“10+ More Verse Novels” (2019) http://www.yawednesday.com/blog/verse-novels-for-national-poetry-month-by-lesley-roessing)
She has written about memoirs, 9/11, strong girls and a variety of other topics. Overall, this post is Lesley's twentieth guest post. Thanks Lesely!
The best way to discover Lesley amazing contributions is to take a look at the contributor's page and then hit Control F and put in "Lesley" and you will find all of her posts. Oh, and once you find them, make sure to bookmark them. You will want to refer to them over and over again.
Verse Novels to Engage Readers: An Update on 20 New Novels-in-Verse
by Lesley Roessing
Verse novels are published in a variety of genres, i.e., memoir, biography, historical fiction, and all other types of fiction, and written at a range of reading levels. These novels are available by diverse authors on diverse topics, featuring diverse characters and settings. Verse texts lend themselves to lessons for teaching poetic elements and devices and can be employed as mentor texts for writing poetry or poetically.
Novel-in-verse is a text format which engages readers for divergent reasons. Reluctant readers, emerging readers, and ELL readers particularly appreciate the less-dense text while proficient readers value their lyricism and creative structures, the words, the spacing—sometimes creatively designed. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote, “Prose, the best words; poetry, the best words in the best order.”
What I particularly appreciate in reading verse novels is the effectiveness of the line breaks which nuance the author’s or narrator’s message and allow the reader to note the words or phrases important to the authors’ meaning. When reading independently, I tell students to take an “eye-linger,” and, if reading aloud, line breaks require a pause shorter than that of a period and maybe even a comma.
Line breaks help
Us figure out
To the poet.
Don’t jumble your ideas
Mrs. Marcus says
Verse novels are becoming more prevalent, and I have read one hundred, the majority published quite recently. Here I share some I have read since my my 2018 and 2019 YA Wednesday verse novel guest-blogs linked in Steve's intro above and below my new reviews is a list of all those I have read and recommend for community, school, classroom, and home libraries and readers.
In one smooth move, like a plane taking off,
Higher and higher and higher--
As if pulled by some invisible wire,
And just when it seemed he’d have to come down,
He’d HANG there, suspended, floating like a bird or a cloud,
Changing direction, shifting the ball to the other side,
Twisting in midair, slashing, crashing,
Gliding past the defense, up—up—above the rim.
Above the Rim is the story of NBA player Elgin Baylor and how he changed basketball, but it is also the story of Civil Rights in the United States and how Elgin contributed to that movement.
Readers follow Elgin from age 14 when he began playing basketball “in a field down the street” to college ball at the College of Idaho to becoming the #1 draft pick for the Minneapolis Lakers (later the LA Lakers) to being named 1959 NBA Rookie of the Year. At the same time readers follow the peaceful protests of Rosa Parks, the Little Rock Nine, and the African American college students sitting at the “whites only” Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, NC.
In his first season Baylor sat out a game to protest the hotel and restaurants serving “whites only,” leading the NBA commissioner to make an anti-discrimination rule. “Elgin had already changed the way basketball was played. Now by sitting down and NOT playing, he helped change things off court.”
“Artists [such as Baylor,] change how we see things, how we perceive human limits, and how we define ourselves and our culture.” (Author’s Note)
This picture book, exquisitely illustrated by Frank Morrison, belongs in every classroom and home library for readers of all ages. Lyrically written in free verse by Jen Bryant, it would serve as a mentor texts for many writing focus lessons:
- repetition, free verse, and rhyming lines for musicality
- technical language (jargon), i.e., hanging jumper, spin-shot, backboard
- active verbs, i.e., gliding, shifting, floating, twisted, reverse dunked
- Figurative language, i.e., floating like a bird or a cloud
- Sensory details, i.e., steamy summer day, padlocked fences, clickety-clack trains, flick of his wrist, beds that were too short, cold food
Following the story, the author provides a lengthy Author’s Note about Baylor, a bibliography of Further Reading, and a 1934-2018 Timeline of Elgin’s life, black athletes, and Civil Rights highlights.
Becoming Muhammad Ali relates the story of boxer Cassius Clay from the time he began training as an amateur boxer at age 12 until he won the Chicago Golden Gloves on March 25, 1959—with glimpses forward to his 1960 Olympic gold medal and his transformation to Muhammad Ali.
The novel is creatively co-written by two authors in the voices of two narrator-characters: James Patterson writes as Cassius’ childhood best friend Lucius “Lucky” in prose and Kwame Alexander writes in verse, sometimes rhyming, most times not, as Cassius Clay. Dawud Anyabwile drew the wonderful illustrations.
Cassius Clay’s grandaddy always advised him, “Know who you are, Cassius. And whose you are. Know where you going and where you from.” (25) and he did. From Louisville, Kentucky, from Bird and Clay, and (in his own “I Am From” poem) from “slavery to freedom,…from the unfulfilled dreams of my father to the hallelujah hopes of my momma.” (28-29)
Readers learn WHY Cassius Cassius fought,
for my name
for my life
for Papa Cash
and Momma Bird
for my grandaddy
and his grandaddy…
for my chance
for my children
for their children
for a chance
at something better
at something way
As Lucky tells the reader, “He was loud. He was proud. He called himself the Greatest. Even when he wasn’t. Yet. But deep down, where it mattered, he could be very humble. It was another part of him that he didn’t let most people see.” (231) “He was also a true and loyal friend.” (305)
Throughout the novel, readers also learn boxing moves, information about famous boxers, such as Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano, and matches, and even more about the person who was Cassius Clay and became Muhammad Ali.
I have long been a fan of Jacquelyn Woodson’s books and have read all her picture books, middle grades, Young Adult, and adult books. Her newest novel for middle grade readers not only is a well-written verse novel but addresses an important topic—CTE.
