Coronavirus. Social Distancing. Self-Quarantine. Stay at Home. As the world confronts a new pandemic, the future can be scary and daily life feels overwhelming at times. If you’re like me, books are more than good company. They are a great coping strategy. When I’m reading or writing a novel for young people, I inhabit other worlds where characters find satisfying resolutions. Reading and writing fictional people into and out of difficult circumstances makes me feel better–especially when I can’t see an ending to problems in real life.
But when the world presses too much and problems are too daunting, I find I can’t concentrate long enough to stay inside a story. A solution? Verse novels.
What are verse novels?
Verse novels are novel-length narratives written as connected poems. Also called novels in verse, verse novels are not collections of poems like a poetry anthology. Verse novels have all the characteristics of prose novels–characters, setting, plot, conflict, voice, story arc–but with the added layer of telling the entire story in poetry, usually as free verse, chopped line, or concrete poems.
Are verse novels a genre?
No, the term “verse novel” distinguishes format, not genre. Verse novels can be written in any genre and for any age group. Most verse novels published today are historical or realistic fiction including award-winners like House Arrest by K.A. Holt, Love That Dog by Sharon Creech, Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds, and The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. Verse biographies and memoirs are also popular including Carver: A Life in Poems Marilyn Nelson and Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. But speculative fiction verse novels, including fantasy, science, and paranormal fiction, are on the rise.
Aren’t verse novels only for reluctant readers?
No. Verse novels are everyone. Having fewer words on each page or including reading cues like images or font changes may encourage reluctant readers to stick with verse novels, but because verse novels must pack a full novel into a third of the words, reading verse novels requires a high level of inferencing and visualization–two crucial reading skills.
Do you have to be a poet to write a verse novel?
No! Reading widely in verse novels and collections of poetry is helpful for developing an understanding of the format, rhythm, and imagery that evokes emotion, but you don’t have to write poetry to write in verse. Many novels written in short paragraphs or chopped lines are categorized as verse novels, including Sold by Patricia McCormick, The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, and A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman.
Why would I want to write a novel in verse?
For me, it’s a matter of time. My writing time is extremely limited, so anything that can be written and rewritten quickly has an advantage. Writing a verse novel in bite-sized chunks lets me jot down lines, conversations, and even full scenes, in a compact way. When I combine the pieces together, I can have the entire narrative just by stitching sentences into paragraphs into chapters. Also, the small size of each poem makes the editing process faster. It’s much easier to move poems around and fill in with more if necessary. Rewriting entire scenes and chapters takes more time.
How do I find verse novels?
Most publishers don’t include the format in publication information, so it’s hard to know if a book is a verse novel by looking at the cover. Basic internet searches for “verse novel” or “novel in verse” don’t always yield accurate results either. Children’s librarians and booksellers can be a great resource, so be sure to ask for recommendations if you can. Also, award-winning poet and verse novelist Kwame Alexander’s imprint, Versify, is dedicated to publishing books in verse. An excellent online resource is a comprehensive list curated by young adult verse novelist Sarah Tregay. You can find her lists of verse novels and more about her own books at www.sarahtregay.com/novelsinverse.html
Writing as the World Changes
Even as we face new changes in the way we interact with each other, as readers and writers of literature for young people, we can continue to make positive changes in our shared world by reading and writing fictional worlds full of engaging characters and emotional plotlines. Heading into Poetry Month in April, challenge yourself to read a new verse novel or even write one! The world needs our stories now more than ever.
Debra Rook is a middle school English teacher and children’s book writer. She recently graduated from Vermont College of Fine Arts with an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults and holds a professional certification in Technical Writing from Duke University. She has completed one novel in verse, which is on submission, and she is currently working on another novel in verse among other projects. She also works as a freelance technical writer, specializing in the hospitality and education markets. You can connect with Debra on Instagram. Click here and scroll down to read interviews with verse novelists Sarah Allen and Tiffany Demings.