Language Arts, Poetry, Reading and Literacy

The Novel in Verse: Recommended Reading for the Classroom

The Novel in Verse: Recommended Reading for the Classroom

Originally published February 2022

By Paige Classey Przybylski

The novel in verse, or a story told in a series of poems as opposed to prose, is witnessing an explosion in popularity and publication. Why does the novel in verse deserve a place in your collection, and how can it be incorporated into the classroom?

The Why

The novel in verse appeals to a wide variety of readers. The struggling reader appreciates the abundance of white space and the opportunity to move through a novel at a quicker pace than usual. Also, conflicts and themes that may take several chapters to develop in a prose novel are sometimes distilled into a poem, or even a single passage in a novel in verse.

For example, the opening poem of Garvey’s Choice, by Nikki Grimes, immediately establishes the central conflict between the speaker and his father: “When I was seven/ and crazy for Mr. Spock,/ a Star Trek lunch box/ was all I craved. Instead, Dad/ bought one blaring the logo/ of some football team/ I’d never even heard of.”

The brevity of the novel in verse does not detract from its sophistication, however. For stronger readers, the novel in verse may highlight literary elements that a prose novel may not. Readers might become more attuned to stylistic choices, such as structure and use of figurative language, than when they are reading larger chunks of prose.

In that same excerpt from Garvey’s Choice, for example, stronger readers might wonder why the line breaks so suddenly after “Dad,” or about the potential symbolism of that Star Trek lunch box. Alternatively, in Amber McBride’s Me (Moth), students can trace and analyze the moth motif that is intricately woven throughout the novel, appearing as references to eggs, caterpillars, cocoons, dusty wings, and moths, as well as in contrast to butterflies.

Beyond analyzing literary devices, novels in verse also ask readers to link the poems into a narrative. The poems may be clearly linear, but if they are not, the lack of explanation as to sequence can be thought-provoking in itself. The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo presents a poem about how the speaker differs from her best friend, then shifts to a poem that asks big questions about love and sex, and then to a poem focused on the speaker’s feelings the night before she begins high school. The reader trusts that the author consciously ordered them in this way, and can probe why: Why these particular poems in this sequence?

Reading a novel in verse may also bolster a student’s confidence in exploring other novels that utilize unique text features. Once a student reads and enjoys a novel in verse, they may be more willing to expand their structural horizons by trying Courtney Summers’s Sadie, a novel for murder mystery fans that incorporates a podcast script, or Mark Dunn’s Ella Minnow Pea, an epistolary novel focused on the power of language. Reading a novel that plays with format and structure creates new questions, challenges, and opportunities for developing readers.

Regardless of reading level, the topics explored in many of today’s novels in verse have widespread appeal. Jason Reynold’s Long Way Down is a perennial favorite. Students are hooked by the high stakes: after witnessing the murder of his brother, Will must choose whether or not to avenge his brother’s death, which is the expected response in his neighborhood. The majority of the story unfolds during Will’s descent in his building’s elevator as he struggles to choose his path. 

The premise of Elizabeth Acevedo’s Clap When You Land captures the attention of students of all ages and genders in our media center: in the aftermath of a plane crash that kills their father, two half-sisters (who were not aware of each other’s existence) connect to unravel the family mystery and cope with their grief.

Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover serves in our library as a gateway to the novel in verse for sports fans, who then move on to Manning Up by Bee Walsh. Written in verse and JavaScript, Aimee Lucido’s Emmy in the Key of Code appeals to lovers of music and coding, but also to students who are new to our school (the main character starts at a new middle school in San Francisco).

Countless students who flock to survival stories like Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet and S.A. Bodeen’s The Raft find a match in The Canyon’s Edge by Dusti Bowling, in which a flash flood sweeps away the protagonist’s father and their supplies, leaving her to survive on her own. Another new survival option is Alone by Megan E. Freeman, in which twelve-year-old Maddie awakens to find herself alone in a mysteriously evacuated town.

For fans of darker fare, like Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, Leslie Connor’s Dead on Town Line draws readers into the mind of a murdered girl who is stuck lingering in an in-between state until her body is discovered.

Novels in verse can also amplify underrepresented voices. Our students need access to books that reflect their own experiences, as well as stories that provide insight into the experiences of people in their communities and the world at large. Novels in verse can be another tool in the collection to validate your students’ voices and experiences, shed light on stories that are often silenced, and build empathy and understanding in your school community.

Punching the Air, the story of a wrongfully convicted teen named Amal, especially intrigues readers when they hear it was co-authored by Yusef Salaam, one of the Exonerated Five. He and Ibi Zoboi provide an important glimpse into the life of a boy desperately clinging to the truth and his art in a system that is designed to work against him.