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is a degenerative brain disease found in athletes, military veterans, and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma or concussion. Many of our children are affected by CTE either through their parents and other relatives who played sports as children and as adults or served in the military or as athletes themselves who may face CTE in their futures. Sports with high risks of concussion are rugby, American football, ice hockey, and soccer, as well as lacrosse, wrestling, basketball, softball, field hockey, baseball, and cheerleading.
Before the ever after, there was three of us
And we lived happily
Before the ever after. (7)
Before the Ever After there was ZJ, his mother and famous father. ZJ’s father was Zachariah 44, a pro football star, hero to many and to his son,
he’s not my hero,
he’s my dad, which means
he’s my every single thing.” (4)
But in the Ever After, ZJ’s dad is forgettful, moody, has splitting headaches, and sometimes even yells. Only 35 years old, he has good days and bad days. The many doctors he visits and tests he is subjected to don’t have any answers or a cure, but doctors all agree this is a result of the many concussions he suffered in his career as a football player. Only ZJ’s music seems to bring him peace.
Before—and During—the Ever After, ZJ has loyal, true friends: Ollie, Darry, and Daniel:
Feels like we’re all just one amazing kid
the four of us, each a quarter
of a whole (108)
And he has his music:
When I sing, the songs feel
as magic as Daniel’s bike
as brilliant as Ollie’s numbers
as smooth as Darry’s moves
as good as the four of us hanging out
on a bright cold Saturday afternoon.
It feels right
and always. (15)
This is a novel about the effects of CTE but also the story of family and friends.
On March 11, 2011, a magnitude-9 earthquake, the strongest earthquake in Japan’s recorded history, shook northeastern Japan, unleashing a savage tsunami. More than 5,000 aftershocks hit Japan in the year after the earthquake. The tsunami caused the meltdown of three nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant resulting in the release of radioactive materials. (LiveScience.com and National Geographic.org)
Beyond Me is one story of this tragedy. Fifth-grader Maya lives in Japan with her American mother and Japanese father, grandmother, and great grandfather. On March 9, 2011, at the end of their school year, her class feels an earthquake, different from earthquakes they have experienced before.
On March 11th at 7:44am the “earth shudders.” Beginning at 2:46pm an earthquake struck the eastern coast “so strong it pushed Japan’s main island eastward, created a massive tsunami, and slashed the eastern coastline in size.” (89) And even though Maya’s family lives miles from the tsunami, they are affected, and Maya is terrified. She chronicles the 24 days after the earthquake, sometimes minute by minute, as she shares her thoughts and feelings over what is happening in her house, her town, and, through the news, the people of Northeast Japan. The house shakes, food is rationed, and transportation has stopped, but she and her family are safe.
Readers see Maya overcome her fears and reach out with her mother and father to help those most affected by the disaster. She and Yuka fold paper cranes and ask for sunflowers seeds to plant, and Maya writes notes to the “People of the Northeast.” Maya continues journaling for 113 days after she and her best friend plant sunflower seeds on her grandparents’ farm, strengthening and helping to heal Earth as the mug she put back together with lacquer and gold dust.
Through free verse, timelines, and creative word placements readers take this journey with Maya as they learn a lot about nature and the effects of earthquakes. This book would pair nicely with Leza Lowitz’s Up from the Sea, a verse novel that focuses on the story of one town and one boy directly affected by the tsunami.
One plane crash. One father’s death. Two families’ loss.
“Papi boards the same flight every year.”(18) This year when her father leaves for his annual 3 months in his homeland, Yahaira knows the secret he has kept for 17 years. But she is unaware of who else knows. Not Camino, the other daughter who is practically Yahaira’s twin. Camino only knows she has a Papi who lives and works in New York City nine months a year to support her and the aunt who has raised her since her mother died.
When Papi’s plane crashes on its way from New York to the Dominican Republic, all passengers lose their lives and many families are left grieving. But none are more affected than the two daughters who loved their Papi, the two daughters whose mothers he had married.
It was like he was two
Completely different men.
It’s like he split himself in half.
It’s like he bridged himself across the Atlantic.
Never fully here or there.
One toe in each country. (360)
Sixteen year old Yahaira lives in NYC, a high school chess champion until she discovered her father’s secret second marriage certificate and stopped speaking to him and stopped competing, and has a girlfriend who is an environmentalist and a deep sense of what’s right. “This girl felt about me/how I felt about her.” (77) Growing up in NYC, Yahaira was raised Dominican.
If you asked me what I was,
& you meant in terms of culture,
I’d say Dominican.
no question about it.
Can you be from a place
you have never been? (97)
Sixteen year old Camino’s mother died quite suddenly when she was young, and she and her aunt, the community spiritual healer, are dependent on the money her father sends. Not wealthy by any means, they are the considered well-off in the barrio where Papi was raised; Camino goes to a private school and her father pays the local sex trafficker to leave her alone. And then the plane crash occurs.
Two months to seventeen, two dead parents,
& an aunt who looks worried
Because we both know, without my father,
Without his help, life as we’ve known it has ended. (105)
Camino’s goal has always been to move to New York, live with her father, and study to become a doctor at Columbia University. Finding out about her father’s family in New York, she makes a plan with her share of the insurance money from the airlines. But Yahaira has her own plan—to go to her father’s Dominican burial despite the wishes of her mother, meet this sister, and explore her culture.
When they all show up, readers see just how powerfully a family can form.
grasps my hand
I feel her squeeze
& do not let go
hold tight.” (353)
“It is awkward, these familial ties & breaks we share. (405)
After the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 just two months after 9/11/2001, it was sometimes a spontaneous reaction for passengers to clap when the plane landed, one of “the many ways Dominicans celebrate touching down onto our island.” (Author’s Note).
As the narrative Elizabeth Acevedo’s new novel progressed, especially after the sister meet, I became even more involved in their lives, and it became a story I did not want to end.
