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TOP TEN Verse Novels for Young Readers

TOP TEN Verse Novels for Young Readers

You might be surprised how often I hear, “I don’t get poetry,” even from writers. (Second only to “TaB? I thought they stopped making that in the 70s.”) But these are novels—good writing and storytelling speak for themselves, no matter what the form.

There are so many great verse novels to choose from, but these are my favorites: some influenced me to start writing in verse; others just affirmed how beautiful an art form it can be.

1. Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse: Your mother’s on fire. You reach for a bucket of water, not stopping to think of the drought—not a drop of water for hundreds of miles around. You’ve drenched her with a different clear liquid: kerosene.

Now your mother and unborn brother are dead, your father’s burying himself in the bottle and your hands are too burned to play the piano you love. What do you do now? And with the rest of your life?

2. Aleutian Sparrow by Karen Hesse: Natives of the Aleutian Islands off of Alaska were “protected” in internment camps during World War II. Elegant, spare, haunting—amazing how Hesse carves out a berth in your heart for the main character in so few words. And you also get a sense of place, one many of us probably never knew existed.

3. The Weight of the Sky by Lisa Ann Sandell: An American girl spends the summer in Israel on a kibbutz—sounded kinda esoteric to me when I first heard of it, but the first page injects you right into the story with sensory experience and a character that couldn’t be more alive!

4. Song of the Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell: Who needs another thick volume added to the tonnage of Arthurian legends? We all do, if it’s this one. From the point of view of Elaine of Ascolat, the Lady of Shalott, this book has it all: Language, imagery, romance, rivalry, war, healing...all wrapped up in a coming-of-age story.

5. Yellow Star by Jennifer Roy: The Lodz ghetto of Poland, a waiting room of sorts for the concentration camps: 270,000 Jews were confined there; only 800 survived, 12 of them children. Based on the real life experience of one of the 12 children, Syvia Perlmutter, and told from her p.o.v. This book will live inside you forever.

6. Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson: In the style of main characters told by benevolent teachers to write journals/poems/feelings...Lonnie has been separated from everyone he loves and put in foster care. You get to see the world through his eyes, including his own view of himself. (The sequel Peace, Locomotion is out now.)

7. Heartbeat by Sharon Creech: This was my introduction to Creech, so it remains my favorite...even after bawling my eyes out over Love That Dog (and, to some degree, the sequel Hate That Cat). You can feel a pulse—each footfall as the main character runs—giving the story a subtle structure and momentum.

8. Pieces of Georgia by Jennifer Bryant: A guidance counselor, this time, asks Georgia to write in a journal. An artist, she receives an anonymous gift of membership to the Brandywine River Museum. Through these outlets, she deals with her mother’s absence and her own grief, and learns to nurture her stilted relationship with her father.

9. John Brown’s Body by Stephen Vincent Benet: A high-school English teacher rescued boxes of moldy decrepit books from the incinerator for one last hurrah. My copy had underlining and margin notes in dozens of different handwritings. By the time we finished the unit, its binding was replaced by a rubber band. The teacher held out a garbage can and students gleefully slam dunked the books (recycling didn’t exist yet), but I couldn’t let mine go. Do you know what it feels like to have a relationship with a book? You have this experience with it...and evidence of other people’s energy and experience just makes it more layered.

10. Evangeline by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Epic story of searching for a lost love. Best read when young and preferably in a window seat. (Not technically a novel, I guess, more of a long poem.) This poem inspired one of the storylines in my own novel: my forbidden lovers were to be separated by the Johnstown Flood. In the actual execution of it, though, I liked seeing them together more, so the epic search became only a few pages. Oh well. How about a modern-day Evangeline...hmm....


Wow, from the Dust Bowl to the Holocaust, and the Civil War to the loss of loved ones...we poetic types sure are a serious bunch. Will anyone ever write a funny verse novel? Do you know of one?

So what do you think? Will you give verse novels a chance? Have you already? What are your favorites? Most are quick reads and, once you start, you’ll want another one and another one (like salty snacks), though I recommend savoring every carefully chosen word.


( 31 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 9th, 2009 04:26 pm (UTC)
I love verse novels. I just read A Bad Boy Can Be Good For a Girl. So excellent!

Also, Far From You and I LOVE YOU, YOU HEART ME.

Also, anything by Ellen Hopkins or Sonya Sones.

I have to get Out of the Dust!
Mar. 9th, 2009 07:31 pm (UTC)
Hey, another verse lover! Thanks for the recommendations.
Mar. 9th, 2009 04:30 pm (UTC)
I just started reading verse novels. I liked Ellen Hopkins' BURNED and loved (and cried my eyes out through) Lisa Schroeder's I HEART YOU, YOU HAUNT ME. I've got IDENTICAL and FAR FROM YOU on my TBR list and I might have to add OUT OF THE DUST!
Mar. 9th, 2009 07:29 pm (UTC)
A friend gave me Burned for Christmas yet. I think I'll start it soon. I'm definitely going to take a look at Schroeder, too. I love that title I Heart You You Haunt Me.
Mar. 9th, 2009 08:41 pm (UTC)
Jame, I LOVE novels in verse. Love them. Out of the Dust tops my list. I don't recall a particularly funny one... hmmmm....
Mar. 10th, 2009 04:01 pm (UTC)
OotD is number one, definitely. I also liked/learned a lot from Witness---she had a large number of p.o.v. characters. I thought I would do that too, but I remembered having trouble keeping them all straight when I was reading it. Had to keep checking the character list.
Mar. 9th, 2009 09:07 pm (UTC)
There are humorous bits in some of Sonya Somes' verse novels. And lots of humour, mixed with seriousness, in Love that Dog by Sharon Creech.
Mar. 10th, 2009 03:58 pm (UTC)
I wasn't familiar with Sones, but checking out her website, I'm gonna read all her books!
Mar. 9th, 2009 09:39 pm (UTC)
I Heart You, You Haunt Me is fabulous!
And, Keesha's House by Helen Frost is also fab!
Mar. 10th, 2009 04:11 pm (UTC)
I loved Frost's The Braid and Diamond Willow! She does amazing things with interwoven poems in form. And the words making diamonds---holy cow! I guess she just made that up (?). If you like linked poems, A Wreath for Emmett Till by Marilyn Nelson is just mind-boggling (and I loved Carver by her, too).
(no subject) - juliakarr - Mar. 10th, 2009 04:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 10th, 2009 12:00 am (UTC)
It's not a raucous knee-slapper or anything (14 year-old baseball star gets mono and is stuck in bed) but 'Shakespeare Bats Cleanup' by Ron Koertge has some comic moments for sure. I really liked it. The kid learns all about different poetic forms and then tries his hand at each. A funny verse novel for boys! Talk about unlikely! He pulls it off smashingly.

