Big Stories in Small Packages: Give Verse a Chance

Pick up and leaf through a verse novel, say Susan Taylor Brown’s Hugging the Rock. The trim size is small, the pages more white than type. That’s the beauty of a novel in verse, especially at the middle-grade level. All that white space entices even reluctant readers. To quote one eleven-year-old reader: “You can read them a lot faster, and the words sound cool.” A middle-grader can zip through Hugging the Rock, a novel of 12,000 words, in a single sitting.

Such frugality with words doesn’t mean a lack of complexity or depth, though. “Verse allows my words to touch readers’ hearts in a way that the same story, told in prose, might not,” says Susan Taylor Brown. In the opening of Hugging the Rock, Rachel and her father watch as her bipolar mother packs the car. As the pile in the backseat grows, blocking the rear window, Rachel says simply:

No room left for Dad.

And no room left for me.

Author Ann E. Burg agrees: “Poetry novels are simply novels written in an alternate style. A charcoal or pen and ink drawing is different than an oil painting or watercolor, but important details and the same depth of emotion can be achieved in all mediums.”  All the Broken Pieces, her novel about a boy air-lifted from war-torn Vietnam, is proof of that. The narrator, 12-year-old Matt Pin, must make sense of both his past in Vietnam and his present in the United States, a country itself scarred by the war. It’s a story as ambitious as any middle-grade fiction I read this year–in poetry or prose.

Sadly, as much as I and my sixth-grade daughter love verse novels, middle-grade titles seem to be in short supply on bookstores shelves.  On a recent trip to the Bay Area–where I visited more bookstores than I care to admit–I rarely found more than one, or at most two, verse titles in the middle-grade section. Patty Norman of Copperfield Books in Petaluma admits verse novels are a hard sell to middle-graders who still have that knee-jerk “yuck, it’s poetry” reaction. Young adult readers, she finds, are more open to verse.

It doesn’t have to be so, says Burg, a former English teacher. “Middle graders are curious and unpretentious. Poetry delves right to the heart of the matter which they should find appealing. If poetry and poetry novels are presented as genuine literature worthy of review and discussion, most kids will read and respond with open, sincere minds.”

When Susan Taylor Brown was first shopping the manuscript for Hugging the Rock, she recalls one editor passed because she wasn’t sure the genre was here to stay. “The key,” says Brown, “is to keep talking with schools, with young readers.” Fortunately, there are plenty of good books to talk about, and soon there will be more.  Both Taylor and Burg are working on new novels in verse.

Following are some of  my recent favorites. Please chime in with yours and share your thoughts on how we can encourage more young readers to give verse a chance.

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All the Broken Pieces by Ann E. Burg

Airlifted from Vietnam two years earlier, Matt Pin has seemingly adjusted well to his new life in the US. He plays baseball and takes piano lessons and tries to be the son he believes his adoptive parents want, yet he is haunted by the mother and little brother he left behind in Vietnam. Matt says “My Vietnam/ is drenched/ in smoke and fog…./ My Vietnam is/ only/ a pocketful/ of broken pieces/ I carry/ inside me.” Going backward and forward in time, the reader learns about Matt’s two families, the prejudice he faces at school, and the complicated legacy of the Vietnam war for Matt and everyone else whose lives were touched and changed by that war.

Brushing Mom’s Hair by Andrea Cheng; illustrated by Nicole Wong

When Ann’s mom undergoes surgery and chemotherapy for breast cancer Ann finds her home filling up with flowers, meals she doesn’t like, visits from people who say the wrong thing. Worried about her mother, Ann takes refuge in her ballet and art. A mere sylph of a story at 59 pages, Cheng deals deftly with the hard realities of cancer and the return of hope with the return of her mother’s hair.

The Crazy Man by Pamela Porter

With down-to-earth lyricism, Porter tells the story of 12-year-old Emmaline, maimed in a farming accident that gives her father the excuse he’s been looking for to leave the farm he never loved. Left to sow and harvest the Saskatchewan fields alone, Emmaline’s mother hires Angus, a gentle giant of a man from the local mental hospital to take care of the farm. The town buzzes with talk about the “crazy man” in their midst, and when tragedy threatens, Emmaline and her mother learn who their true friends are.

The Dancing Pancake by Eileen Spinelli

Eleven-year-old Bindi longs for a noisy home full of siblings. When her parents separate and she and her mother move into a small apartment above The Dancing Pancake, her mother and aunt’s new café, Bindi finds a host of new friends among the staff and customers and new hope for her family. Both this book and Spinelli’s other MG verse novel Summerhouse Time (Knopf, 2007) are notable for their full cast of appealing characters and touches of humor.

Heartbeat by Sharon Creech

Heartbeat tells the story of 12-year-old Annie, her family, and her best friend and running partner, Max. The short-lined verse mimics the rhythms of running—sometimes breathless, always moving forward. Running helps Annie keep pace with all the changes in her life: the new baby her mother is expecting, her grandfather losing his memory, and her best friend Max who keeps bugging her to join the track team when all she wants to do is run for the joy of it.

Hugging the Rock by Susan Taylor Brown

Rachel has always taken care of her bipolar mother, staying up late with her, making sure she takes her medicine, while her father seemed distant and unknowable…until her mother packs up and leaves with no explanation beyond “I don’t belong here anymore.” Hurt and angry, Rachel lets her schoolwork slide, lies to her friend about her mother’s absence. She and her father live together like a pair of ghosts haunting the same house until, little by little, Rachel learns about her mother’s past and her father’s devotion.

Reaching for Sun by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer

Thirteen-year-old Josie Wyatt has cerebral palsy. Teased and called a “tard” by the popular girls at school and betrayed by her own slow tongue and limbs, Josie feels perfectly at home in her grandmother’s garden, like the poppies that start their lives “hairy, grayish…./ easily a member/ of the ugly family,” but bloom “the same red/ as a Chinese wedding dress.” When her grandmother suffers a devastating stroke, Josie’s inner strength pulls her through, like the wisteria vine “reaching for sun.”

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Laurie Schneider reads, writes, and revises in the Palouse, the rolling wheat country of Eastern Washington/North Idaho.

18 Responses to Big Stories in Small Packages: Give Verse a Chance

  1. Thank you for highlighting verse novels, I have had the pleasure of reading several of these wonderful books and I am looking forward to picking up the ones I haven’t read yet.

  2. Thanks for this wonderful post on books so close to my heart. I love middle grade verse, and am thrilled to hear the interest from educators in seeing more of it!

  3. As a young writer my first works were all in verse. My daughter followed in my footsteps and had 3 poems published at age 9. I think kids are taught the yuck factor when learning to read because a great many picture books are written like poetry. Kids love those. Thanks for an very thoughtful post and some great titles to add to my to-be-read list.