#booksthatgenerateimportantconversations #identity #family #culture #LGBTQ+ characters #versenovel
An article about Flight AA587 for pre or post-reading: https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/11/remembering-americas-second-deadliest-plane-crash/248313/
Over seventy percent of young people say they have encountered bullying in their schools—as victim, offender or bystander. The Centers for Disease Control and Department of Education defined bullying as unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance and is repeated or has a high likelihood of repetition. But bullying is not a problem only in the United States.
Jason Parker is a fifth grade American boy living and attending school in Japan where he is different—and bullied for being different. He has redefined “friend” as anyone who doesn’t punch or kick him or refer to him as a “stinking foreigner.” Near the end of the school year Jason is placed in a group, or han, with five of the meanest kids in the class. What follows is relentless bullying, and the reader sees the importance of telling an adult, but not just any adult. The teacher has to be aware of what is going on, and Jason is afraid that his parents will make it worse. He is hoping to last until his parents can afford to send him to the international school.
With the support of his little sister, two new friends outside school—an older man with Parkinson’s disease and a teen who quit school because of the bullying, his English group, and aikido, Jason perseveres until the bullies “play” the choking game and Jason’s parents and the school finally become involved. Jason’s aikido instructor explains “…we need to train so that we sense danger in order to avoid it” but also warns him “the world is full of all kinds of people and some of them are a bit lost” (308-309).
In short lyrical free-verse lines, the reader learns about Japanese culture but also the trials of being perceived as different in any culture. The reader experiences the effects of bullying on children and the importance of effectively stopping and preventing bullying but also becomes aware of the dilemmas involved with trying to end bullying. I found myself frustrated that Jason did not tell his parents, but then I am an adult. I also was disturbed that his teacher ignored all the signs, but I have learned that this is too often true. In fact, Jason wants to change the rule that allows teachers to hit students.
As Holly Thompson so powerfully and effectively portrayed female bullying—bullying by exclusion, spreading rumors, and meanness ("Mean Girls")—in her verse novel Orchards, she portrays the more physical and verbal abusive bullying of males in Falling into the Dragon’s Mouth. An effective study of bullying would be for a class to either read both Orchards and Falling into the Dragon’s Mouth to gain different perspectives and begin conversations on the different types of bullying, or for half a class to read one, or to combine these novels in book clubs with other books on bullying reviewed in “Books to Begin Conversations about Bullying, Parts 1 and 2” [http://www.yawednesday.com/blog/books-to-begin-conversations-about-bullying-by-lesley-roessing and http://www.yawednesday.com/blog/books-to-begin-conversations-about-bullying-part-2-by-lesley-roessing].
On May 31, 1889, the South Fork Dam collapsed. Twenty million tons of water from Lake Conemaugh poured into Johnstown [Pennsylvania] and neighboring communities. More than 2,200 people died, including 99 entire families and 396 children. [Author’s Note] The flood still stands as the second or third deadliest day in U.S. history resulting from a natural calamity.
Richard Peck wrote, “The bigger the issue, the smaller you write.” And Flooded introduces readers to individual residents of the town.
Readers learn the stories of fifteen-year-old Joe Dixon who wants to run his own newsstand and marry his Maggie; Gertrude Quinn who tells us about her brother, three sisters, Aunt Abbie, and her father who owns the general store. We come to know Daniel and Monica Fagan. Daniel’s friend Willy, the poet, encouraged by his teacher to write, and George with 3 brothers and 4 sisters who wants to leave school and help support them. We watch the town prepare for the Decoration Day ceremony honoring the war dead.
After the flood, readers hear from Red Cross nurse Clara Barton, and Ann Jenkins and Nancy Little who brought law suits that found no justice, and a few of the 700 unidentified victims of the flood.
And there are the members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club—Andrew Carnegie, Charles J. Clarke, Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Mellon, Cyrus Elder, and Elias Unger, the wealthy of Pittsburgh who ignored repeated warnings that the dam holding their private lake needed to be repaired so it wouldn't give way. “They don’t care a whit about the likes of us.” (57)
This is a story of class and privilege and those who work tirelessly to make ends meet. As Monica says, “People who have money, who shop at fancy stores and buy pretty things, shouldn’t think they’re better than folks who scrabble and scrounge and go to sleep tired and hungry.” (111)
Through free-verse narrative monologues, readers experience the lives of a town and its hard-working, family-oriented inhabitants—people we come to know and love, reluctant to turn the pages leading towards the disaster we know they will encounter. We bear witness to the events as we read and empathy for the plights of the people affected by those events.
This is a book that could be shared across middle grade and high school ELA, social studies, science, and economics classes.
Growing up through the Fifties, Marilyn Nelson tells her story through fifty sonnet-style free-verse poems. Each poem has a location and year as readers follow Marilyn through her childhood on her quest to become the poet she is today.
Ms. Nelson’s father was one of the first African American career officers in the United States Air Force, and as a military child, Marilyn moved frequently, literally crossing the country, from Ohio to Texas to Kansas to California to Oklahoma to Maine, experiencing the country, sometimes the only black student in an “all-except-for-me white class.” Readers can identify with the universal childhood experiences she shares, but there are also incidents driven by race and the time period providing history that we can learn from this memoir.
This is a memoir of beginnings and endings and the search for identity and changing expectations—our own and that of others—in a confusing, sometimes hostile, world. It is about language and cloud-gathering and discovering poetry and the power of words.
Junk Boy introduces readers to two adolescent outliers, two dysfunctional families, two stories which become intertwined.
there is no putting
a tree back up after
in a storm
maybe with us
it’s different (336)
Bobby Lang, nicknamed Junk by the bullies at school because he lives in a place that has become a junkyard, spends his time flying under the radar, eyes down, not speaking. His father is drunk, abusive, unemployed, and listens to sad country songs; his mother left when he was a baby and, according to his father, is dead. Bobby has no self-confidence and little self-worth but then he meets Rachel, a talented artist who sees something else in him.
her eyes could
somehow see a me
that is more me
than I am
that is so weirdly more
so better than
But Rachel has her own family problems. Her father has just moved out and her physically-abusive mother wants the local priest to “reformat” her when she finds her with her girlfriend, Maggi.