Great list -- I do really enjoy verse & have read several of those & have a few more to add to the old "to-read" list now.

Mar. 10th, 2009 04:15 pm (UTC)
A funny verse novel for boys?! Wow! That IS unlikely. And great. I'm glad somebody got the job done, so I don't have to feel guilty adding to the glut of girl-heavy costume dramas.
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 10th, 2009 04:17 pm (UTC)
You know the readability function on Word? My book has a second-grade reading level! No one can complain that its too hard.

I've heard of Shark Girl---gotta get my hands on that.
Mar. 10th, 2009 12:22 am (UTC)
I have very mixed feelings about Virginia Euwer Wolff's "Make Lemonade" trilogy, but they undeniably have some gorgeous writing in them.

But I more easily accept them as 'prose with line breaks' than true verse. And Wolff herself has said the same, essentially.
Mar. 10th, 2009 04:22 pm (UTC)
I read the first one...not sure if I even knew it was a trilogy.

Nikki Grimes spoke at SCBWI last year and she said she tried to read a novel in verse and she got to page 50 or so and hadn't seen a metaphor yet. So, I call it the Nikki Grimes Test: is there one metaphor per 50 pages? Can I get a metaphor on every page?

So, what's the Takumashii Test? What would it take to call it "true verse"?
(no subject) - takumashii - Mar. 10th, 2009 04:36 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 10th, 2009 01:33 am (UTC)
I love Karen Hesse, Lisa Schroeder, and Sonya Sones. Now that you mention funny, nope. Can't think of one. A challenge!
Looks like I have some reading to do! Thanks for the list...
Mar. 10th, 2009 04:25 pm (UTC)
You're welcome.

I just checked out Sones' website (how did I never hear of her?) and she has an EXHAUSTIVE list of verse novels, many I never heard of. So, it looks like I have some reading to do as well.
Mar. 10th, 2009 08:09 pm (UTC)
Jame, Wow! You really know and love these books, and you've made me want to buy them, know them and love them too. I agree that there is something very stark, poignant and compelling about verse.
Apr. 15th, 2009 12:49 am (UTC)
great suggestions
Thanks for more great titles. I knew some of these, but now have a list I can run to the bookshop with!
Can I also mention my own verse novels - "Farm Kid" and "Sixth Grade Style Queen (Not!)" - unfortunately they're not available in the US, only in Australia, but I'm proud to say both have won awards here. I have a new one out next year - "Motormouth" - which is about two boys.
Sherryl Clark
Apr. 15th, 2009 12:34 pm (UTC)
Re: great suggestions

Talk about serendipity! I just read your name the other day on this site http://versing.blogspot.com/2009/03/australian-verse-novels-for-children.html. I'm sorry to learn that your books aren't available in the states, but I'll keep an eye out just the same.

Congratulations on all your success and good luck with Motormouth!

Re: great suggestions - (Anonymous) - Nov. 9th, 2009 10:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
An great Adult Verse Novel - (Anonymous) - Jun. 29th, 2010 01:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 13th, 2009 03:07 am (UTC)
WOW. Great list! How did I miss this post? Oh, yes, I was recovering from surgery! Sorry to comment so late, but I really liked your top ten and I thought, better late than never.

I am enamoured of OUT OF THE DUST... It moved me to tears to read about her Mama. Is your novel in verse? Mine is.
Jun. 16th, 2009 02:43 pm (UTC)
Hi GG (do you go by GG? or is that just your username? I call you that in my mind...but then I have nickname envy)---thanks for commenting on my list. I try to read everything I can find in verse, but it's everywhere you turn now! Good for us, I guess. My novel is in verse, too. I'm curious to hear more about your experience selling, etc. This is not a locked post...maybe we could start a locked post with that topic...we have other poets in the group.

Great to have a verse buddy in the Tenners!
(no subject) - ggmccall - Jun. 16th, 2009 09:22 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jamerichards - Jun. 17th, 2009 09:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 28th, 2010 05:46 pm (UTC)
Great list
How did you ever choose only ten? Now with the 2010 bunch out, it'll be even harder to choose. Add After the Kiss (Terra Elan McVoy) and Fallout (Ellen Hopkins) to your reading list this year. You won't be disappointed. - Sarah Tregay
Oct. 28th, 2010 09:22 pm (UTC)
Re: Great list
Thanks Sarah! Great to hear from verse novel fans!
( 31 comments — Leave a comment )

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