Verse Novels: The Genre We Need Now by Jen Kleinknecht
Poetry is, and always has been, my favorite genre. The musicality, the imagery, and the bare-boned simplicity of saying so much with so little are what make me love poetry. It’s no surprise then, that I love verse novels.
The verse novel is defined by the Academy of American Poets as a hybrid form in which a narrative with structural and stylistic similarities to a traditional novel is told through poetry. I have some great suggestions for verse novels.
But first, I want to tell you why I think verse novels are especially important right now. And I promise, I won’t refer to that awful phrase that starts with an “l” and rhymes with “burning boss.”
We are at a unique time in history, deep in the midst of a pandemic, an impending climate crisis, and a cultural war. So many bona fide readers have confessed to me that they haven’t been able to quiet their minds long enough to read. If adult readers are struggling, how can our students reclaim their joy in reading?
According to National Ambassador for Children’s Literature Jason Reynolds, the antidote is poetry. In this video, Reynolds compares students’ fear of reading to a fear of dogs.
“For some kids, those words, the amount of words, is equivalent to a snarling dog. So why not start with the less threatening palm-sized pup in the window, in this case, poetry?” asks Reynolds.
While Reynolds isn’t talking specifically about verse novels or this exact moment in time, I think he is on to something.
Sometimes less is more.
If you want to immerse yourself and your students in verse novels, the books of Kwame Alexander are a great place to start. In addition to his Newbery winning novel The Crossover, Alexander has written Rebound, Booked, Solo, and Swing. Alexander is a master storyteller and wordsmith. I especially loved Booked, which was peppered with unusual words and their definitions.
Another author who has written several verse novels is K.A. Holt. I devoured Rhyme Schemer, House Arrest, and Knockout, and so did my students. Rhyme Schemer tackles the topic of bullying while introducing students to the concept of found poetry. House Arrest and Knockout are companion novels that explore health challenges, strained family relationships, and financial insecurity.
When it comes to subject matter, verse novels run the gamut. On one hand, readers can grapple with issues like body positivity in Girls Like Me by Lola StVil, undocumented immigrants in Land of the Cranes by Aida Salazar, and Indian heritage in Red, White, and Whole by Rajani LaRocca. On the other hand, readers can be enriched by historical fiction such as Unbound by Ann E. Burg and May B. by Caroline Starr Rose. Verse novels truly offer something for everyone.
Despite their brilliance, verse novels, like graphic novels, are sometimes shunned by teachers. I am not sure why, but my guess is that some curmudgeons ran out of talking points for trashing graphic novels and decided to move on to maligning verse novels instead. If I sound bitter, that’s because I am. I really dislike it when anyone discourages students from reading what they love.
Verse novels are not akin to Spark Notes being used as a substitute for “real literature.” Verse novels are an art form unto themselves. If you need to convince skeptics to try a verse novel, I’d be honored if you shared this blog with them. Better yet, share one of the verse novels mentioned here.
I sincerely hope that you and your students can find joy in reading, whatever type of book you choose.
Jen Kleinknecht has spent over 20 years as an educator dedicated to inspiring a love of reading. She is currently a school librarian who loves coffee, Netflix, and of course, reading. She writes about life, education, and librarianship in no particular order on her blog, “The Yes Librarian.” You can follow her on Twitter @citecitebaby or on Medium @kleinknechtjen.