As Rachel moves in and out of Bobby’s life, her need helps him figure out
what was I going to
And what he is, or becomes, is a rescuer and protector, a savior. As Father Percy tells him, “It’s what she found in you…” (352)
Reading Tony Abbott’s first verse novel, I felt like I was watching a movie unfold as I followed the protagonist on his Hero’s Journey
Jen Bryant’s novel in verse is another opportunity for readers to learn history through story, discovering patterns the pieces make.
I lie down on my bed,
Point my kaleidoscope at the ceiling light,
Watch the patterns scatter, the pieces
Slide apart and come back together
In ways I hadn’t noticed before. (149)
The time period is 1966-1968 but eighth-grader Lyza’s life is also affected by the years before.
She is affected by the “Unwritten Rules” that govern her close friendship with Malcolm Dupree—from tricycle days through now they have “gotten along like peas in a pod.” (11) But it is a friendship that causes Lyza to experience the prejudice of the times and her town. “We sure didn’t make the rules / about who can be friends with whom / and we don’t like the rules the way they are…/ but we are also not fools… And so—/ in the halls, at lunch, and in class / Malcolm stays with the other black kids / and I stay with the other white kids…” (12) And when they meet new people and go to new places, they are wary and watchful in a way adolescents should not have to be.
Her every action is affected by her mother’s leaving two years before when Lyza was in sixth grade and “when our family began to unravel” (5). Her college professor father works all hours, taking on extra classes and leaving Kyza and Denise to their own devices and discipline. Denise gives up college and her dreams of becoming a doctor to work in the local diner and hang out with her hippie boyfriend, Harry.
The town is affected by war in Vietnam which causes Lyza to don her black funeral dress too many times, and “Not coming back” attains a new meaning. So much so, Lyza realizes that her mother is probably never coming back either. And when Malcolm’s brother Dixon is drafted and sent to Vietnam, feelings of helplessness overwhelm her,
When someone you love
and there is
nothing nothing nothing
you can do about it, not one thing
you can say to
stop that person whom you love
from going away, and you know that today
may just be
the very last time you will ever
see them hear them hold them,
when that day comes, there is not much
you can do,
not much you can say. (120)
Lyza’s grandfather dies and leaves her a mystery tied to pirate Captain Kidd, maps—old and current, a key, and a drawer, file, and documents numbers for the Historical Society of Brigantine. Lyza, Malcolm, and Carolann (“…whenever I am with Carolann and Malcolm at the same time…that’s when I feel almost normal.” (15) spend the summer working out the mystery with the help of, surprisingly, Denise, and even more unexpectedly, Harry, Denise’s “strong, long-haired boyfriend” who is smarter, more resourceful, and more trustworthy than Lyza presumed.
It is a summer of spyglasses and kaleidoscopes, letting go, realization that “…my family might be messed up but my friends [a widening circle] are as steady as they come.” (214) A summer that is important to Lyza, her family, and the town.
I take my kaleidoscope off the shelf…
I turn and turn and turn and turn,
Letting the crystals shift into strange
And beautiful patterns, letting the pieces fall
Wherever they will. (257)
“With any story, with any life, with any event whether joyous or tragic, there is so much more to know than the established, inadequate norm: There will be as many versions of the truth as there are persons who lived it.” (Author’s Note, 121)
Deborah Wiles’ historical verse novel Kent State does just that. It tells the story of the Vietnam War protest held on the campus of Kent State University and the students who were wounded and killed when the Ohio National Guard opened fire, students who may or may not have been actively involved in the demonstration. The novel chronicles the four days from Friday, May 1 to Monday, May 4, 1970.
But what is unique is that this is the story told by all the voices those involved, in whatever way—those readers may agree with, and those they may not. Author Salman Rushdie has told audiences that anyone who values freedom of expression should recognize that it must apply also to expression of which they disapprove. In Kent State we hear from protestors, faculty, and students, and friends of the four who were killed—Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandy Scheuer, and Bill Schroeder. We also observe the perspectives of the National Guardsmen, the people of the community of Kent, Ohio; and the Black United Students at Kent State. The readers themselves are addressed at times.
Loving vs Virginia is the story behind the unanimous landmark decision of June 1967. Told in free verse through alternating narrations by Richard and Mildred, the story begins in Fall 1952 when 13-year old Mildred notices that her desk in the colored school is “ sad excuse for a desk” and her reader “reeks of grime and mildew and has been in the hands of many boys,” but she also relates the closeness of family and friends in her summer vacation essay. This closeness is also expressed in the family’s Saturday dinner where “folks drop by,” one of them being the boy who catches Mildred’s ball during the kickball game and “Because of him I don’t get home.” That boy is her neighbor, nineteen-year-old Richard Loving, and that phrase becomes truer than Mildred could have guessed.
On June 2, 1958, Richard, who is white, and Mildred marry in Washington, D.C., and on July 11, 1958 they are arrested at her parents’ house in Virginia. The couple spends the next ten years living in D.C., sneaking into Virginia, and finally contacting the American Civil Liberties Union who brings their case through the courts to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The documentary novel brings the story behind the case alive, interspersed with quotes, news headlines and news reports, maps, timelines, and information on the various court cases, and the players involved, as the case made its way to the Supreme Court.
Students can learn history from textbooks, from lectures, or more effectively and affectively, through the stories of the people involved. Novels are where readers learn empathy, vicariously living the lives of others.
October 12, 1998
Somebody entered this world with a cry;
Somebody left without saying goodbye. (35)
On the night of October 6, 1998, Matthew Shepard, a gay 21-year-old college student was lured from a Wyoming bar by two young homophobic men, brutally beaten, tied to a remote fence, and left to die. October Mourning is Lesléa Newman’s tribute in the form of a collection of sixty-eight poems about Matthew Shepard and his murder.
