I remember when I first read Out of the Dust, Karen Hesse’s novel in free verse. I’d never seen anything quite like it. The spare, compelling language was perfect for its subject, a young girl growing up in the Oklahoma dust bowl. The story was a heart-breaker, tinged with hope and beauty, and had that sense of inevitability all the best books do. How could it have been written any other way?
Years later I thoroughly enjoyed a book in verse that could hardly have been more different: Love That Dog, by Sharon Creech. Here a student determined to resist his teacher’s lessons on poetry slowly, sweetly, hilariously finds his own voice through reading and writing. Again, form and subject are a perfect match.
Hesse and Creech have written other terrific books in verse. Here’s a sampling of other, maybe less well known, books where every word truly counts.
Bonus: Nothing makes a reluctant reader smile like a page with lots of white space.
Diamond Willow, by Helen Frost
From Indiebound: Twelve-year-old Willow would rather blend in than stick out. But she still wants to be seen for who she is. She wants her parents to notice that she is growing up. She wants her best friend to like her better than she likes a certain boy. She wants, more than anything, to mush the dogs out to her grandparents’ house, by herself, with Roxy in the lead. But sometimes when it’s just you, one mistake can have frightening consequences . . . And when Willow stumbles, it takes a surprising group of friends to help her make things right again. Using diamond-shaped poems inspired by forms found in polished diamond willow sticks, Helen Frost tells the moving story of Willow and her family. Hidden messages within each diamond carry the reader further, into feelingsWillow doesn’t reveal even to herself.
Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai
From Indiebound: “No one would believe me but at times I would choose wartime in Saigon over peacetime inAlabama.”
For all the ten years of her life, HÀ has only known Saigon: the thrills of its markets, the joy of its traditions, the warmth of her friends close by . . . and the beauty of her very own papaya tree. But now the Vietnam War has reached her home. HÀ and her family are forced to flee as Saigon falls, and they board a ship headed toward hope. In America, HÀ discovers the foreign world of Alabama: the coldness of its strangers, the dullness of its food, the strange shape of its landscape . . . and the strength of her very own family. This is the moving story of one girl’s year of change, dreams, grief, and healing as she journeys from one country to another, one life to the next.
The Dancing Pancake, by Eileen Spinelli
From Indiebound: The grand opening of the Dancing Pancake isn’t the only new thing in Bindi’s life: new friends, a new apartment, maybe even a cute new crush? But there are other changes, like her dad’s move to a new city, that have left Bindi confused and wondering: What will happen to my family? Will this new life ever feel normal? Among the unlikely bunch of regulars who form a makeshift community at the diner, Bindi will try to figure out how to be a new version of herself, one pancake and one silly elephant joke (her uncle’s specialty) at a time. With plenty of surprises, milk shakes, fake spiders, and real feelings, readers are sure to flip for the sweet mix of humor and heart in The Dancing Pancake.
42 Miles, by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer
From Indiebound: JoEllen’s parents divorced when she was very young, so she was used to splitting her time between them, shuttling four blocks from one Cincinnati apartment to another. But when her dad moved to the old family farm last year, her life was suddenly divided. Now on weekdays she’s a city girl, called Ellen, who hangs out with her friends, plays the sax, and loves old movies. And on weekends she’s a country girl, nicknamed Joey, who rides horseback with her cousin, Hayden, goes fishing, and listens to bluegrass. So where do her loyalties lie? Who is the real JoEllen? Linked free-verse poems, illustrated with a quirky array of found objects and mementos, create the vivid, realistic portrait of a young girl at a defining moment in her life.
Locomotion, by Jacqueline Woodson
From Indiebound: When Lonnie Collins Motion–Locomotion–was seven years old, his life changed forever. Now he’s eleven, and his life is about to change again. His teacher, Ms. Marcus, is showing him ways to put his jumbled feelings on paper. And suddenly, Lonnie has a whole new way to tell the world about his life, his friends, his little sister Lili, and even his foster mom, Miss Edna, who started out crabby but isn’t so bad after all. Jacqueline Woodson’s novel-in-poems is humorous, heartbreaking . . . a triumph.
Please share your own favorites with us!