Students looking for people exploring their gender and sexual identities find important characters in novels in verse like The Deepest Breath by Meg Grehan and The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta.

Me (Moth) by Amber McBride relays the stories of Moth and Sani, two teens who embark on a road trip to escape their traumatic pasts, heal, and search for their ancestors. The poems “Things My Grandfather Taught Me About the South” and “Things Sani Knows About the South” are presented side by side, and each depict the haunting impact of slavery and colonization.

Fat-positive Starfish, by Lisa Fipps, chronicles the story of Ellie, an overweight eleven-year-old who faces daily torments from bullies and her critical mother, all while grappling with her best friend moving away. Whenever I present Starfish in a book talk, I always point out the Author’s Note, in which Fipps explains that “a variation of every single mean thing people said or did to Ellie happened to [her] when [she] was a child.”

A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman focuses on a dance prodigy who struggles to reconnect with her identity after losing part of her leg in an accident.

The How

In terms of content, novels in verse provide nearly endless curricular tie-ins. For those teaching history or concepts that can be exemplified throughout history (like facing and overcoming adversity), consider:

  • Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse (1930s Dust Bowl)
  • To Stay Alive: Mary Ann Graves and the Tragic Journey of the Donner Party by Skila Brown
  • Audacity by Melanie Crowder (inspired by the story of Clara Lemlich, a young Jewish woman who became an important voice in the women’s labor movement)
  • Lifeboat 12 by Susan Hood (the sinking of the SS City of Benares)
  • Kent State by Deborah Wiles
  • Full Cicada Moon by Marilyn Hilton (follows Mimi, a half-Black, half-Japanese student coming of age in a predominantly white Vermont town in 1969)
  • Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (a memoir in verse that focuses on growing up as an African American child in the 1960s and ’70s)

Brown Girl Dreaming could also be used for any genre study that delves into memoir, as well as Laurie Halse Anderson’s SHOUT, a call to action in which Anderson advocates for victims of sexual assault; Eric Gansworth’s Apple (Skin to the Core), which details the author’s experiences growing up in an Onondaga family living among Tuscaroras and the disturbing impact of government boarding schools; and Margarita Engle’s Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir, which delves into Engle’s experiences growing up as a child straddling two cultures during the Cold War. Full Cicada Moon and many others listed above also fit the mold of a hero’s journey, a common story structure studied in middle and high school.

Novels in verse pave the way for style analysis. Poems can be studied in isolation or in relation to the novel as a whole. Consider presenting a single poem and asking students to annotate individually or with a partner. Sometimes, giving specific annotation suggestions can be helpful:

  • What do you notice about how the poem looks on the page?
  • How does the tone and mood shift throughout? Which words (or punctuation marks, or line breaks, or…) create those shifts?
  • What is the most important punctuation mark and why?
  • What is the most important line break and why?
  • Why do you think the author selected this title for this poem?
  • Do you notice any examples of figurative language that seem important? What is the effect?
  • Can you connect this poem to anything else you’ve read?
  • What questions do you have for the poet that may help you understand the poem better?
  • What larger questions (about life, humanity, etc.) does this poem raise?

Once students have prepared some ideas, discuss as a class. If studying the poem in relation to the novel as a whole, consider concluding with:

  • Overall, how does this poem develop characterization or theme?
  • How does this poem contribute to the work as a whole?

Finally, novels in verse present tremendous opportunities for creative writing. Consider presenting students with only the first half of a poem they haven’t yet read and asking them to complete it, while staying true to the author’s style and the novel’s characterization and themes. Ask students to share and then listen for patterns in what their peers created. Students’ creative and analytical thinking will be evident in their writing and comments.

Students can also use the opening lines or part titles to launch their own verse writing. Part I of Brown Girl Dreaming is entitled “I Am Born”; the first poem of Punching the Air is entitled “Birth.” Every student is going to have a story they’ve heard about their own birth or adoption, or when they first became aware of something important. Provide the students with a topic like this, or an image, line, or pattern to “recycle” from the verse novel you’re studying. You will have given them an opportunity for rich reflection and writing.

Ultimately, novels in verse are a great addition to any classroom. They keep our students reading, connecting, empathizing, exploring, analyzing, and creating. Why not start using them today?

Novel in Verse Starter List:

By Megan E. Freeman
Aladdin (2021)
Grade Level: 5+

An unexpected evacuation of her Colorado town leaves Maddie to fend for herself as winter approaches.

Apple (Skin to the Core)
By Eric Gansworth
Levine Querido (2020)
Grade Level: 7+

Through a mix of verse, prose, and artwork, Gansworth explores his past as an enrolled member of the Onondaga Nation growing up among the Tuscarora.

By Melanie Crowder
Philomel Books (2015)
Grade Level: 7+

Clara Lemlich, a Russian Jewish immigrant, organizes a union for women in New York during the early 1900s.

