Making Poetry Accessible With Verse Novels
Teachers can guide students to appreciate poetry by sharing contemporary novels focused on topics that feel relevant to their lives.
As a teacher (and would-be poet), I’m often struck by the difficulty of engaging young readers in poetry, a form that I love and practice. When I’d ask my middle grades English language arts classes about their interest in poetry, only a few hands would usually go up. Often, when we turned to class anthologies, we were greeted with sonnets and older language to try to sell the form. While I appreciated those textbook examples, I really needed something more to spark my students’ curiosity.
I found that in verse novels, texts that are growing in popularity for exploring lived experiences and making poetry accessible for upper elementary and middle grades readers. (They’re also available at the high school level, and I recommend Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam’s Punching the Air as a text to begin in this direction.)
The language and topics in verse novels have an inviting and contemporary feeling that might help students see poetry as alive and vibrant—art to create and enjoy today.
Create Access Through Words
Part of what makes poetry so powerful is the ways in which authors use words with skill. While we can locate examples in titles for older readers, work from authors like Margarita Engle and Pam Muñoz Ryan illustrates this use of language for young readers.
Ryan’s work The Dreamer takes up the story of Pablo Neruda in a way that serves as an introduction to poetry and a poet. Illustrated by Peter Sís, this book mingles poetry and prose with visuals to explore an elegant range of creativity—the perfect introduction and hook to work our way into Neruda’s verse. And Engle’s work With a Star in My Hand explores the story of Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío with masterful beauty.
Create Access Through Technique
The poet’s toolkit is another aspect of verse that makes the medium powerful and illustrates the variety of approaches that authors can take. Kwame Alexander artfully uses onomatopoeia in his verse novel series The Crossover (two titles of which have been published as graphic novels, illustrated by Dawud Anyabwile).
Alexander captures sound on the page and sprinkles in doses of rhyme and wordplay to show that poetry can include these classic elements, and more, while not necessarily adhering to a specific scheme. The work he does is musical and has the sense of dribbling action, like a runner sprinting down a court or like a basketball bouncing. Alexander also makes use of the classic elements of alliteration, similes, and metaphors (from The Crossover, check out: “downright dirty,” “Your game so sweet, it’s a crêpes suzette,” “mad as a flame”).
In the first pages of her verse novel A Time to Dance, Padma Venkatraman shows the reader the power of sensory language and imagery (“into the cool darkness of the temple, / where sweat-smell mingles with the fragrance of incense”), as well as the important role of dialogue and the effect of repetition. Jasmine Warga begins her verse novel Other Words for Home with a similar focus on the senses, as well as the impact of line break choices to draw attention to keywords, emotions, and ideas.
Create Access Through Visions of Self
Finally, part of what makes poetry powerful is its focus on experience. Poetry is highly personal and interpretive. Once more, I give attention to Kwame Alexander, who explores loss and grief in The Crossover series. In his most recent work, The Door of No Return, Alexander explores growth, maturity, and grief. These emotions and experiences are part of the substance of life, and when they appear, they give opportunities for further conversation.
Similarly, Jacqueline Woodson explores her family history in the verse novel Brown Girl Dreaming, showing the power of memories and the importance of keeping up with the moments we experience. Activities with this book might lead to students writing about their own personal or family histories, memories, and what is most meaningful to them. K. A. Holt has written a range of verse novels that present life experiences in inviting ways. This past summer, I shared Holt’s book Rhyme Schemer with a group of preservice and in-service teachers, and we built a meaningful conversation around the author’s depiction of a bully who is bullied, an outlaw poet of sorts, in a seventh-grade classroom.
Poetry is the perfect venue for exploring feelings that are hard to process, including loss and trauma. We can learn a lot about ourselves and our students when we share invitations to these creative works.
In addition to the titles I’ve mentioned above, I highly recommend:
- Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo
- They Call Me Güero: A Border Kid’s Poems by David Bowles
- Knockout by K. A. Holt
- Every Body Looking by Candice Iloh
- Ain't Burned All the Bright by Jason Reynolds and Jason Griffin
- Long Way Down: The Graphic Novel by Jason Reynolds and Danica Novgorodoff
In short, there’s an open door to the poetry “club.” Students can join in and explore this form for themselves, and my point in any poetry unit is that verse isn’t exclusive and erudite, but inclusive and personal. In fact, I remind myself often that students are readily and openly engaged with poetry in the form of the music they listen to, and this reality isn’t always pointed out. When I use song lyrics as a way of introducing form and poetic authorship, students respond well and embrace the truth that poetry is around them and part of their lives all the time.