Newman recreates the events of the night, the following days, and the court case and reimagines thoughts and conversations through a variety of perspectives: those of Matthew Shepard himself, the people of the town—the bartender, a doctor, the patrol officers, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney and their girlfriends—as well as inanimate objects, notably beginning and ending with the fence to which Shepard was tied. Many of the poems are introduced with a quote from a person involved in the events.
A range of emotions is shared through a variety of poetic styles: free verse, haiku, pantoum, concrete, rhymed, list, alphabet, villanelle, acrostic, and poems modeled after the poetry of other poets.
The poetry of October Mourning serves to let the reader bear witness to Matthew Shepard and his death but also to the power of poetry to express loss and grief and as a response to injustice. Heartbreaking and moving, but emotional and a call to action, this is a story that should be shared with all adolescents.
"Only if each of us imagines that what happened to Matthew Shepard could happen to any one of us will we be motivated to do something. And something must be done." (Imagine, 90)
From “Then and Now”:
Then I was a son
Now I am a symbol
Then a was a person.
Now I am a memory.
Then I was a student.
Now I am a lesson. (40)
“Where do memories hide?
They sneak into
and nestle quietly until
some random thought
hooks one by the tail,
Finally, out into the light
Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carry, said in a speech, “You don’t have to tell a true story to tell the truth.” In Bridging the Gap, I wrote that a memoir is how the memoirist remembers the events—triggered by sights, smells, conversations, incidents—tempered by time, life, and reflection. Ordinary Hazards is Ms Grimes’ life, as remembered and reconstructed, from 1950 through high school, a life of hazards but also awakenings, the story of the birth and growth and dreams of a writer. “Somehow, I knew writing could take me places.” (230)
Written in haunting free verse, the author takes readers through her story of foster homes, separation from her sister, life with a schizophrenic alcoholic mother and an abusive stepfather, too many residences and schools to keep track of, multiple visits to various hospitals for diverse reasons, and neighborhood gangs, pain and loneliness, as “the ghosts of yesterday come screaming into the present without apology…” (9)
But readers are also introduced to a loving foster family, the refuge of libraries, relatives and girlfriends and God, and finally the black music and dance performances, authors, and speakers who opened her world to possibilities. Grimes was finally reunited with her older sister Carol, her father and his appreciation for the arts, and a teacher who pushed her to write more and better. By high school she has learned,
“I’ve been tested, though,
and already know
on my own,
that I’m a survivor.” (228)
I was honored to witness the memories and reflections of a favorite children’s and YA author; I cannot wait for opportunities to share this memoir with teens and adults.
As soon as I slip into the pool,
I am weightless.
For just a while. (1)
Eliana Elizabeth Montgomery-Hofstein, know as Ellie or El, was re-named Splash by her older sister at her fifth birthday party when she joyfully cannonballed into the pool, her chubbiness causing a great splash. Since that day Ellie has been bullied by her classmates, her older brother, and, sadly, her mother who puts her on endless diets, posts fat-shaming articles on the refrigerator, decides what Ellie eats, plans to force her to have bariatric surgery at age 11, and referred to her once as “a big ol’ fat thing.”
Her only allies are her father, her best friend Viv and Viv’s mother, and the school librarian. She survives with her Fat Girl Rules—rules that help her to not get noticed, and with poetry and daily swimming.
As I float,
I spread out my arms
And my legs.
I’m a starfish,
Taking up all the room I want. (41)
Even though her weight does not bother her, the constant bullying from family members, classmates, acquaintances, and strangers does. Ellie has trouble standing up for herself.
But every time I try to stand up for myself,
the words get stuck in my throat
like a giant glob of peanut butter.
Besides, if they even listened,
They’d just snap back,
“If you don’t like being teased,
Lose weight.” (4)
When Viv moves away, her place is taken by a new neighbor who becomes a second best friend and who shows her what a supportive family looks like. As a Mexican-American living in Texas, Catalina faces her own taunts and stereotype assumptions.
They give people an excuse to
Hate people who are different
Instead of taking the time
To get to know them.” (76)
At school there are the Mean Girls—Marissa and Kortnee —with lots of followers to do their bidding, like loosening the bolts on Ellie's desk.
Then Ellie gets to know Enemy Number 3, a male classmate who bullies her constantly, and finds that, living in poverty, he has challenges of his own and is probably fighting his own bullies.
But I just don’t understand how
Someone who’s bullied
And knows how horrible it feels inside
Turns around and bullies others.
That’s pure garbage.” (150)
Ellie’s father takes her to talk to Dr. Wood, a therapist, and after her initial rejection (“Dr. Woodn’t-You-Like-to-Know) and many sessions, Ellie learns how to face her bullies, even her mother, and to discover feelings of self-worth and the importance of talk.
“No matter what you weigh,
You deserve for people to treat you
Like a human being with feelings.” (179)
Ellie is an appealing character, witty and stronger than she knows and a true friend. I cried for her, I cringed for her, I hoped for her, and I cheered for her.
This is not as much a book about bullying but standing up to bullies and the value of not merely tolerance or acceptance, but respect. It is a book that belongs in every library to be read by those who need it—the bullied and the bullies and the bystanders—for empathy, self-worth, and respect.
the year we moved to Tennessee,
the year of the terrorist attacks,
the year my period arrived,
the year Aunt Rose died,
and the year Dad left for Afghanistan. (166)
Twelve year old Abbey is, as the boys in her new school call her, an Army brat. She has moved eight times, but this time she is not living on base with others like her. This time she attends a school where there is only one other new girl, Jiman, a Muslim-American of Kurdish heritage, born and raised in New Jersey.
