Have your tween kids tried reading novels in verse, stories written in free verse poetry? The text looks easy to read enticing reluctant readers but dive deeper and you’ll find compelling stories filled with heart, important themes, and precise language.
I first fell in love with novels written in verse as an elementary fifth-grade teacher reading Love That Dog by Sharon Creech and Out of the Dust by Karen Hess. And guess what I discovered? Novels in verse aren’t just beautifully written poetry, they are highly appealing books for readers who haven’t yet developed a love of books. For a child who isn’t the biggest fan of reading, reading verse feels almost like cheating –the words are less, the story flows quickly, and it seems easier than a traditional narrative story.
But…that’s not all.
While the books in verse I’m sharing with you today may be a different kind of writing and a different kind of reading experience, they all resonate emotionally with relatable feelings and real-life experiences.
These books pack a big punch. And I love that there are no superfluous words. Each word is chosen with care.
Chapter books written in verse are not just for reluctant readers but for all readers, I hope you’ll give one or more of these novels in verse a try. They are worth it.
Novels in Verse for Elementary Students Ages 8 – 12
Becoming Muhammad Ali by James Patterson and Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Dawud Anyabwile
A stunning new middle-grade biography of Muhammad Ali. Enthralling from the first page, this book gives readers the perfect details to set the stage for the man that Cassius becomes, the boxer and the activist. His parents don’t encourage boxing, preferring academics, but Cassius is terrible at school. When he finds boxing, it becomes a powerful outlet not to mention, something at which he finally excels. The poetry is Alexander at his best — vivid figurative language with an ideal cadence and an accessible narrative. Readers will zip through this page-turning biography; it’s both informative and inviting. I could NOT put it down.
House Arrest by K.A. Holt
You’ll feel so many emotions reading this tender, heartwarming story that shows a brave boy who feels anger, fear, worry, and love over his challenging situation. Timothy is under house arrest for the next year, living with a brother who needs constant medical care, and feeling so much pain over his big life changes. Part of his year-long punishment is to meet with a probation officer, meet with a therapist, and write in a journal which is the book we’re reading. When his little brother gets assigned an abusive new nurse, Timothy feels like even if he gets thrown in juvie, he must do something drastic to help his brother. Written in poetic verse, this book speeds along and pulls your heart along with it.
Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie by Julie Sternberg and Matthew Cordell (ages 7 – 10)
An easy chapter book good for 9- to 10-year-old readers, this is a lovely first book in a series. Eleanor is so upset that her beloved, long-term babysitter is moving away, everything seems “like pickle juice on a cookie” — in other words, awful. Now she’ll have a new babysitter and a new school year but as hard as change is, it can bring growth and new things that are good.
Love That Dog by Sharon Creech
One of my favorite middle-grade books EVER, this book brilliantly captures a young boy’s disinterest in writing poetry which gradually shifts with the help of an excellent teacher. Talk about character growth! Through his diary and poems, he reveals to us who he is. As the teacher shares mentor poems with her class, Jack wrestles with his thoughts about the poems. Then he uses the poems for inspiration for his own writing. I love both Jack’s honest interactions with text as well as seeing him share parts of himself through writing.
“I don’t understand
the poem about
the red wheelbarrow
and the white chickens
and why so much depends upon
Starfish by Lisa Fipps
Heartbreaking and inspiring, this poignant story in verse shows a girl who learns, after years of fat-shaming and bullying, to define herself not based on what others say but on who she really is.
Ellie’s nickname is Splash because of her size but Ellie loves swimming; it’s her safe escape where she feels the most comfortable. Her biggest bully? Her mother–who won’t buy her new clothes because she thinks it encourages Ellie’s weight gain and is pushing for gastro-bypass surgery. Not even Ellie’s dad stands up to her mom’s cruel treatment of Ellie. Fortunately, Ellie finds an understanding therapist who helps her move from powerless to powerful. “As I float, I spread out my arms and my legs. I’m a starfish, taking up all the room I want.” It’s brilliantly written and empowering. Run out and buy this book, it’s a must-read, must-own, sure-to-be-an-award-winner.
Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
Hesse does an incredible job at transporting us the readers into the difficult life circumstances on an unproductive farm, constant dust storms, and tragic family troubles. Atmospheric, dramatic, and almost hard to read, you’ll find this to be beautifully written and astounding as the main character, Billie Jo perseveres through it all.
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
Basketball player and twin Josh narrates his life in quarters, just like the game he plays. He writes about missing his twin, Jordan who is distant now that he has a girlfriend, about getting in trouble when he hits Jordan in the face with a basketball, and about watching his father as his father’s heart fails. This is an amazing coming-of-age, gripping story about a boy who is trying to figure out his life. Plus, this novel in verse will get your sports-loving boys reading! Winner of the Newbery Medal and Coretta Scott King Honor.
Booked by Kwame Alexander
I’m AMAZED at how skillfully Alexander writes about the teenage human condition — he just gets it! 12-year old Nick struggles with his parents’ separation, a school bully, and the awkwardness of a first crush. The only thing that feels right is soccer…until he gets injured and can’t play. This lyrical, fast-paced story feels honest and relatable that kids will get excited to read.
Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai
Based on the author’s childhood, Thanhha reveals the overwhelm of immigrating from Vietnam to the American south in the 1970s, a completely different culture, and language. Despite feeling turned inside out, Hà resiliently figures out life in the U.S., despite the many challenges she faces. I loved this book –it’s written with such an authentic voice. Plus, it gives readers a first-hand look at an immigrant experience. Winner of the National Book Award and Newbery Honor.
