I have to admit, novels-in-verse (also known as verse-novels) were an unknown genre to me until I started researching possible books for our Vamos a Leer book group. There are quite a number of young adult books written with content or themes connected to Latin America or Latinos, so it was almost overwhelming. Needing a place to start my search for the best books for our group, I began with past Américas Award winners and was surprised to see how many of those winners were novels-in-verse! As skeptical as I was at first, I’ve since read a number of books from this genre, and loved them all.
If this is a new genre to you as well, don’t feel bad, there’s a reason for this. The majority of these books have been published since 2000, so, it’s relatively new to the literary scene, but quickly growing in popularity. What exactly is a novel in verse? In her article, “The Verse-novel: A New Genre” Joy Alexander defines it in the following:
“The entire story is told in the form of non-rhyming free verse. Very often each section is less than a page in length and only rarely more than two or three pages. Usually each of these sections is given a title to orientate the reader, which may indicate the speaker, or contextualize the content, or point to the core theme. The form lends itself to building each section around a single perspective or thought or voice or incident” (p. 270).
Alexander suggests that there’s good reason for the recent growth in popularity of this genre—it fits well with current trends in technology. Given the digital revolution that has encouraged quick and immediate communication, as a society we’re becoming more dependent on oral and auditory modes. She writes, “A new order has arrived in which the visual and aural imaginations are both active. . .and with books reflecting these shifts” (p. 270). This new emphasis on orality has also placed greater importance on the voices within the text. The narrative voice is much more prominent in the novel-in-verse, than other genres. This genre allows not only for a more personal connection with the narrator(s), but is written as if it were to be read-aloud (p. 270-271).
Its very definition shows why this kind of novel is such a wonderful resource for our classrooms. It eliminates many of the things that can confuse emergent or struggling readers. The majority are written in short sections, with titles that prepare the reader for the upcoming content and/or name the speaker for the section. Confusing dialogue with multiple characters and speaker changes isn’t an issue. There’s no overwhelming amount of text on one page or long chapters.
One of the reasons it can be so fun to use these books in the classroom is because they so easily translate to a read-aloud or even a play-like format, where students take on the characters and read their individual sections of verse. While this is a great activity for all students, it’s particularly helpful for English Language Learners, who need support not only in their reading but also their speaking skills. While I love using all kinds of poetry in the classroom, I think the novel-in-verse exposes students to poetry in a way that may be more approachable. Often times the poems we use with our students are much shorter than an entire novel. But while they may finish the poem faster, it also gives them less time to understand the character, to get used to the flow of the verse and the author’s style. The brevity of a poem can almost make it harder for a student to really understand and connect with the narration. A novel-in-verse allows them the time to settle in to the story and the author’s voice, and experience poetry in a different way.
I hope you’ll consider using a novel-in-verse with your students soon! It would be the perfect activity for National Poetry Month in April. Below I’m including links to the Educator’s Guides we’ve written for the novels-in-verse we’ve featured as monthly books. As our guides focus primarily on books with Latin American content, I’ve also linked to other lesson guides or online resources that discuss a much broader body of novels-in-verse for young adults. Check back in May for our guide to go with Under the Mesquite (another novel-in-verse) written by Guadalupe García McCall. FYI: We’re giving 5 copies of it away this month–all you have to do is comment on any post to be entered!
- Educator’s Guide: The Surrender Tree by Margarita Engle
- Educator’s Guide: Hurricane Dancers by Margarita Engle
- Author Sonya Sone has compiled a list of over 40 novel-in-verse titles on her website
- The Pragmatic Mom shares her top ten young adult and middle grade novels-in-verse
- Classroom Connections shares lesson plans on “Poetry Writing with Novels in Verse”
- Random House includes both book suggestions and lesson plans in their Book Notes Educator’s Guide: Novels in Verse
We hope you’ll share all your own ideas for how to celebrate National Poetry Month with your students! Let us know your experiences with using novels-in-verse!