Abbey is shy, uncertain, voiceless,
I worry about people speaking to me
And worry just the same
When they don’t. (27)
Here’s what I’m used to being:
the last to be picked,
that girl over there,
the one hiding behind her hair
counted absent when present,
the one who eats alone,
the quiet type,
a sit-on-the-sidelines type,
the girl who draws,
“Army brat.” (107-8)
Luckily over the summer before school began, she made a new best friend, Camille, who is athletic and confident and has no trouble standing up to bullying.
As Abbey deals with her new school and the taunts of the other 7th graders and the boys on the school bus, the Twin Towers are hit and Abbey’s Aunt Rose is missing from her office on the 86th floor of the World Trade Center.
Was she aware,
Have time to prepare…
Have time to think, to blink,
Time to wish, to wonder,
Did someone help her,
Was she alone,
Did she whisper a prayer,… (24)
During this year Abbey contends with her periods, her missing aunt, her mother’s temporary absence to New York to take care of Aunt Rose’s husband and children, the “Trio” of Henley Middle ( the popular Mean girls), the eventual deployment of her father, and, on a positive note, the attentions of Jacob—Camille’s other best friend. Abbey also notices how people are treating Jiman who remains confident, appears comfortable alone, and stands up when her little brother is harassed, but has no one championing her. At times Abbey feels she should speak up on behalf of Jiman, but she continues to keep quiet, losing herself in her art.
What I don’t do
is tell them to shut up,
to leave people alone for once
because mostly I’m relieved
that they’ve forgotten
about me. (120)
Through art, Abbey finally gets to know Jiman and gains strength from her, strength to become an upstander rather than a bystander. With Camille, Jacob, and Jiman as friends, Abbey realizes,
Sometimes it takes an eternity to figure things out,
Especially when you’re in middle school. (245)
Caroline Brooks DuBois’ debut novel written in free verse and formatted creatively on the pages is a coming-of-age novel, a novel of fitting in, gaining confidence, showing tolerance and kindness towards others and standing up—for oneself and others.
The Places We Sleep joins the novels that illustrate the many ways the events of September 11, 2001, affected our citizens, novels which I employed in the 9/11 Book Clubs that I facilitated in many schools with grades 5-11 ELA and social studies classes and reviewed in http://www.yawednesday.com/blog/examining-the-events-of-september-11th-through-mgya-novels-by-lesley-roessing-by-lesley-roessing
"Most of us can rely on something good in our lives. Our parents' love. The constancy of a family pet. A pesky little sister or a know-it-all older brother and the perpetual flip-flop of siblings between affection and annoyance." But for the more than 400,000 children and adolescents living in foster care in the United States, many have nothing to rely on and many of them never lose the hope that a parent is waiting to reunite with them.
When Marin was four, her mother gave her up. By the time she was eleven and her mother had signed away her parental rights, she had lived in three foster homes where she was nothing more than a paycheck and two group homes; she had learned to become invisible; and she had never been loved. Dr. Lucy Chang had survived her own loss and was ready to open her heart to a child. But before she could adopt Marin, Marin had to stop planning to leave good to find her mother, the mother she was sure would want her. When Marin does find her mother and then discovered her mother's paper wishes, she learns that seven years before, not only did she wish …I was free," but more importantly, "I wish better for Marin than me."
The novel by Melanie Crowder, author of the wonderful historical verse novel Audacity, is short and beautifully written. The very short chapters would lend the novel to a fitting teacher read-aloud choice.
Considering history through novels lets the reader experience, and make sense of, history through the perspective of those most affected by historic events. When I studied history through a textbook, I learned dates, names—at least the names those in publishing the textbooks thought important, and events. I never understood what that information meant or appreciated what the persons involved experienced; I felt that I never got to know them as real people—their hopes, desires, ambitions.
Ann Burg’s verse novel Unbound does just that. The story invites the reader into the hearts and thoughts of the characters, especially the main character, Grace, a young slave in the 1860’s. Grace, who has light skin and blue eyes, lives with her Mama, her two young half-brothers and their father Uncle Jim, and old Aunt Sara who helped raise her. When she is called to work in the Big House, her Mama warns her to keep her eyes down, ”to always be good, to listen to the Missus, n never talk back…n not to speak less spoken to first,” (3)
Observing the heartless Master and hateful Missus, Grace can’t help but question why they can’t do anything for themselves “Why do grown folks / need help getting dressed?” (91) She wonders why Aunt Tempie silently ignores the unfairness and abuse, “Things’ll change, Grace / maybe even sooner’n later / but till thy do—‘ (91) and why Anna and Jordon have to bear beatings and mistreatment. Reading the Missus’ words and threats is more chilling than reading about the treatment by slaveowners in textbooks.
Eventually Grace angers the Missus, “You are nothing but a slave / who needs to learn her place.” (204), and when Jordan runs away and the Master needs the money to replace him, the Missus suggests selling Grace’s family. Grace recognizes that they also need to run away (“Not sure where my place is / but I know it’s not / the Big House.” (204), and they leave in the middle of the night. Helped by OleGeorgeCooper and others, they have to decide whether to go north or go deep. And even though Grace has a chance for passing as white and “a chance / of escaping for real / of livin like the good Lord / intended folks to live. / [She] has a chance to own herself…”(212-3), the family decides to stay together.
They travel through the treacherous swamp, but as OleGeorgeCooper tells them, “There’s nothing in the swamp / what’s worse’n / the stink / of bein a slave.” (261), and as they move through, “[Grace] feels part / of another world, / a beautiful world, / A world / what whispers ‘ Freedom.” (271)
Safe (relatively) and free in a settlement in the Great Daniel Swamp, Grace explains to her new friend and family member Brooklyn, another runaway, ”Everyone’s got a way of mattering. / The only thing / what doesn’t matter / is what color / the good Lord paints us.” (336)
Well-research and written in dialect, this is an inspiring story of the maroons, enslaved people seeking freedom in the wilderness.
What if I hadn’t gone down to the basement?…
What if I hadn’t laughed at first?…
What if he thought that’s what I wanted?…
What if these What-Ifs are right?… (12-13)
Almost-eleven-year-old Tori is besieged with “What-Ifs” after being sexually abused by her beloved uncle. At first her mother doesn’t believe her.