Flipping Forward Twisting Backwards by Alma Fullerton
DYSLEXIA / GYMNASTICS
Claire is the best at gymnastics, but she’s not the best at reading. In fact, she can’t read AT ALL–and has fooled everyone for years. She lashes out to protect her secret and gets sent often to the principal. The principal figures out that Claire needs learning testing, but Claire’s mom is adamantly against testing. Claire’s friends, her sister, and a supportive teacher help her with word recognition — but she continues to ask her mom to let her get tested, which she eventually does. There’s so much to love about this fast-paced book in verse. I love that Claire is a fully developed character with efficacy who shows readers (and her mom) that having a learning disability doesn’t mean you’re not smart; it means your brain learns differently.
Lifeboat 12 by Susan Hood
HISTORICAL FICTION (based on a true story)
Thinking Hitler will invade England next, Ken’s family sends him to safety in Canada. But, Ken’s ship doesn’t make it. It’s torpedoed and sunk only days into the journey. Written in verse, this is a moving account of bravery and survival as Ken, several other kids, a priest, the ship’s only woman, and members of the crew spend weeks adrift at sea in an ill-stocked lifeboat. You’ll read about their swollen feet, dehydration, and starvation as well as the stories and songs that helped keep the kids distracted and hopeful. Ultimately, you’ll be left with a sense of amazement at the resiliency of the human spirit. Very well-written.
A Seed in the Sun by Aida Salazar
A tender and poignant middle-grade novel in verse showing an important time in history, the power of collective voices against injustices, and a girl finding her strength. Lula’s family are migrant workers. When Lula’s mom gets sick from pesticides, they can only get her medical care if they join the worker strikes started by Phillipino migrant workers. Eventually, her violent dad is convinced to join the strike which transforms their family, gives the girls hope, and helps Lula’s mom get health care. I loved this beautiful coming-of-age story.
Emmy in the Key of Code by Aimee Lucido
STEM / Friendship
This is an exquisite book that celebrates music, STEM, making friends, and growing into yourself. Emmy’s eager to start a new school and make friends but she’s thwarted by rudeness at every turn. A daughter of professional musicians, Emmy decides to accept that even though her entire life is music and she lives for music, she’ll never be a musician herself. So for an elective, she takes computer programming instead of music. A girl in her programming class named Abigail is friendly but only during class. Which makes Emmy feel both good for that little attention but angry at being kept a secret. As Emmy’s family adjusts to San Francisco, Emmy figures out her place in the world, especially as it relates to her growing love for programming. Lucido skillfully connects music and programming in a memorable, poetic story that even non-programmers can understand.
Alone by Megan E Freeman
A fast-paced, incredible survival story (in verse) with a female protagonist! Everyone in her town is evacuated town expect for Maddie because no one knows where she is. She and her neighbor’s dog are forced to survive for days, then months, then years….They face food shortages, hard winters, springs, and no humans except for looters once. She realizes that people can’t come back for her if they’re all dead and is determined to keep surviving.
Rez Dogs by Joseph Bruchac
Because of the pandemic, Malin is sent away from her parents to live with her grandparents on the Wabanaki reservation. She feels protection and love when a rez dog named Malsum adopts them and becomes her ally and friend. For example, when a government worker arrives to check on her, Malsum scares her off. That’s when her grandparents teach Malin about the history of Native kids who were taken away by the government. Her grandparents share many other stories of their beliefs and history which help Malin connect to her heritage and feel her less sad about missing her parents, bothered with inconsistent Internet and school lessons, and feel less troubled about stay indoors. “And now, through the stories her grandparents were sharing, she was getting to travel in another way, feeling her spirit travel through time, being part of something so much older, so much deeper.”
The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary by Laura Shovan
Emerson Elementary is closing. The students have mixed feelings — some are very upset that the school is closing while others aren’t. Each chapter is written from the students’ unique voices in verse. This is a quick read with some interesting topics to discuss. Winner of Cybils Award in Poetry, Arnold Adoff Poetry Award, Bank Street College of Education Book of the Year, and an NCTE Notable Verse Novel.
Mountain Dog by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Aleksey & Olga Ivanov
When Tony’s mother is sent to jail, Tony is sent to stay with a great uncle he has never met in the Sierra Nevada mountains. With his tió and a search-and-rescue dog named Gabe by his side, Tony learns how to track wild animals, is welcomed to the Cowboy Church, and makes new friends at the Mountain School. Most importantly, his uncle Gabe shows Tony what unconditional love is –for the first time in his life.
Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga
Written in evocative yet very readable verse, follow a young girl from her home in Syria as she moves with her mother to the United States. Jude’s journey is one of growing up, being brave, and discovering. Readers will see how Jude finds her way– relating other ESL students in their safe classroom space, finding new friends, getting her period and starting to wear a headscarf, and even performing in the school play. Her insights on life in America helps put us in her shoes of an immigrant experiencing this country for the first time.
The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney
This story shares Amira’s life in Sudan before and after her village is attacked. After the attack, she must walk for days to get to the safety of a refugee camp. Despite her grief, she finds hope in the form of a special pencil as she sees the possibilities for education and self-expression.
Garvey’s Choice by Nikki Grimes
First of all — WOW! Grimes wrote this entire book not just in verse but in tanka poem!! Garvey, the main character, wants to connect to his father but it seems like it’s a chasm that’s too big. For example, Garvey likes reading and chess while his father likes sports. However, when Garvey discovers an interest in music, will it be the bridge that connects him to his dad? I loved this bittersweet story of redemption and belonging.
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Written in verse, this is the author’s own story about growing up as an African-American girl in the south and the north during the Civil Rights movement. It’s a powerful introduction to this time period and the issues of race in the United States since it’s told through the eyes of a child. National Book Award finalist.
Under the Broken Sky by Mariko Nagai
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