Challenge: Novels in Verse

Why you should try Novels in Verse

If you’re like me, you’ve embraced Novels in Verse. For background, a novel in verse is a story that is told through a series of poems, typically free verse, as opposed to chapters. Here are a few reasons why I love these for students:

  1. They’re quicker to read than your typical novel. When I introduced my class to the idea of reading a book per week, these were the perfect entry point to give them the confidence that it was possible.
  2. They are a gold mine of figurative language. From hyperbole to personification to metaphor, you’re likely to find lots of figurative language examples.
  3. Word choice matters. Since the story is told in fewer pages and fewer words, authors choose their words carefully.
  4. They allow for creative uses of style. The authors have more freedom in novels in verse in terms of structure. This allows for great discussion related to author’s choices.
  5. They open up readers to the possibilities of poetry. Poetry has so many forms; it’s not just about haikus and sonnets and song lyrics. These books allow readers to see poetry used in multiple different ways. I still remember reading the Canterbury Tales in high school and being surprised that not only did poems not have to be serious, they could tell stories that weren’t the Odyssey.

Book Recommendations

You might be wondering which Novels in Verse would be a good fit for your students. Below are some Novels in Verse that my sixth graders and I have loved. I think these titles would be a great fit for 5th-8th graders.

Please note: The book trailer links allow you to see book trailers on youtube which may be a faster way for you to view content. Some are better than others, but these are the best I found for each.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Summary: Jacqueline Woodson grew up in the South with her grandparents and feels at home there, even if it is in the remnants of the Jim Crow era as an African American. She later moves to New York, and the dynamic of her family and friendships changes. She becomes inspired by the Civil Rights movement as she begins to understand her role not only as an African American, but as a young woman, a reader, a writer, and a friend.

Why I love this book: Woodson does a fantastic job of bringing this era in history alive from the perspective of a child and from the perspective of different places in the nation. She also makes her struggles with reading and writing relatable. They’re not melodramatic or overstated; they’re honest and open. In discussions, my students came back again and again to the idea of gratitude, human rights, and acceptance.

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Inside out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Summary: Hà and her family flee Vietnam to head for the United States when her home country is falling apart and her father is missing. From the descriptions of her home life in Saigon including her beloved papaya tree, to the perilous trip by sea where food is scarce, to the awkward and unfamiliar atmosphere of Alabama, the reader is drawn into a deep empathy for  Hà and her family. Hà is forced to show perseverance and strength amidst these many trials as she comes of age.

Why I love this book: The descriptions in this book are vivid and emotional. While there is intense grief and frustration, there are also moments of humor and joy. The jokes about the English language will entertain native speakers and English language learners alike.

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House Arrest by K.A. Holt

Summary: When Timothy realizes that his baby brother has needs his mom is constantly struggling to meet, he decides to steal a credit card in order to buy the medicine he needs. As  a consequence, he’s kept under house arrest for a year, is assigned a probation officer, goes to counseling, and is forced to journal about his experience.

Why I love this book: Timothy is an admirable character who makes bad choices, much like other middle schoolers I know. His relationships with adults are incredibly authentic, making for a relatable read. Warning: This book ends on a cliffhanger that you’ll definitely want to discuss.

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Booked by Kwame Alexander

Summary: Nick, a 12 year old boy who loves soccer, is also forced to deal with his changing relationships with with family. He also builds a relationship with a girl who ends up opening up more than just romantic possibilities.  

Why I love this book: The 12 year old boys in my class could not put this book down. In the book, Nick’s dad likes Nick to read the dictionary which doesn’t make for such exciting reading. Nick, however, learns that reading could be more than just words on a page. That’s what this book does for kids, too. They will have strong opinions about characters and their choices.

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Crossover by Kwame Alexander

Summary: Josh and his twin brother Jordan are both basketball stars, but they don’t always see eye to eye. This story is not just about playing hard on the court; it’s also about the strong bonds of family, particularly between brother.

Why I love this book: This book is more emotionally intense perhaps than Booked; some adults prefer Crossover to Booked, perhaps because it came first and is more of a first love. While both engage in the topic of family bonds, Crossover really delves deeply into those relationships and will pull on your heart.

