Wednesday, January 02, 2013

It Gets Verse: The Power of Poetry to Tell a Story

By Robyn Hood Black, @artsyletters

What is a verse novel? A genre that triggers lively discussion about what exactly it is or isn’t. I won’t attempt to resolve that question, only to highlight that narrative poetry has been around forever (The Epic of Gilgamesh predates even The Iliad and The Odyssey by a couple thousand years). Narrative told through verse has flourished in various forms through the centuries.

“Verse novels” have emerged in the last couple of decades as fiction which tells a structured story through poetry (typically unrhymed free verse) rather than straight prose. As I heard an agent mention at a recent writing conference, a successful verse novel manuscript involves more than just hitting the return key!

In the world of books for young readers, the 1990s featured several novels written in verse. Karen Hesse’s OUT OF THE DUST broke ground as the first verse novel to win a Newbery, in 1998. For a terrific (though not exhaustive) list of books in this category, visit the website of Sonya Sones, whose STOP PRETENDING – WHAT HAPPENED WHEN MY BIG SISTER WENT CRAZY appeared in 1999, followed by several other acclaimed novels in verse. Some of my favorite authors are listed on Sones’s site, including Helen Frost, Sharon Creech, Paul Janezcko, Virginia Euwer Wolff, Ann Turner, and many more.

Let’s drop in on a few award-winning contemporary poets with successful verse novels and see what they might share with us about the genre.

First stop: THE DANCING PANCAKE by the gifted, prolific, and beloved Eileen Spinelli (illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff, Afred A. Knopf, 2010). In this novel, sixth-grader Bindi must adjust to a new life after her parents’ separation, one which includes the opening of a new family diner where some unlikely and endearing characters pull up a chair.

We meet homeless Grace, in her “ratty red high tops” and cracked glasses, pulling a “rickety cart.”

She comes in most every day.
Always orders the same thing:
“Coffee, toast . . . and
extra jelly, waitress-girl.”

Aunt Darnell always adds
something extra to her plate –
a slice of ham . . . a fried egg . . .
a blueberry pancake.
She tells the lady they are mistakes.
She tells the lady just to pay for
the coffee and toast.

©Eileen Spinelli. All rights reserved.

How did Spinelli come to choose poetry as a vehicle for storytelling?

“When I was a little girl I fell in love with poetry...and that love affair continues to this day,” she says. “For me writing a novel in verse feels quite natural. I like the simplicity of it...the way the words look on the page. I like having fun with language while at the same time 'streamlining'. I don't think of poetry as better than prose...just different.”

A protagonist slightly older than Bindi can be found in April Halprin Wayland’s GIRL COMING IN FOR A LANDING (illustrated by Elaine Clayton, Knopf, 2002), which was an honor book for the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award and won the Myra Cohn Livingston Award, among other accolades. More than a hundred poems capture the highs and lows of a school year in the life of a young teenager, who is also a young writer.

I have to write.
A splinter pushes up through my skin
and I can’t sleep
until this sliver of words
works its way out.

©April Halprin Wayland. All rights reserved.

Wayland chronicles romantic crushes, physical changes, evolving friendships, and family relationships in these varied, candid poems.

“In GIRL COMING IN FOR A LANDING, I wanted each poem to stand alone,” Wayland says. “If you opened any page, I wanted you to be able to resonate with that poem whether or not you'd read the whole book.”

Her current project has a more direct storyline.

“I'm now writing a verse novel that is more narrative; sometimes that means sacrificing specific poems to the flames of the storytelling arc. That is, some aren't really poems but include information that is crucial to the story,” Wayland explains. “It's heartbreaking to write a poem that isn't particularly poetic and that can't stand alone...but the story is stronger this way. Ah, the sacrifices we make! Just call me Joan of Arc.”

(If you didn’t get that, read her paragraph again from the beginning. :0)

Verse novels can also lend themselves to more focused, serious topics. In Susan Taylor Brown’s HUGGING THE ROCK (Tricycle, 2006), a Notable Book for ALA and NCTE among many other awards, young protagonist Rachel comes to terms with her mother’s leaving. She also discovers there’s much more to her father than she’d ever realized. This tightly rendered story tackles bipolar disorder, and as family relationships are fearlessly and sensitively revealed, the characters (and the reader) grow.

An early poem, “RUN AWAY,” describes Rachel’s need to run from her mother’s packed car in the driveway. Her mother’s dog, Madison, chases her, thinking it’s a game:
I collapse on the grass.
Madison sits down next to me
and big drops of saliva hit my arm.
I let the drool slide down my elbow
before I wipe it off with the edge of my shirt
wishing I could wipe off today
as easy as that.

©Susan Taylor Brown. All rights reserved.

Brown describes the way poetry impacts storytelling.

“A verse novel forces me to both characterize and move the story forward with less words than a novel in straight prose,” she says. “As a result I think I do a better job in picking the right words, images, and metaphors. I'd like to say that you need (and get) the same qualities in a prose novel but oftentimes (for me) the sheer weight of a prose novel gets in the way of the emotion that I feel I can share when writing in verse. By distilling each scene in a verse novel down to a single poem, I am able to get a laser-like focus on the emotional honesty of both characters and story.”

