on foot to begin—and hope—again. Evan’s graceful line drawings illustrate Pinkney’s evocative poetry.
Requiem: Poems of the Terezín Ghetto. By Paul B. Janeczko. 2011. 112p. illus. Candlewick, $16.99 (9780763647278); paper, $7.99 (9780763664657). 811. Gr. 9–12.
Accompanied by drawings created by real-life prisoners of the Terezín concentration camp, these gripping poems tell the heartbreaking stories of multiple fictional characters.
Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War. By Helen Frost. 2013. 176p. Farrar/Frances Foster, $17.99 (9780374363871). Gr. 5–8. Also available in an audio edition.
Set against the backdrop of the War of 1812, this historical novel in verse tells the story of two boys who become friends despite their very different backgrounds (the Miami tribe and a frontier family). Their bond is tested as tensions escalate and British and American armies advance.
Serafina’s Promise. By Ann E. Burg. 2013. 304p. Scholastic, $16.99 (9780545535649); e-book, $16.99 (9780545549943). Gr. 5–8.
Serafina is a natural healer who wants to be a doctor, but that is a lofty goal for a girl growing up in rural Haiti, particularly when the catastrophic 2010 earthquake hits. Creole and Haitian proverbs enhance this verse novel.
SkateFate. By Juan Felipe Herrera. 2011. 128p. HarperCollins/Rayo, $15.99 (9780061432873); e-book, $9.99 (9780062089120). Gr. 8–12.
In this swiftly moving novel, Lucky Z pours out his feelings in his poems as he copes with the aftermath of an accident that has killed his friend and leaves him in a wheelchair.
Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal. By Margarita Engle. 2014. 272p. illus. Houghton, $17.99 (9780544109414); e-book, $17.99 (9780544109223). Gr. 7–12.
Multiple points of view illuminate the high costs of building the Panama Canal, including the impact on the people, wildlife, and flora of the region. Link this novel in verse with Engle’s The Surrender Tree (2008).
A Time to Dance. By Padma Venkatraman. 2014. 320p. Penguin/Nancy Paulsen, $17.99 (9780399257100); Speak, paper, $9.99 (9780147514400); e-book, $10.99 (9780698158269). Gr. 7–12.
In this moving verse novel, a young Indian girl with a passion for the ancient bharatanatyam dance form wins a competition, but she loses a leg in an accident, devastating her body and spirit. Slowly, with the love and guidance of a dance instructor, she reclaims her gift.
Under the Mesquite. By Guadalupe Garcia McCall. 2011. 224p. Lee & Low, $17.95 (9781600604294). Gr. 7–10.
Lupita is coping with her mother’s battle with cancer, helping to care for her seven younger siblings, and struggling with wanting to pursue her own dreams of acting and writing. McCall uses many Spanish phrases throughout the free-verse poems written in Lupita’s aching voice.
Voices from the March on Washington. By J. Patrick Lewis and George Ella Lyon. 2014. 128p. Boyds Mills/Wordsong, $15.95 (9781620917855). 323. Gr. 6–12.
This poetry collection focuses specifically on the march on Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. Six fictional characters tell their tales of this historic day in cycles of linked poems that also include the perspectives of historic figures.
The War within These Walls. By Aline Sax. Illus. by Caryl Strzelecki. 2013. 176p. Eerdmans, $17 (9780802854285). Gr. 9–12.
First published in the Netherlands, Sax’s volume in verse, accompanied by graphic blue-and-white drawings, tells the story of life in the Warsaw ghetto during WWII and about the Resistance efforts in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
The Weight of Water. By Sarah Crossan. 2013. 240p. Bloomsbury, $16.99 (9781599909677); e-book, $11.99 (9781619630475). Gr. 5–8. Also available in an audio edition.
Emigrating from Poland to England, Kasienka struggles with language and loss as she adjusts to a new school, searches for her father, and finds comfort in swimming and a new friend. The sparse, free-verse format amplifies the emotion in this coming-of-age immigration story.
Words with Wings. By Nikki Grimes. 2013. 96p. Boyds Mills/Wordsong, $15.95 (9781590789858). Gr. 3–6. Also available in an audio edition.
Daydreaming is Gabby’s gift as well as her curse as she copes with her parents’ separation and a new school. In vivid, rhythmic, and figurative language, she describes how a sympathetic teacher helps her channel her dreaming into writing.
The Year of Goodbyes. By Debbie Levy. 2010. 144p. illus. Hyperion, $16.99 (9781423129011). 811. Gr. 5–8.
