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
Masterfully plotted and beautifully written, Becoming Muhammad Ali, is the stunning new middle-grade biography of Muhammad Ali from superstars James Patterson and Kwame Alexander. Alexander writes Cassius’s life in first-person verse, alternating with Patterson who writes in prose from the point of view of Cassius’s good friend, Lucky. 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
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
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.
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.
Emmy in the Key of Code by Aimee Lucido
REALISTIC / STEM
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.
Closer to Nowhere by Ellen Hopkins
REALISTIC / VERSE / #OWNVOICES
A #ownvoices heart-warming story in verse of struggle and unconditional love for a child with challenging behaviors. Hannah hates that her cousin Cal is now living with her family. He’s ruining everything from her parents’ relationship to her gymnastics competitions, not to mention that he’s impossible to trust. As she narrates, we also begin to loathe Cal because of his lying, running away, pranks, and talking back. But once we learn Cal’s backstory and the pain he’s feeling from living with an abusive dad who is now in jail and an addict mom who died of leukemia, we begin to feel compassion for him. Understanding Cal, his stories seem less like lies and more like imaginative ways for him to deal with his life. Just when Cal becomes more likable to Hannah, too, his father arrives at school armed with weapons…I couldn’t put this story down; it’s a rich, nuanced story about family, love, and empathy.
The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary by Laura Shovan
The assignment is to write poems that will go in the time capsule when Emerson Elementary is closed. The students have mixed feelings — some are very upset that the school is closing while others aren’t. When the kids learn about protesting, they take their save-the-school cause to the school board. Not only did I love this story, I really loved that it was written from the students’ unique voices in verse. Shovan does a skillful job writing in each child’s voice so we really get to know each individual. Teachers and parents, you’ll appreciate that the back of the back of the book includes explanations of the different forms of poetry the kids used along with writing prompts. 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 the United States. Jude’s journey is one of growing up, being brave, and discovery. 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