Top Ten Novels in Verse by Katie Strawser
“Humans waste words. They toss them like banana peels and leave them to rot.” Katherine Applegate, The One and Only Ivan pg. 2
This is one of my favorite quotes. It’s rare that I actually remember specific lines of a story, but this is one that seems to have settled in my heart.
Before this year, I was ignorantly unaware of the power of the genre “Novels in Verse.” I had one or two students pick up Sharon Creech’s Love that Dog, but never bothered to read it myself. The turning point came this year when I read Jacqueline Woodson’s a Brown Girl Dreaming. It was an ARC than would be traveling around to my local reading community so I didn’t want to mark it up. When this happens, I take pictures of the pages or quotes that I love to reflect on at a later time. I ended up with enough pictures from this gorgeous book to make an album! I was blown away by the power so few words could have on a page. For some reason, Katherine Applegate’s quote kept running through my mind. I fell in love with this new (to me) genre because of all that was left unsaid- because of the power these brilliant authors had wielding so few words. I became hungry to read every novel in verse I could get my hands on.
This list is not an actual top 10, because I am still new to the genre and have not read widely enough to rank 10 of the best. This is a list of 10 I have read that I both loved and enjoyed.
I continue to be amazed at how each of these authors don’t waste words. They can illuminate a story with just a few lines, weaving the story through our hearts.
Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal
Margarita Engle, 2014
Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal tells the story of the construction of the Panama Canal from a multitude of perspectives. I love how Margarite Engle gracefully transitions between narrators, telling the story of the “silver people,” workers who made less and were treated poorly because of what country they had been recruited from. These workers were paid in silver coins when their Caucasian counterparts were paid in gold. The also lived in deplorable conditions and were forced to work the most dangerous jobs. Many died during this mammoth of a project. One of my favorite things about this story is the other perspectives represented, from trees, to monkeys, to the chief engineer of the project, and even Theodore Roosevelt.
Kwame Alexander, 2014
Josh, a.k.a. Filthy McNasty, and his twin brother Jordan are the sons of the local basketball legend, and struggle to impress their dad both on and off the court. Their tight knit relationship becomes threatened when Jordan gets a girlfriend. Josh struggles with the emotions that accompany his perceived loss of his best friend. Kwame Alexander does a masterful job of tapping into teenage emotions as well as family relationships. His novel in verse is different than any other I read, at times taking on the beat of a rap, yet constantly emanating powerful language.
Brown Girl Dreaming
Jacqueline Woodson, 2014
Brown Girl Dreaming is the autobiographical story of Jacqueline Woodson’s life, growing up in a tumultuous time in our nations history. Her story starts with birth in Columbus, Ohio, but doesn’t last very long there as her parents relationship crumbles. Her mother takes the family to South Carolina, where segregation still exists, to live with Jackie’s grandparents. Here, Jackie develops a special relationship with both her grandparents, and the south. Eventually, her mother moves the family to New York and Jackie is forced to adapt to very different surroundings. The relationships in this book are so powerful and the language is dramatically poetic. This is a must read this fall.
Like Water on Stone
Dana Walrath, 2014
Not only am I a huge fan of historical fiction, I love historical fiction that illuminates an event in history that I was previously unaware of. Like Water on Stone tells the story of the Armenian Genocide from the perspective of two siblings who embark on a perilous journey to escape the horrors of this tragedy. I felt Dana Walrath’s passion throughout the story at the injustices that occurred here.The culture and landscape were brought to life in this book. And based on my current Pinterest vacation board, the beauty was not inflated!
Helen Frost, 2013
It is 1812 and war is threatening the borders of Fort Wayne in Indiana. Anikwa, a member of the Miami tribe, and James, the son of traders at Fort Wayne are close friends who both play together, and learn from each others cultures. They have a mutual respect for each other. This becomes threatened when other Native American tribes begin to gather to protect their land around the fort while the British threaten the way of life of the American settlers. Anikwa and James learn the true meaning of friendship.
Tamera Will Wissinger, 2013
Illustrated by Matthew Cordell
Sam is thrilled to go on a fishing trip with his dad. He can’t wait to leave, that is, until his sister Lucy ends up weaseling her way with. Adding insult to injury, Lucy is catching fish while Sam’s line sits quiet! Finally Sam catches a big catfish and rather than getting jealous like her brother, Lucy is excited for him. Sam learns that maybe his sister isn’t so bad after all. Not only is this story adorable and funny, I absolutely LOVE how Tamera Wissinger shared the type of poem represented on each page. This is one of my favorite mentor texts as well as a top 10 novel in verse.
Skila Brown, 2014
It seems almost a theme of 2014, novels in verse that tell the story of a historically significant event. Caminar is no different. This book tells the story of Guatemala in 1981 and follows Carlos, who we watch transition throughout the story from a boy to a man. Carlos is constantly given a hard time by his friends for following his mother’s strict guidelines. He doesn’t seem to feel the need to defy her, but realizes that he is being sheltered from much. Suddenly, his village is under attack as soldiers hunt for “Communists.” Carlos finds himself traveling with a group of rebels and finds the courage to stand up for others along the way.
Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie
Julie Sternberg, 2011
This story starts the summer between second and third grade with Eleanor losing her beloved babysitter, Bibi. Eleanor is not quite equipped to deal with such a trauma at first, but with the help of her new babysitter, Natalie, she learns that people you miss do not need to be replaced. I love the entire series Sternberg has written about Eleanor. I feel my students can connect with the problems Eleanor faces as she grows and learns. Like Bug Juice on a Burger and Carrot Juice on a Cupcake are the next two in the series and are equally as wonderful.
Home of the Brave
Katherine Applegate, 2008
Kek is a Sudanese refugee who arrives in Minnesota in the dead of winter. He has lost his brother and father and is desperately holding on to faith that his mother with join him in America. He moves in with his aunt and cousin and experiences quite a culture shock upon arrival. He eventually befriends a foster child, Hannah as well as a local cow who reminds him of his father’s herd. Home of the Brave illuminates just some of the feelings refugees must feel upon arrival.
Love that Dog
Sharon Creech, 2004
Many are familiar with this popular novel in verse, but it was a new read for me. The emotions in the story are raw, and yet accessible to younger readers. Jack begins the school year insistent that he is a boy so he cannot write poetry. Through nudges from his unseen teacher, we witness a transition in Jacks attitude to poetry, as well as how he uses poetry to work through the painful loss of his yellow dog. Added bonus, Jack is inspired to write the poem Love that Dog after his teacher reads him Walter Dean Myers, Love that Boy. I love how Sharon Creech made a real-life writer a character in her book. He even comes for an author visit after Jack writes him! A powerful read for my students.
Katie Strawser is a third grade teacher in Dublin, Ohio. Reading for her has become a process of discovery; discovering new books, authors, and even genres as she continues to grow as a teacher reader. You can recommend titles to her at any time on twitter @katiestrawser or check out ones she has read at Book Groupie Blog.