Twelve-year-old Jutta (the author’s mother) has assembled a “posiealbum” (autograph album) with keepsakes and photographs that link this book’s poems about the treatment of Jews in Germany and Austria in 1938.
The following are suggestions for implementing the Common Core State Standards while sharing novels, memoirs, and biographies in verse. You can find more information about the standards at www.corestandards.org.
In the Classroom: Guide students in discussing the experience of reading or listening to an excerpt of the book read aloud in contrast with hearing a professional audio adaptation of the book. We can help students contrast what they “see” and “hear” when reading the text with what they perceive when they listen to a professional production. Look for these audiobook adaptations as examples: Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover, Skila Brown’s Caminar, Sarah Crossan’s The Weight of Water; Helen Frost’s Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War, Nikki Grime’s Words with Wings and Planet Middle School, Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out and Back Again, Lesléa Newman’s October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard, Andrea Davis Pinkney’s The Red Pencil, and Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming. Discuss the following questions with students: Does the audiobook version employ music or sound effects? What do these elements add to their understanding of the book? Is there a sole narrator, two narrators, or a full cast? How does that narrator use his or her voice to suggest character, create tension, or add emotion? How does listening to the audiobook enhance the understanding of cultural details, new names, and unfamiliar words?
Common Core Connections
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.7.7. Compare and contrast a written story, drama, or poem to its audio, filmed, staged, or multimedia version, analyzing the effects of techniques unique to each medium (e.g., lighting, sound, color, or camera focus and angles in a film).
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.7.1. Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 7 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.
In the Classroom: The diverse works in verse listed in the accompanying feature can provide entrée into a discussion of culture, identity, roles, and expectations as depicted in literature. Work with students to identify cultural details in a verse title that reveal specifics, such as names, language and dialect, family structure, forms of address, foods, celebrations, musical references, and religious practices. Collaborate to research background information using nonfiction literature, websites, YouTube videos, local resources, and community members. Talk about the cross section of similarities across cultures, including the students’ own as well as those they’ve read about, and encourage students to refer back to passages in the original verse titles in their discussion. Check out the discussion available on the “Official Campaign Tumblr” at the WeNeedDiverseBooks site: weneeddiversebooks.tumblr.com.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.8.1. Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
In the Classroom: Lead students in creating a PowerPoint slide-show presentation or simple digital trailer (using Animoto, Vimeo, or other sources) of an excerpt from a selected work in verse from the accompanying bibliography. Use keywords from the text to guide the selection of pictures or images as well as the students’ interpretations of the scenes. Then add the poem text, and read the poem aloud as you view the slide show with the students. If possible, record the audio of the poem reading with a timed narration for the slide show. Consider adding relevant sound effects or a musical soundtrack as the background for a poem performance. Then play it for another class, in the library, or at an open house or similar public event, or air it on the school cable channel.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.4. Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of a specific word choice on meaning and tone.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.7.5. Include multimedia components and visual displays in presentations to clarify claims and findings and emphasize salient points.
In the Classroom: Novels in verse written from multiple points of view lend themselves readily to reader’s theater adaptation. Work with students to choose crucial excerpts from a work in the accompanying bibliography for each character and then give them time to become familiar with their characters’ selections. Students read their selections aloud (with or without simple props) in sequence. Consider recording their reading in audio or video format to share with others. This is also an excellent moment for talking about “point of view,” particularly when each reader voices a different persona or character. In addition, use verse-novel excerpts with monologues or dialogues for solo and duet performances and oral-interpretation practice for students who compete in University Interscholastic League or other similar events.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.6. Explain how an author develops the point of view of the narrator or speaker in a text.
In the Classroom: Talk with students about how a novel in verse is different from a prose novel (e.g., the use of white space, line breaks, poetic forms) and why an author might choose this verse format. Rewrite a poem page to show it in prose form for contrast. In many cases, the authors of novels in verse incorporate a variety of poetic forms and types within the narrative, such as haiku, free verse, list poems, sonnets, invented formats, and more. Work with students to identify the specific type or form of a chosen verse novel(s) and talk about its distinctive features. Consider how the poem’s lines or stanzas fit into the overall structure of the poem and contribute to its meaning. Talk about why the poet might choose to include this particular form. If you have an ambitious group of students, try creating a short, collaborative verse novel together, with everyone contributing poems on the same agreed-upon event, with multiple perspectives or a chronological, sequential story with multiple authors.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.7.5. Analyze how a drama’s or poem’s form or structure (e.g., soliloquy, sonnet) contributes to its meaning.
Sylvia M. Vardell is a professor of children’s and young adult literature at Texas Woman’s University, the coeditor of the Poetry Friday anthology series, and the author of the Poetry for Children blog.
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