Room to Grow: Middle Grade Readers Lead the Expedition into Novels in Verse, a guest post by Dana VanderLugt
One of my favorite parts of being a middle school English teacher was playing book matchmaker: standing inside my classroom library I’d have a quick conversation with students about their interests and preferences and then begin pulling books off my shelves. After a quick advertisement for each title, I’d send the students back to their desks with a stack to peruse.
It was through this book brokering with students that I discovered novels in verse. I could sell a verse novel, especially to a reluctant reader, on the very premise of its white space and fewer words. I’d grab a copy of Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover and rave about it, opening it up to reveal its lyrical language popping off the page. I’d hand a copy of Jason Reynold’s A Long Way Down to a student and then happily await their reaction the following day, when they’d meet me at the door of my classroom, proudly declaring, “I finished it already! Do you have another one like this?”
And I understood. As a parent of young children frantically trying to stay ahead on lesson plans and carrying around piles of paper to grade, I fell in love with verse novels alongside my students and for many of the same reasons. Distilled down to their most essential, these books were the perfect package: engaging stories that held my attention and beautiful language that took my breath away, all while being something easily read in the margins of my life.
I remember the exact moment inside my school’s media center when a librarian handed me Katherine Applegate’s Home of the Brave, and said, “You would love this.” I opened to the first poem about a refugee named Kek, and began reading while my students milled about. I read a bit more while I carried the book back to my classroom, devouring pages during the day’s transitions, sneaking in more of the story in the moments between dinner and putting the kids to bed, and finishing it before my head hit the pillow.
A bit paradoxically, the very attribute that lures many middle grade readers into a verse novel—its white space—allows them to read faster while also granting permission to slow down. While many readers speed through a novel focusing mainly on its plot, in a verse novel they may find themselves slowing to notice beautiful, lyrical language.
But even as young readers (and I) gobbled up these novels, there remained an ambiguity of what to call them or how to define them. “Hey, Mrs. V, do you have any more books written like this, you know with the short lines and chapters?” a student asked me. Perhaps students were wary to call what they were reading poetry because these novels didn’t feel quite like the poetry they had experienced—or were too nervous to tackle— in the past. This was especially true for my students who were flirting with the idea of adopting an identity of a reader: if they weren’t even sure they liked to read, or were any good at reading, could it really be that they preferred poetry? Wasn’t that supposed to be the hardest kind of book to read? This was further evidenced by the kind of organic book reviews they’d give each other as they passed verse novels between them: “Try this one. It’s kind of weird, but then you get used to it.”
Like many books in the middle grade section of libraries and bookstores, my own verse novel, Enemies in the Orchard: A World War 2 Novel in Verse, has been enjoying a mixture of adult and young readers. Based on my own family story of German Prisoners of War who were hired to pick apples in my grandfather’s Michigan orchard during World War 2, the premise of my story has drawn in plenty of adults who aren’t necessarily reading alongside younger readers, but simply fascinated by this little known aspect of World War 2 history on the American homefront.
And while I’ve found middle grade audiences open to trying a format that may be new to them, it’s been my experience that adults are less inclined to try a novel in verse. While the genre has exploded in popularity in recent years, this has been mainly only inside the middle grade and young adult markets. Much fewer novels in verse are written specifically for adults. It’s hard to pinpoint reasons for this. Perhaps older readers are not as tempted by white space or perhaps they are tainted by negative experiences with poetry when they were younger (which I believe happens when poetry is taught only through the lens of analysis: as if it’s a multiple choice question to answer correctly rather than a mystery to explore).
The experience of listening to adults who pick up my book has been intriguing. I can’t count the number of adult readers whose reviews begin with the words, “I’ve never read anything written in verse,” or “I was nervous when I opened the book and saw poetry…” but then go on to comment on how accessible and interesting they found the form to be. I am eager to see how today’s generation of young readers might change this dynamic in the future. Might we, in the future, have fewer adults who are scared of the white space that young readers are quick to embrace?
In her 2005 article, “The Verse Novel: A New Genre,” Joy Alexander called novels in verse, “A new phenomenon in the world of children’s literature.” Nineteen years later, books written in verse for young readers continue to fly off the shelves of classroom and public libraries, and dozens more verse novels are slated to be published in the coming year. Middle grade readers lead the charge in this trend, and I hope publishers continue to listen to them and pursue these narrative poetic hybrids, a genre that offers plentiful space to process, engage, and enjoy important stories and beautiful language.
10 Middle Grade Novels in Verse published in 2023:
Aniana del Mar Jumps In by Jasminne Mendez (ISBN-13:978-0593531815, Publisher: Dial Books, Publication date: March 14, 2023, Ages 8-12)
The Do More Club by Dana Kramaroff (ISBN-13: 978-0593532874, Publisher: Rocky Pond Books, Publication date: August 29, 2023, Ages 10-14)
Eb & Flow by Kelly J. Baptist (ISBN-13: 978-0593429136, Publisher: Crown Books for Young Readers, Publication date: March 14, 2023, Ages 8-12)
Enemies in the Orchard by Dana VanderLugt (ISBN-13: 978-0310155775, Publisher: Zonderkidz, Publication date: September 12, 2023, Ages 10 & up)
Good Different by Meg Eden Kuyatt (ISBN-13: 978-1338816105, Publisher: Scholastic Publication date: April 4, 2023, Ages 10 & up)
I am Kavi by Thushanthi Ponweera (ISBN-13: 978-0823453658, Publisher: Holiday House, Publication date: September 19, 2023, Ages 8-12)
Land of Broken Promises by Jane Kuo (ISBN-13: 978-0063119048, Publisher: Quill Tree Books, Publication date: June 6, 2023, Ages 8-12)
Ruptured by Joanne Rossmassler Fritz (ISBN-13: 978-0823452330, Publisher: Holiday House Publication date:November 14, 2023, Ages 8-12)
Something Like Home by Andrea Beatriz Arango (ISBN-13: 978-0593566183, Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers, Publication date: September 12, 2023, Ages 10-14)
When the Clouds Touch Us by Thanhhà Lai (ISBN-13: 978-0063047006, Publisher: Harper Collins, Publication date: May 9, 2023, Ages 8-12)
Meet the author
Dana VanderLugt is a writer and teacher who descends from a family of Michigan apple growers and storytellers. Her debut, Enemies in the Orchard: A World War 2 Novel in Verse, is based on the stories of German POWs who came to work on her grandfather’s orchard during the 1940s.
A former middle school English teacher, Dana now works as a literacy consultant. She lives in Michigan with her husband, three sons, and a spoiled golden retriever. And yes, she makes a mean apple pie.
Filed under: Guest Post
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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