Last spring, the English supervisor in my district sent an unexpected gift to teachers: a list of several dozen books from which we could each order six for our classrooms on the district’s dime. Many titles were familiar classics such as Poe short stories and Twain novels. But a portion of the books were in a format I’d not yet incorporated in my teaching: novels in verse, also called verse novels. Among the selections for eighth grade were bestsellers like Jason Reynolds’s Long Way Down, Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X, and Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out and Back Again.
Verse novels are having a moment—in the publishing world and in classrooms across America. Often using free verse, creative punctuation, and in some cases blank space to tell stories with characters and narrative arcs, they recall ancient epic poetry but are recast in today’s vernacular, multimedia fluency, and cultural diversity. “Over the last few years, we’ve seen such an amazing boom” in verse novels, says Philadelphia-based literary agent Eric Smith, “particularly from marginalized writers.” The Song of Us, published this year and written by Smith’s client Kate Fussner, for instance, retells the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in verse as a queer love story. Reynolds, who is the Library of Congress’s 2020 national ambassador for young people’s literature, blurbed the book as “a gorgeous tale” that “feels like a song.”
To find out more about how middle and high school teachers are incorporating this exciting literary form into lessons, I checked in with educators from Texas to Shanghai and came away inspired to use verse novels with my students this year.
A Powerful Engagement Hook
The immediacy, expansiveness, and playfulness of verse novels draw in students who otherwise may find poetry opaque or flowery, and prose novels intimidatingly dense. They also tend to let students begin to see a place for themselves as writers. “They start realizing that writing doesn’t have to be a specific thing,” says Schuyler Hunt, a ninth-grade teacher in Washington, D.C. “Writing doesn’t have to fit in a narrow box; it can be expansive, it can be playful, it can be outside of a formal register and still have tremendous power.”
Teachers who’ve taught verse novels for years told me about their immediacy. Written with YA readers in mind, they’re often focused on contemporary concerns, engaging kids quickly, compared with, for example, classic long-form poems like The Odyssey—which may take longer for kids to connect with but should continue to be an important part of the reading mix. Students find a verse novel like Inside Out and Back Again “easy to read and understand because each of the poems are set up like snapshots of a moment in time,” says Lisa Bello, a middle school teacher in Jersey City, New Jersey. Because they use blank space and creative lineation, verse novels can provide a transition from illustrated books to all-text novels. Yet teachers emphasize that they are not simply a step on the way to “real novels” but a valuable and essential form that engages students and leans on oral traditions, broadening the middle and high school canons.
The engagement piece is critical, of course, as the research continues to track how reading for pleasure, now at its lowest level in decades, drops precipitously by middle school, according to the Pew Research Center. Around third grade, 42 percent of kids say they read for fun almost every day, but by age 13, that number drops to 17 percent. Experts such as the psychologist Jean Twenge attribute this decline to the distractions of social media and smartphones, but others fault school accountability measures, which haven’t led to significant gains in reading or engagement, especially as testing mandates squeeze out classroom activities known to reinforce lifelong reading habits, such as independent reading time and access to different genres and formats.
With verse novels, the appearance of brevity “never fails to hook my reluctant readers,” says Rebecca Decker, who teaches English at Brick Township High School in New Jersey. Her observation is echoed by many teachers I spoke with. “The amount of blank space on the pages is initially very attractive,” says high school teacher Hunt. “Blank space defines what is actually on the page. It’s a great exercise in inferential reading.”
While the clever, sparse writing style and format may appeal to new or lapsed readers, teachers say it allows for a similar level of layered analytical interpretation as they’d use in a poetry unit. The verse novel “allows teachers the flexibility of having deeper discussion, and it empowers kids because they can finish a book,” says Bloomington, Illinois, high school teacher Brandon Thornton. “I felt more empowered to teach figurative language in context—to have a text in front of me to say when [Reynolds] says your tail is showing, he’s not talking about a dog tail.”
Like Someone Talking In Your Ear
While verse novels may feel like a new and exciting type of reading when students first encounter them, teachers point out that the form has a long history, going back to epic poetry and oral storytelling. Verse novels, says Rebecca Decker, “are updated forms of writing we have had for centuries. But therein lies the key—they’re updates. Our students are worlds apart from The Odyssey, and while it’s important to show them where writing has come from, I believe as an educator it is even more important to show them how writing has evolved.”
Verse novels tend to be first person and personal, making them uniquely accessible to younger readers. They are often “very direct, almost like someone is talking in your ear, someone is pouring their heart out to you, and kids relate to that,” says author Betty Culley, whose book The Name She Gave Me follows an adoptee finding her birth mother.
They are also expansive in whose voices and lives are featured in a story. “With students who are first generation or immigrants themselves, sometimes it makes them feel less alone because they can identify with some of the experiences of the characters,” says Bello, the middle school teacher. Many cultures had long literary traditions before the popularization of the prose novel in 19th-century Europe. While the first identified novel, or fictional work in prose, is an 11th-century Japanese work, The Tale of Genji, most global cultures historically focused on poetry and drama.
The connection to spoken word and oral storytelling resonated with the Latinae and Black San Diego high school students in the classroom of Andreana McCall, now an English professor at Mount San Antonio College. “Students from historically marginalized communities—Black, brown, Asian—have oral traditions. They are familiar with tias and tios telling stories at community and familial events. When they are exposed to a writing form that mimics that, then they are at home.” McCall would preface reading of The Poet X, about a high school student who finds a home in the school’s slam poetry club, with videos of the author sharing spoken-word poems, which grabbed her students’ interest immediately.
Verse Novels in the Classroom
As I spoke with teachers about the verse novel format and its impact on middle and high school readers, they shared many creative strategies for teaching these books in class. Here are four standout approaches.
Create book clubs: Students can pick from a selection of verse novels to form book clubs and then discuss and analyze literary elements in whole-class lessons. Schuyler Hunt’s ninth graders choose from Long Way Down, The Poet X, and Dean Atta’s The Black Flamingo for an end-of-year unit where they examine the author’s use of language (and their own language growth) through a full-class Socratic seminar and a portfolio. In Matthew Kloosterman’s middle-school classroom in Shenzhen, China, students form book clubs that support a shared theme. “Students can take a stance as a book club on whether their verse novel connects or does not to the theme, with justification provided,” he says.
Dive into literary analysis: Verse novels can be accessible as whole-class reads, focusing on analysis of poetic and narrative elements, from metaphor and simile to characterization and conflict. Students can analyze a poem or page during one class. Bloomington’s Thornton adjusts his figurative language lessons to incorporate examples from Long Way Down, and students write their own couplets in response, highlighting a literary element.
Explore themes and background knowledge: Most verse novels make a point to engage with larger social issues. While reading Reynolds’s Long Way Down, Thornton’s 11th graders in Indiana focus on the idea of rules and which ones are productive, culminating in an impassioned debate about the book’s open-ended conclusion. Rebecca Decker’s students read the same book for a unit on juvenile justice. Kloosterman’s middle-grade students in China compare themes of truth, history, and individual freedom in Long Way Down and The Outsiders.
Independent reading and multimedia responses: Students can pick a verse novel from a classroom library or from a curated selection of verse novels for independent reading, and then highlight favorite quotes on a classroom quote wall or via multimedia projects such as music videos, written poetry, or spoken-word poetry. McCall’s students’ final project, for example, was a short video montage that featured their own poem in the style of Acevedo with accompanying music and photographs.