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A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman

Summary: Veda has always loved to dance and finds incredible pride and joy in her talent. After proving herself in competition, she has a tragic accident that results in the loss of her lower leg. If she wants to learns to dance again, she’ll need to completely reorient her thinking – not only about how to dance but also about her own self-worth and spiritual well-being.

Why I love this book: In the end, this accident not only changes her relationship with dance but with herself and her family. She is forced to grapple with reality as well as her hopes and dreams. As a typical young teenager, she is learning to navigate all kinds of relationships. Her misunderstandings and missteps are understandable which develops honest empathy in the reader.

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Hidden by Helen Frost

Summary: 8 year old Wren Abbot is still in the family car when it gets stolen by Darra Monson’s dad. When Darra realizes Wren is now trapped in her garage, she is torn between protecting her dad who she loves (even if he’s not always good at returning the favor) and helping the stowaway. Wren escapes, but 8 years later, the girls meet again at a summer camp. They only know one another by name and voice, but the tension between them surrounding the secret they share seems to be too much to handle.

Why I love this book: Frost creates a clever backstory within the story. If you read the last word of the long lines of Darra’s story, you’ll read her version of earlier events in the book. This creative addition will blow readers’ minds and open up their eyes to the other possibilities within the realm of poetry. This story also has a heightened intensity that’s not as prevalent among this style of writing.

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Song of the Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell

Summary: Elaine of Ascolat is the daughter of one of King Arthur’s supporters. Set in 490 AD, Elaine stubbornly resists being pigeonholed in the role of girlhood among military men. She desires the attentions of Lancelot and is forced to deal with her insecurities and jealousies as she realizes truths about herself and others, including the lovely Gwynivere who may or may not be her rival, but can Elaine put aside her own feelings in order to help those who need her most?

Why I love this book: There’s adventure and battle scenes, but there’s also romance and the internal struggles of a teenager. There’s something in this book for multiple readers. Both girls and boys in my class enjoyed this book, latching onto the different parts that thrilled them.

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One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

Summary: This is the story of Ivan, a gorilla who lives amidst humans who watch him through glass as opposed to in the wild jungle. His friends are Stella, an elderly elephant, and Bob, a stray dog. His hobbies include watching TV shows and thinking about art, but things change when Ruby, a baby elephant, arrives.  

Why I love this book: This is a beautiful story about art and more importantly, the bonds of friendship. You’ll find yourself deeply empathizing with these animals.

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Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse

Summary: Billie Jo is trying to survive through the dust bowl in Depression-era Oklahoma. She and her family experience tragedy and triumph. Although her family suffers great losses, Billie Joe continues to persevere and has hope for the future.

Why I love this book: It can be a great tie-in to history curriculum, so if it overlaps with the grade level curriculum your students learn, it will help to build background knowledge and a deep empathy for this under-discussed time period. This is also one of the earlier novels in verse I’m aware of, so there are many resources out there to use specifically with this text.

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Love that Dog by Sharon Creech

Summary: Jack hates poetry but is forced to do multiple poetry assignments given by his teacher, Miss Stretchberry. Soon, he discovers that poetry gives him a voice he didn’t know he had.

Why I love this book: It’s sweet and relatable. Many kids don’t “get” poetry, and this book allows the reader to have those feelings while also pushing them out of their comfort zone along with the main character, Jack. There’s also a follow up book, Hate That Cat.

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Ideas for Facilitating Book Clubs with Novels in Verse

As I mentioned at the start of this post, I introduced the book a week expectation with these Novels in Verse. I think 2 weeks would be the maximum length for reading one of these novels. Since the reading of novels in verse is unburdensome, these could also be a great opportunity to institute a new structure for preparing for book clubs. If you wanted to use traditional literature circle roles, these books could be a perfect companion.

One thing I have students do once we try out formal literature circle roles are to use post-its to prepare for book club. My expectation is that they are jotting down notes on the post it and flagging the page in their book so that they are prepared to discuss. In order to provide accountability, you could have students turn in their best post-its on a paper like this one (Novels In Verse Book Club Post-Its) so that you can take a completion grade. Students could even star their very best post-it for a comprehension grade.

I hope these ideas are useful to you. If you haven’t tried Novels in Verse, pick up one of the books higher on this list; they are my favorites!

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