April brings spring and poetry to the library, for National Poetry Month. It’s a wonderful opportunity to explore a part of the collection that sometimes gets overlooked. In previous years on this blog, we’ve highlighted some favorite poetry books and some wonderful lines of poetry. This year I’d like to turn your attention to a format I only recently discovered myself: novels in verse.
I must admit, I’m a latecomer to admiring poetry. Sure, I loved Shel Silverstein, but that was easy. “Real” poetry, the stuff they made me read at school, was awful. The teaching style was boring and overly analytical. We’d read long and uninteresting poems and then dissect their symbolism. Yawn.
As a librarian I’ve learned to read outside my comfort zone so I can understand a wide range of genres and be able to help kids find great books of all types. So when Thanhha Lai won a Newbery Honor in 2012 for Inside Out and Back Again, I picked it up even though it was written in verse. Well let me tell you, I was blown away. This is a terrific book, written in a blank verse journal format. It tells a year in the life of Ha, a young girl who leaves Vietnam with her family in 1975 and ends up in Alabama. Divided into four sections, we learn of Ha’s experiences amidst the ruins of war, her long journey overseas, and then her at times quite difficult transition to American life. A smart girl in Vietnam, Ha struggles with assimilating to America, as when learning English grammar: “Whoever invented English/ should be bitten/ by a snake.” Using verse, Lai has chosen each word deliberately for maximum impact. This books would be particularly good for reluctant readers, as the story is engaging and there are very few words on each page, as well as for those who do not gravitate toward historical fiction. It’s a touching and relatable novel written beautifully. If you like Inside Out and Back Again, try this year’s excellent Serafina’s Promise by Ann E. Burg, about a girl who survives the Haitian earthquake.
Poetry is often meant to be read aloud. The reader can slow down and appreciate the rhyme and meter rather than rushing through to the next plot point. For a very funny and fun novel in verse, try Prince Puggly of Spud and the Kingdom of Spiff. This short novel is written in rhyme, with lighthearted illustrations and changes in font and spacing (a la Geronimo Stilton) that add to the silliness. Two neighboring kingdoms have very different views on dress: Spiff values the chic over all else, and Spud loves eccentricity. When the crazily dressed Prince Puggly of Spud attends a ball in Spiff, only the pajama-clad princess sees how much fun he is having, and together they hatch a plan to teach the stodgy Spiffers a lesson. This book begs to be read aloud.
Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War shows how two youngsters’ relationship reacts when James, the son of outpost traders, finds his people persecuting his friend Anikwa, a Miami tribe member. The two share very little language and even less cultural connection, but have a true friendship that suffers for their peoples’ war in 1812. The pages alternate viewpoints between the two characters, so both boys can tell their story in their individual poetic voices. This short book is another that should appeal to reluctant readers, showing them the richness of the story without bogging down in a lot of words or pages.
For a different sort of book, check out Gone Fishing: A Novel in Verse. It contains more than 40 poems that together tell the story of nine-year-old Sam’s day fishing with his dad (and unfortunately, his little sister too). The tone and illustrations make this perfect for readers of beginning chapter books. It makes a fun read, aloud or independently, and serves as a great introduction to various types of poetry because each of the entries uses a different format, such as rhyming lists, concrete poems, ballads, and haiku.