Middle school and YA verse novels and poetry

Encourage middle- and high schoolers to read poetry beyond National Poetry Month by sharing with them these four historically set books in verse. And also check out 2020 Boston Globe–Horn Book Fiction and Poetry honor book verse novel Clap When You Land and our Five Questions interview with author Elizabeth Acevedo from the June issue of Notes.

I Am Here Now
by Barbara Bottner
High School    Imprint/Macmillan    347 pp.    g
8/20    978-1-250-20769-2    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-250-20770-8    $9.99

Fourteen-year-old Maisie characterizes her 1960s coming-of-age in the Bronx as “one of those fairy tales / where the witch eats the child.” And for good reason. Her perfume mogul dad has moved out, leaving Maisie and her little brother to the not-so-tender mercies of their mother Judith, an abusive woman whom Maisie grimly compares to Medea. Maisie copes by immersing herself in art and venting to her neighbor Richie, who is waging his own battle against his father, recently returned from Vietnam. Maisie finds a kindred spirit in Kiki, her best friend Rachel’s bohemian mother, and blossoms under her kind attention. But when Maisie starts seeing Rachel’s philandering boyfriend on the sly and Rachel finds out, her thin safety net breaks, and she is forced to turn to the one person she swore she would never ask for help — her father. Bottner’s “somewhat biographical but mostly fictional” first-person novel in verse is rife with wrenching domestic and relationship drama. Maisie’s big emotions are splashed messily across every page, much like the Pollock paintings she admires. Her stormy relationship with her mother is heartbreakingly rendered, such as when she raids Judith’s closet: “I’m trying to wear my mother. / It’s the only way I can get close to her.” A detailed author’s note describes what aspects of Bottner’s adolescence inspired the novel. JENNIFER HUBERT SWAN

With a Star in My Hand: Rubén Darío, Poetry Hero
by Margarita Engle
Middle School, High School    Atheneum    150 pp.    g
2/20    978-1-5344-2493-7    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5344-2495-1    $10.99

Written in first person, this heartfelt verse novel tells the fictionalized story of Rubén Darío (based on his autobiography), who was born in 1867 in Nicaragua and initiated the modernismo literary movement (a blend, as Engle writes in her appended author’s note, of “poetry and prose, complex rhymes, assonance…and free verse, as well as classical European and indigenous Native American images”). Abandoned by his mother in the jungle as a baby, Darío is eventually taken in by a great-aunt and -uncle whose stories told aloud become the basis for his poetry. Darío becomes known as the “Poet Boy of Central America” and uses that fame to leave Nicaragua for El Salvador and Chile, where he seeks further literary commissions but experiences racism due to his dark skin and indio heritage. Darío’s childhood abandonment haunts him, making him feel unwanted, always in exile; these feelings eventually motivate him to work for social equality and develop new, experimental literary forms. Although it’s often difficult to place the larger narrative in historical context and track its subject through time, the brevity of the poems allows readers to make rapid progress through the novel, and the placement of line breaks is thoughtful and effective: “With paper as my sky, words / are the wind that should help my mind fly.” An author’s note and a list of references complete the book. JULIE HAKIM AZZAM

On the Horizon
by Lois Lowry; illus. by Kenard Pak
Middle School, High School    Houghton    80 pp.    g
4/20    978-0-358-12940-0    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-0-358-12938-7    $9.99

In a poetry collection that’s as much structure as style and theme, Lowry considers two events: the bombings of Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima. In the book’s first section, poems about the author’s connections to Pearl Harbor (she was born in Hawaii and lived there before the war) are interspersed with others commemorating some of the sailors who served on the USS Arizona. (The presence of an appended bibliography seems to indicate that these sailors and their experiences are not fictional, but there’s no statement to that effect.) The second section, about Hiroshima, takes a similar tack, with poems inspired by Lowry’s postwar childhood in Tokyo included among others devoted to the experiences of those in Japan on August 6th, 1945. “She was a young girl with / a singed uniform, and / a lifetime / of nightmares.” A third section brings together the surprising link, discovered almost fifty years after the war, between the little Lois of the first section and a certain Koichi Seii introduced in the second. (We all learned about it at the 1994 Newbery-Caldecott Banquet.) There’s a lot of scaffolding for such a slim book, but the poems themselves, a mix of free verse and (sometimes questionable) rhyme, are agreeably spare; the best are the triolets that close each section: “We could not be friends. Not then. Not yet. / Until the cloud dispersed and cleared, / we needed time to mend, forget. / We could not be friends. Not then. Not yet…” Modest pencil sketches throughout reflect and enhance the elegiac mood. ROGER SUTTON

 Kent State
by Deborah Wiles
Middle School, High School    Scholastic    132 pp.    g
4/20    978-1-338-35628-1    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-338-35630-4    $10.99

On May 4, 1970, four students were killed by the National Guard on the campus of Kent State University during a protest against the Vietnam War and the bombing of Cambodia. Wiles, author of Countdown (rev. 5/10) and other titles in the “documentary novel” Sixties trilogy, recalls the heart-wrenching event in somber free verse. The book’s structure is unusual: disembodied voices, differentiated by typeface, representing disparate campus constituencies as well as the “townies” of Kent, Ohio, engage in a passionate imagined conversation. After a concise prelude that summarizes America’s involvement in Vietnam, two voices welcome the reader, offering to share “what we remember / so it won’t happen again.” They are revealed to be two former Kent State students, and are soon joined by a local couple angry at the “commie hippie pinko” student agitators; members of the National Guard; and others. All bicker and lay blame, but eventually sincerely wish that the murdered students “rest in peace.” Notable among the voices are the weary members of the Black United Students group, who are sadly familiar with white authoritarian violence; and the Guard’s volunteer soldiers, many of whom were just teenagers themselves. The format effectively captures the pain, confusion, and conflicting perspectives of the time while also making direct connections to current acts of gun violence and governmental overreach. The equally absorbing author’s note, full of fascinating research forays and information about 1960s protest songs, should not be skipped. JENNIFER HUBERT SWAN

From the July 2020 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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