Novels in verse have earned their place in the mainstream of children’s and young adult literature — Exhibit A: Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover winning the Newbery Medal — and this is good news for reluctant readers, especially reluctant middle-grade and middle-school readers. Compared to a conventional novel, a novel in verse has perhaps half the number of words per page — and isn’t that half the battle with reluctant readers? These readers often look at a page filled with words and think, This is too much! And quit before they begin. I recently told a young man, an eighth grader who loves baseball, that he should try Hard Hit by Ann Warren Turner. I opened the book and showed him the pages: words only on the left-hand pages, written in verse; blank right-hand pages. I told him he could probably read the book in about an hour. He came back the very next morning, excited, with a huge smile on his face, surprised — and proud — that he had finished it. (He also said, “You didn’t tell me it was sad!”) But what really matters is that a reluctant reader felt successful. He read an entire novel in one night.
Novels in verse can be especially appealing to reluctant readers because they use so much vivid imagery, and I have found that many reluctant readers are visual learners. Poetry expresses meaning through the graphic placement of words on the page. Can’t you see the papaya seed when you read these lines from Thanhhà Lại’s Inside Out & Back Again?
A seed like
a fish eye,
Look at the placement of the words in another verse novel, Jen Bryant’s Kaleidoscope Eyes, and see how it corresponds with the meaning:
Another week of digging.
Readers see the hole; they don’t just read the words. The picture instantly makes reading, normally an abstract activity, suddenly concrete. (By the way, concrete poetry is a great way to introduce poetry to the reluctant reader, but that’s another story.)
And what about kinesthetic learners? And auditory learners? By the time Sharon Creech writes in Heartbeat that main character Annie loves to run, the reader already knows it, feels it, hears it, because the very first words in this novel are “Thump-thump, thump-thump.” This repetition continues throughout the short book. The reader learns so much about Annie by feeling what Annie feels, physically and emotionally.
In the middle grades, emotions often run high. Students are changing physically, intellectually, and emotionally, and all of these changes happen quickly. Middle graders’ high-octane emotions sometimes manifest in tears, fights, moodiness, fits of laughter and giggles, defiance in their search for independence…and frequently do so at the most inopportune times. Because they are poetry, novels in verse often tap more directly into the emotions of their characters. One middle-grade boy cried at the end of Creech’s Love That Dog. He, too, had lost his beloved dog and understood the protagonist’s pain.
We need more diverse books, and many novels in verse published for children contain multicultural elements. Some of the reluctant readers in our library are our English language learner students. Maddie, part Cuban, gobbled up various novels in verse by Margarita Engle and Carmen T. Bernier-Grand: César: Sí, se puede! / Yes, We Can!; The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette’s Journey to Cuba; The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom, and others. But diverse verse novels are a wonderful way to introduce all readers to other worlds and ways of living.
Books about immigrants, too, allow readers to see aspects of various cultures. Becoming Joe DiMaggio, a historical novel in verse by Maria Testa about an Italian family who admires Joe DiMaggio, may be especially enjoyed by a baseball lover or a student with Italian family roots; either way, a reluctant reader will have made a connection and broadened his or her horizons by learning about a sport or what it feels like to be an immigrant.
We have read and heard much about the reluctant male reader, but little about the reluctant female reader. Why? In my experience, there are more uninterested, unmotivated, and/or insecure reluctant male readers, but that doesn’t mean that all reluctant readers are males (or even, for that matter, sports-loving males). Fortunately, many verse novels feature female protagonists. May in May B. by Caroline Starr Rose must fight to survive alone during a prairie winter (and the subplot concerning her dyslexia may resonate with some reluctant readers). Looking for Me by Betsy R. Rosenthal features a female protagonist, Edith, who must solve the mystery of who she is as a middle child in a very large family.
The reluctant reader cannot be stereotyped if we expect to reach him or her with a good read. Reluctant readers are as varied in interests as those who love to read, and luckily novels in verse come in many genres, both fiction and nonfiction. Consider The Year of Goodbyes: A True Story of Friendship, Family, and Farewells by Debbie Levy. This powerful nonfiction title, based on the author’s mother’s childhood in Nazi Germany, describes the systematic degradation of the Jewish population as seen through eleven-year-old Jutta’s eyes. Or give the verse biography Twelve Rounds to Glory: The Story of Muhammad Ali by Charles R. Smith to the student who wants to know more about the famous boxer but who normally wouldn’t pick up a biography because they are “too wordy.”
I enjoy mysteries, and so do many of my middle-grade students, especially the reluctant readers. At this age, students’ own lives hold so much unknown that the idea of solving a mystery is appealing, even if subconsciously. Also, mysteries tend to present situations middle-grade readers might secretly (or not-so-secretly) wish for: adventure, the thrill of the chase. Many mysteries provide more thoughtful and reflective elements as well. Kaleidoscope Eyes takes the reader on a treasure hunt — and not just any treasure, but the treasure that belonged to Captain William Kidd — while it explores the strong friendship between three characters, two white and one black, during the 1960s. Although the mystery is great fun, the beauty of this novel is the exposure that middle-grade readers get to what it may have been like to live in the 1960s. They learn about racial prejudice, the Vietnam War, the feminist movement, and in the process they learn a little more about what it means to be a young person in our own era.
I encourage librarians and teachers to take the next opportunity to talk up books in verse. How about a book discussion about Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse, perhaps pairing it with a documentary about the 1930s Great Dust Bowl? Connect it to the curriculum if you can. Have a good time together. Soon you may have fewer reluctant readers in your library — or at least a few more students asking you about novels in verse.
Books in Verse for Middle-Grade Readers
Becoming Joe DiMaggio (Candlewick, 2002) by Maria Testa; illus. by Scott Hunt
César!: Sí, se puede! / Yes, We Can! (Cavendish, 2006) by Carmen T. Bernier-Grand; illus. by David Diaz
The Crossover (Houghton, 2014) by Kwame Alexander
The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette’s Journey to Cuba (Holt, 2010) by Margarita Engle
Hard Hit (Scholastic, 2006) by Ann Warren Turner
Heartbeat (Cotler/HarperCollins, 2004) by Sharon Creech
Inside Out & Back Again (Harper/HarperCollins, 2011) by Thanhhà Lại
Kaleidoscope Eyes (Knopf, 2009) by Jen Bryant
Looking for Me (Houghton, 2012) by Betsy R. Rosenthal
Love That Dog (Harper/HarperCollins, 2001) by Sharon Creech
May B. (Schwartz & Wade/Random, 2012) by Caroline Starr Rose
Out of the Dust (Scholastic, 1997) by Karen Hesse
The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom (Holt, 2008) by Margarita Engle
Twelve Rounds to Glory: The Story of Muhammad Ali (Candlewick, 2007) by Charles R. Smith; illus. by Bryan Collier
The Year of Goodbyes: A True Story of Friendship, Family, and Farewells (Disney-Hyperion, 2010) by Debbie Levy
From the March/April 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.