Voices in verse

These four books, recommended for middle-school or high-school readers, take a poetic approach to telling their tales. For additional creative uses of verse to tell a story (for intermediate and middle-school readers), see the recent nonfiction book Kin: Rooted in Hope (Atheneum) by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Jeffery Boston Weatherford; and verse novels tag.

Dear Medusa
by Olivia A. Cole
High School    Labyrinth Road/Random    384 pp.
3/23    9780593485736    $18.99
e-book ed.  9780593485750    $10.99

For troubled sixteen-year-old Alicia, the past year has been one of betrayal (she was cut out of her best friend’s life “like a tumor”), parental divorce and dysfunction, and social isolation and slut-shaming. Sexual assault by a revered teacher has thrown her into a personal and academic tailspin, leaving her enraged and disillusioned with the adult world. Only through connections with new friends and with a girls’ discussion group is Alicia able to see beyond her psychic pain and forge a stronger, healthier sense of self. Racial and cultural awareness (Alicia is white; new friend Deja is Black; another new friend, Geneva, is Pakistani and white) and the highlighting of multiple forms of sexuality and the power of women supporting women help broaden the story’s scope beyond its indictment of pervasive predatory male behavior. Alicia’s visceral first-person free-verse narrative, full of acerbic and angry barbs, makes for difficult reading at times. Readers are privy to all that she is processing, including her destructive choices and her inability to ask for the support she needs. Interspersed letters to the mythological Medusa express Alicia’s modern-day emotions: “A woman doesn’t get… / so mad that her hair turns to snakes / so mad that her rage turns blood to boulder / so mad that she withdraws into a cave and dares the world to follow / all on her own.” Being able to sit down with compassionate peers and talk about things makes a world of difference. LUANN TOTH

Land of Broken Promises
by Jane Kuo
Middle School    Quill Tree/HarperCollins    240 pp.
6/23    9780063119048    $18.99
e-book ed.  9780063119086    $10.99

In this sequel in verse to In the Beautiful Country (rev. 7/22), we follow Ai Shi Zhang — American name, Anna — and her family in the suburbs of Los Angeles as they struggle to carve out a place in the American Dream. They buy an American-made Buick. They sign a lease on their store. Then the Zhangs discover that they missed their window to renew their immigration visas. A summer free of plans is quickly altered: Ai Shi’s mom must go to San Diego to work and save enough money to pay for an immigration lawyer, while Ai Shi must spend every day working at the family’s shop. In order to join Speech Club at junior high next year she has to write a speech; the prompt, “What America Means to Me,” serves as the theme of the novel as Ai Shi grapples with that very question. Despite their difficult circumstances, Ai Shi and her parents navigate their world with relentless optimism, perseverance, and an earnest belief in their dreams. GABI KIM HUESCA

The Order of Things 
by Kaija Langley
Middle School    Paulsen/Penguin    288 pp.
6/23    9780593530900    $17.99
e-book ed.  9780593530917    $10.99

In this compelling verse novel set in Boston, African American tweens Zee and April are best friends. Each lives with their single parent in apartments across the hall from each other — narrator April with Chantelle, her army-veteran mom who works nights for UPS; and Zee with his dad, Papa Zee, a postal carrier. The four function like a family. A virtuoso violinist, Zee now attends an arts school, leaving April to face sixth grade without him. Though passionate about ­drumming, April lacks Zee’s confidence and tenacity. After Zee faints at school, he refuses to rest, wanting desperately to perform the orchestra solo. When April finds out that Zee is secretly practicing, she agrees not to tell his dad. Meanwhile, April’s mother has fallen in love with a female coworker, who is becoming more a part of their lives, despite April’s resistance. A tragedy changes everything, and April feels responsible. Her grief interferes with her drumming, but music also helps her recover. Langley takes readers on an emotionally turbulent ride while highlighting characters’ strengths and flaws. The protagonists’ love of music breathes life into the plot and propels the action forward. An honest and poignant portrayal of loss and grief that affirms that time and a supportive community contribute to healing. MICHELLE H. MARTIN

An Impossible Thing to Say
by Arya Shahi
High School    Allida/HarperCollins    416 pp.
9/23    9780063248359    $19.99
e-book ed.  9780063248373    $10.99

In this verse novel set in 2001, tenth grader Omid Soltani isn’t comfortable in his own skin. As the child of Iranian immigrants living in Arizona, he feels foreign at school (especially in the post-9/11 climate), but never Persian enough with his family. When his grandparents arrive from Iran and he meets them in person for the first time, he feels “frozen in Farsi” with his stilted fluency, isolated from the very people with whom he most wants a connection. He finds a welcome distraction in being cast as Bottom in the school’s production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but gets the most laughs when he plays Bottom’s lines in his father’s accented English, mocking his own culture for a primarily white audience and underscoring why Shakespeare would create a comical, lovable character and “make him a monster” for entertainment. As Omid grows, he learns to find his voice in his own interpretation of Shakespeare and in rap music that uniquely expresses his experiences. Shahi’s poetic form sometimes mirrors the subject matter (a music playlist, a theatrical dialogue, a rap flow); there are many underline-worthy lines of free verse. An unpredictable development in the conclusion may have readers reaching for a tissue (and a comforting playlist). This is a compelling coming-of-age story about finding your own voice and holding on to hope in the face of uncertainty and doubt. JULIE HAKIM AZZAM

From the November 2023 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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