The Black Flamingo
By Dean Atta
Balzer + Bray (2020)
Grade Level: 8+

Michael, a mixed-race gay teen, finds the Drag Society and a sense of belonging.

Brown Girl Dreaming
By Jacqueline Woodson
Nancy Paulsen Books (2014)
Grade Level: 4+

Author Jacqueline Woodson relates her experiences growing up in Ohio, South Carolina, and New York City in the 1960s and ’70s.

The Canyon’s Edge
By Dusti Bowling
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (2020)
Grade Level: 4+

A climbing trip with her dad takes a terrible turn, and Nora finds herself lost and alone in the desert.


Clap When You Land
By Elizabeth Acevedo
Quill Tree Books (2020)
Grade Level: 8+

Two half-sisters discover each other’s existence after their father perishes in a plane crash.

The Crossover
By Kwame Alexander
Clarion Books (2014)
Grade Level: 6+

Twins Josh and JB share a love of basketball, but trouble arises when JB gets a girlfriend and their father’s health declines.

Dead on Town Line
By Leslie Connor
Dial Books for Young Readers (2005)
Grade Level: 7+

Sixteen-year-old Cassie narrates the search for her murdered body from the afterlife.

The Deepest Breath
By Meg Grehan
Clarion Books (2021)
Grade Level: 4+

Eleven-year-old Stevie tries to understand her confusing feelings for her friend, Chloe.

Emmy in the Key of Code
By Aimee Lucido
Versify (2019)
Grade Level: 5+

Sixth-grader Emmy starts at a new middle school and pursues her love of music and coding.

Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir
By Margarita Engle
Atheneum Books for Young Readers (2015)
Grade Level: 5+

Margarita Engle relays her experiences as a child caught between two cultures during the Cold War.

Full Cicada Moon
By Marilyn Hilton
Dial Books for Young Readers (2015)
Grade Level: 4+

Twelve-year-old Mimi feels like an outsider in her predominantly white Vermont town.

Garvey’s Choice
By Nikki Grimes
Wordsong (2016)
Grade Level: 4+

Garvey struggles to stay true to his own interests in the face of his father’s disapproval.

Kent State
By Deborah Wiles
Scholastic (2020)
Grade Level: 7+

A free verse account of the killing of four college students during protests against the Vietnam War.

Lifeboat 12
By Susan Hood
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (2018)
Grade Level: 4+

In 1940, 13-year-old Ken struggles to stay alive on a lifeboat after the ship carrying him to safety in Canada is torpedoed.

Long Way Down
By Jason Reynolds
Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books (2017)
Grade Level: 7+

Fifteen-year-old Will sets out to avenge his brother’s murder, but is visited by seven ghosts as he descends in the elevator.

Manning Up
By Bee Walsh
West 44 Books (2019)
Grade Level: 7+

Jack struggles to manage his body dysmorphia and steroid use while maintaining his athletic prowess on his high school’s football team.

Me (Moth)
By Amber McBride
Feiwel and Friends (2021)
Grade Level: 8+

After surviving horrific traumas, teens Moth and Sani embark on a road trip of healing and self-discovery.

Out of the Dust
By Karen Hesse
Scholastic (1997)
Grade Level: 5+

Set in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl, Billie Jo copes with the tragic loss of her mother.

The Poet X
By Elizabeth Acevedo
Quill Tree Books (2018)
Grade Level: 8+

A young girl in Harlem attempts to navigate her family’s expectations and her own dreams.

Punching the Air
By Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam
Balzer + Bray (2020)
Grade Level: 7+

Sixteen-year-old Amal, budding artist, is incarcerated for a crime he did not commit.

By Laurie Halse Anderson
Viking Books for Young Readers (2019)
Grade Level: 9+

A memoir in verse that explores rape and resilience, while also serving as a call to action.

By Lisa Fipps
Nancy Paulsen Books (2021)
Grade Level: 5+

Eleven-year-old Ellie is bullied by her peers and mother, but finds refuge in therapy, swimming, friendship, and a bond with her father.

A Time to Dance
By Padma Venkatraman
Nancy Paulsen Books (2014)
Grade Level: 6+

After losing part of her leg in an accident, Veda comes to terms with her injury and reclaims her identity as a dancer.

To Stay Alive: Mary Ann Graves and the Tragic Journey of the Donner Party
By Skila Brown
Candlewick Press (2016)
Grade Level: 6+

Nineteen-year-old Mary Ann faces unimaginable circumstances when winter traps her family’s wagon party in the Sierra Nevada.

Paige Classey Przybylski is a media specialist at Walter C. Polson Middle School in Madison, CT. She has a BA in English and an MA in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Connecticut.