“Honey, you must have
You know how he plays around,
how goofy he is--
just like you.”(6)
Her grandmother takes Uncle Andy’s side. And her little sister Taylor is too young to tell, and her father lives across the country with his new family, and Tori doesn’t want to talk about it with her best friend Rhea. So is she to deal with this alone?
In the aftermath of the incident, Tori retreats from school, her best friend, trick or treating, chorus, and
My world has gone
like my voice.” (22)
I don’t say anything.
Tori struggles with anger, shame, and sadness. But when Uncle Andy says that Tori has started lying about things, her mother realizes that Tori has been telling the truth. She informs the school, where her teachers are supportive, and takes Tori to a therapist to work through the trauma. Tori finally shares her secret with her sister and Rhea, and her father comes to visit her, but Tori wonders if she should have known better.
I feel like
A stupid kid.
Who should have known. (62)
When other children come forward with allegations against Andy, Tori is almost relieved,
I do feel bad for them,
I do. But…
But it means
I’m not crazy. (169)
As Tori works her way through her trauma with the help of family, friends, and her therapist, she begins to experience a hope of healing,
“Do you think it’s possible
To be happy in the middle of it all,
To feel your cheeks ache again with joy?” (199)
This sensitively-written short novel is a critical choice to have available for young adolescents to read independently or, more effectively, with a teacher, counselor, or therapist. Every 73 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted. And every 9 minutes, that victim is a child. One in 9 girls and 1 in 53 boys under the age of 18 experience sexual abuse or assault at the hands of an adult (RAINN.org). Most people who sexually abuse children are friends, partners, family members, and community members. About 93 percent of children who are victims of sexual abuse know their abuser (YWCA.org). In writing Tori’s story, the author’s “hope…is that readers will be encouraged to tell their own truths…” (Author’s Note, 208)
When You Know What I Know would group well for book club reading with Barbara Dee’s Maybe He Just Likes You, Jacqueline Woodson’s I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This, Kate Messner’s Chirp, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s Fighting Words, and The Summer of Owen Todd by Tony Abbott.
But now that I know what
Germany has done, what
Germany is doing,
I’ll never return
To being the girl I was
All those years ago.
My desire to do something
To do the right thing
Pushes all else aside. (238)
1934: Thirteen year old Sophie Scholl is a member of the Bund Deutscher Mädel even though her father doesn’t approve. She even turns in those girls “who refuse to attend required meetings.” (323) Her older brother Hans hangs a drawing of Adolf Hitler on his wall which his father continues to take down and place in a drawer.
1943: Sophie, Hans, and their friend Christoph Probst are tried and found guilty of treason, propagating defeatist thought, and insulting the Führer and are sentenced to death.
Kip Wilson’s verse novel takes the reader and Sophie back and forth through time as Hans and Sophie form the White Rose, a nonviolent resistance group wherein they write, print, and distribute leaflets.
In the words of Robert Mohr, Gestapo Investigator,
criticizing the Reich,
calling for resistance,
with treason. (150)
1942: When Sophie reads her brother’s first leaflets and realizes that she was excluded for being a girl, she is determined to join him and his friends Willi and Christoph and one of their professors in resistance.
Guilt washes over me
over what I’ve done
and haven’t done
and how I contributed to this
and I for one refuse
to be guilty
going forward. (142-43)
Readers follow Sophie though her words and through her letters to her friend/boyfriend Fritz where she proclaims, “Justice is more important than anything.”(80. We read the letters and words of other characters and official documents. We follow Sophie through the injustices of the temporary imprisonments of her brothers and father, her mandatory work detail, and finally when she joins Hans to study at the University of Munich. We are on the train with her as she distributes leaflets from town to town, and when she and Hans are turned into the Gestapo for distributing them to students at the university.
“We may learn about history through textbooks and lectures, but we experience history through novels. We discern the complex issues, and we feel empathy for all affected. We bear witness to the events we read and the plights of the people affected by those events.” (Roessing, “Learning History through Story”) White Rose is an example of experiencing a historical event through the eyes of the participants and examining how heroes develop and what and why they risk.
I did the best I could
for my country. I don’t regret
what I did and accept
the consequences for my actions. (125)
Verse Novel Book Clubs
There are countless ways verse novels such as these can be grouped for book club reading. Novels can be grouped together in Verse Novel Book Clubs with each club reading a verse novel and analyzing the literary elements and format in general. Each Book Club could read a different type of verse novel: historical fiction, bibliography, memoir, contemporary fiction and compare the effect of the form on the genre. Verse novels from multiple perspectives can be grouped together or matched with prose novels told from numerous perspectives. Novels can be grouped by topic with each Book Club reading a novel on the topic in a different format—prose, verse, graphic. For example the individual clubs in a class could read about the refugee/immigrant experience with Other Words from Home (verse novel), Inside Out & Back Again (verse novel), The Day of the Pelican (prose), Refugee (prose), Taking Flight (prose memoir), and When Stars Are Scattered (graphic), students meeting in inter-club groups to compare and contrast how the topic was handled by their characters and through their plots and within the writing format.