That laser-like focus takes a lot of work, but if you read some verse novels, I think you’ll find them worth it. As Brown adds, “Poetry cuts to the bone of the moment with an emotional knife.”

Contemplating crafting your own verse novel for young people? If you can make it to Atlanta at the end of February, hurry over to the SCBWI Southern Breeze site and register for our Springmingle Friday intensive led by award-winning poet and novelist Nikki Grimes, author of BRONX MASQUERADE, JAZMIN’S NOTEBOOK, DARK SONS and many other titles. (Space is limited.) You can check out my interview with Nikki Grimes for the Poetry Advocates for Children and Young Adults–PACYA–blog series on NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children winners here. Her website and the sites of all of these authors will further your exploration of verse novels. Happy journeying!

Robyn Hood Black writes poetry, fiction and nonfiction for young readers from the foothills of north Georgia. Her books include SIR MIKE (Scholastic Library, 2005), and WOLVES (Intervisual Books, 2008). Her poems appear in THE ARROW FINDS ITS MARK (Roaring Brook, 2012) and THE POETRY FRIDAY ANTHOLOGY (2012). Her haiku have been published in leading haiku journals. She’s also just launched an art business with “art for your literary side” at


  1. Robyn, What is your opinion of stories told in rhyming verse for younger children's picture books? I'm a published author and poet, and I have been told time and again "No stories in rhyming verse" by picture book publishers. I know children love rhymes, but what about publishers?

  2. Hi, Ramey! Thanks for stopping by. You know, I've always heard that same advice, too - but my first book contract was for a manuscript written in rhyme, my Rookie Reader for Scholastic (SIR MIKE). The rhyme has to be spot-on and must not detract from the actual story, which must be strong in its own right. I agree children enjoy rhyming texts, and I think there are still editors who do as well, though they're inundated with many manuscripts that are not well crafted. That's what leads to the "no stories in rhyming verse" advice, I believe. But if that's the way your story wants to be told, I'd honor that and send it out. Good luck!

  3. Robyn, I am in love with this picture of you! It's YOU. And how wonderful are the poets and books you feature here? So very. Thanks for the great post.

  4. Thanks, Irene! (And thanks for the fun comments; Kim Siegelson had said the same thing re. the pic, so I figured I'd give it to Janice to use here.) Glad you like these featured poets - I love them all. And you!

  5. Oddly enough, though I love to write poetry, and I love narrative verse like Beowulf, I've never thought of pairing the two in a modern setting. What a great post, Robyn, thanks!

  6. Rachel6, thanks so much! There are some great contemporary examples out there. I don't know much about those for the adult market, which began in the 80s I believe. There are many out there now for teens, and others like these mentioned for older midgrade and younger YA readers. (I've always liked Beowulf, too!)

  7. Fabulous article, Robyn...I'm so honored to be included!

  8. Thank you for lending your talent and insights, April! So honored to feature you and your work.

  9. Fascinating post! I really enjoyed this, Robyn. I love stories told in verse and need to add more to my to-read list.

  10. Michelle, Thank you for coming by and for your kind comments! I've always got verse novels on my to-read list, too....

  11. Great blog. Will link to it in an upcoming issue on poetry for a newsletter I co-publish. Thanks!

  12. Thanks, Carol - you have a couple of great blogs!

  13. Robyn,
    I really appreciate learning about these three excellent examples of novels in verse. I will have to add them to my to-read list. I too love the picture.

  14. Thanks, Robyn. Great list of verse novels for children and teens. April's book is one of my favorites. Do you know Holly Thompson's YA novel-in-verse, Orchards?

  15. I finally am able to read all your posts, Robyn. I love April's book, Girl Coming In For A Landing & have used it with students in the past. I am not familiar with the other two books, although I know both authors. They sound wonderful. So many books out there! I have enjoyed verse novels over the years, & love introducing them to students, especially students who believe they don't like poetry. The novels win them over, & they're off to read more poems, or write! Thanks for the lovely interviews & info, & the additional link.

  16. Hi, Liz! Thanks so much for clicking over. You'll enjoy these books if you get a chance to read them.

    Laura, thanks for dropping in. I've read someo ther YA verse novels but haven't read Orchards; will check it out - thanks!

    Hi, Linda - your comments make my day. I love to hear about ways teachers connect students (especially those resistent to anything with the word 'poetry' in it) to writing like that in the books above. Re. "& they're off to read more poems, or write!" - it doesn't get any better than that! Thanks for sharing.

  17. [Laura, make that "some other" rather than "someo ther" - ;0)]

  18. fascinating post! I'm going to add these books to my reading list. Love that except from April Halprin Wayland's book! So interesting to have a young protagonist poet!

  19. Thanks, B. J.! April's book is wonderful - a little different from the other two here because it is essentially a collection versus event-to-event storytelling. I, too, loved that her main character was a writer. :0)

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  21. Tennis with or without nets - When you write sonnets and other structured poems, it's like playing tennis with net and rules.poems