100 Verse Novels I Have Read and Recommend
*Before the Ever After – Jacqueline Woodson
*Clap When You Land – Elizabeth Acevedo
*Falling Into the Dragon’s Mouth – Holly Thompson
*Junk Boy - Tony Abbott
*Starfish – Lisa Fipps
*Three Pennies – Melanie Crowder
*When You Know What I Know – Sonja K. Solter
1The Crossover – Kwame Alexander
1Booked – Kwame Alexander
2Rebound – Kwame Alexander
Solo – Kwame Alexander
Swing – Kwame Alexander
1House Arrest – K.A. Holt
1Knock Out – K.A. Holt
1Rhyme Schemer – K.A. Holt
2Redwood & Ponytail – K.A. Holt
1One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies – Sonya Sones
1Saving Red – Sonya Sones
1Somewhere Among – Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu
1The Way the Light Bends – Cordelia Jensen
1We Come Apart – Sarah Crossan
1The Weight of Water – Sarah Crossan
1Orchards – Holly Thompson
1Freak Boy – Kristin Elizabeth Clark
1A Time to Dance – Padma Venkatraman
1Red Butterfly – A.L. Sonnichsen
1Full Cicada Moon – Marilyn Hilton
1Long Way Down – Jason Reynolds
1Garvey’s Choice – Nikki Grimes
Words with Wings – Nikki Grimes
What is Goodbye? – Nikki Grimes
2Hidden – Helen Frost
2Shark Girl – Kelly Bingham
2The Poet X – Elizabeth Acevedo
Skyscraping – Cordelia Jensen
Pieces of Georgia – Jen Bryant
Inside Out & Back Again – Thanhha Lai
The Red Pencil – Andrea Davis Pinkney
Other Words for Home – Jasmine Warga
One – Sarah Crossan
Coaltown Jesus – Ron Koertge
Sold – Patricia McCormick
Serafina’s Promise – Ann E. Burg
All the Broken Pieces – Ann E. Burg
Heartbeat – Sharon Creech
Love That Dog – Sharon Creech
Hate That Cat – Sharon Creech
After the Death of Anna Gonzales
Addie on the Inside – James Howe
Becoming Joe DiMaggio – Maria Testa
Home of the Brave – Katherine Applegate
Ronit & Jamil – Pamela L. Laskin
The Wild Book – Margarita Engle
Make Lemonade – Virginal Euwer Wolff
Impulse - Ellen Hopkins
Perfect - Ellen Hopkins
*Beyond Me – Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu
*Flooded – Ann E. Burg
*Kaleidoscope Eyes – Jen Bryant
*Kent State – Deborah Wiles
*Loving vs Virginia – Patricia Hruby Powell
*October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard – Leslea Newman
*Unbound – Ann E. Burg
*The Places We Sleep – Caroline Brooks DuBois
*White Rose – Kip Wilson
1An Uninterrupted View of the Sky – Melanie Crowder
1Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba – Margarita Engle
1Up from the Sea- Leza Lowitz
2American Ace – Marilyn Nelson
2The Memory of Things – Gae Polisner
2The Trial - Jen Bryant
2Ringside, 1925: View from the Scopes Trial - Jen Bryant
The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom – Margarita Engle
Paper Hearts - Meg Wiviott
Witness – Karen Hesse
Out of the Dust – Karen Hesse
Dust of Eden – Mariko Nagai
*Above the Rim: How Elgin Baylor Changed Basketball – Jen Bryant
Feed Your Mind: A Story of August Wilson – Jen Bryant
1The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist – Margarita Engle
1Audacity – Melanie Crowder
*How I Discovered Poetry - Marilyn Nelson
*Ordinary Hazards - Nikki Grimes
1Stop Pretending - Sonya Sones
1Enchanted Air – Margarita Engle
2Soaring Earth – Margarita Engle
2Shout – Laurie Halse Anderson
Brown Girl Dreaming – Jacqueline Woodson
*Becoming Muhammed Ali – Kwame Alexander and James Patterson
1Breakout – Kate Messner
1Locomotion – Jacqueline Woodson
1Every Shiny Thing – Cordelia Jensen and Laurie Morrison
1Forget Me Not – Carolee Dean
1The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary – Laura Shovan
1Moo – Sharon Creech
1Forget Me Not – Ellie Terry
1Between the Lines - Nikki Grimes
Bronx Masquerade - Nikki Grimes
Shakespeare Bats Cleanup – Ron Koertge
Jump Ball: A Basketball Season in Poems - Mel Glenn
1 reviewed in “30+ MG.YA Verse Novels for National Poetry Month” (2017) http://www.yawednesday.com/blog/30-mgya-verse-novels-for-national-poetry-month-engaging-reluctant-readers-enriching-enthusiastic-readers-and-appreciating-story-form-language-by-lesley-roessing
2 reviewed in “10+ More Verse Novels” (2018) http://www.yawednesday.com/blog/verse-novels-for-national-poetry-month-by-lesley-roessing
* reviewed above in “Verse Novels to Engage Readers: An Update”
A middle and high school teacher for twenty years, Lesley Roessing was the Founding Director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project at Georgia Southern University (formerly Armstrong State University) where she was also a Senior Lecturer in the College of Education. In 2018-19 she served as a Literacy Consultant with a K-8 school. Lesley served as past editor of Connections, the award-winning journal of the Georgia Council of Teachers of English. As a columnist for AMLE Magazine, she shared before, during, and after-reading response strategies across the curriculum through ten “Writing to Learn” columns. She has written articles on literacy for NWP Quarterly, English Journal, Voices from the Middle, The ALAN Review, AMLE Magazine, and Middle School Journal. She now works independently—writing, providing professional development in literacy to schools, visiting classrooms to facilitate book club reading activities and lessons, and posting FB strategies, lessons, and book review to support educators.
Lesley is the author of five books for educators:
- Bridging the Gap: Reading Critically & Writing Meaningfully to Get to the Core
- Comma Quest: The Rules They Followed. The Sentences They Saved
- No More “Us” & “Them: Classroom Lessons and Activities to Promote Peer Respect
- The Write to Read: Response Journals That Increase Comprehension
- Talking Texts: A Teachers’ Guide to Book Clubs across the Curriculum
- and has contributed chapters to four anthologies for educators:
- Young Adult Literature in a Digital World: Textual Engagement though Visual Literacy
- Queer Adolescent Literature as a Complement to the English Language Arts Curriculum
- Story Frames for Teaching Literacy: Enhancing Student Learning through the Power of Storytelling
- Fostering Mental Health Literacy through Young Adult Literature