Poetry Friday: Novels In Verse

I haven’t blogged this week. Partly because I was recovering from the events I organized for Poem in Your Pocket week, but partly because I’ve been sitting on this rather long post about Novels in Verse. I hope you’ll grab a cup of tea, stay awhile, and read. I’d love to hear your comments and opinions on this and really start a discussion about the verse novel structure.

Karen Hesse’s, OUT OF THE DUST (1997) was the first novel in verse that I read. The book, its structure and historical subject matter captivated me. Since then, the genre has exploded. Many kids like the novels in verse format because they are generally a faster read then a traditionally structured novel. The poetic structure of a verse novel can also make difficult or historic subjects more accessible. If you haven’t read many novels in verse, or verse novels you can find good lists of them here, here and here.

First, we should define verse. If one is writing “in verse,” there is some set rhythm or fixed metrical line to their poetry. [For example, iambic pentameter– or 5 iambs (2 syllables- soft-hard)]. Confusing the definition these days is that verse can also mean stanza or any poetry in general. This includes free verse, which has no “verse” or fixed rhythm at all.

Maybe part of my problem is that there is no real definition of what the verse novel structure needs to be. A sonnet, a haiku, a pantoum: all of these follow rules and I’m a rule follower. Let me be clear. I do not think that all novels in verse have to have a fixed or formal meter or rhyme scheme. I understand that there is a difference between a novel in verse and a collection of poems that tell a story. However, if a novel announces that it is in verse I do want to see the use of figurative language (metaphor, simile, onomatopoeia, hyperbole, etc.) and/or sound devices (assonance, consonance, and alliteration) in addition to line breaks.

Any dedicated author chooses each word after careful consideration and considerable hair pulling. She wants to be appreciated for the rhythmic quality of her words. She wants someone to say, “I never would have thought of that particular metaphor,”or “What a beautiful image,” or “This reads like poetry.” Yet even though some prose is poetic, not all novels work in verse.

When a novel in verse doesn’t work for me, I fight with myself. On one hand, I want to see kids exposed to poetry, and I think there are a variety of ways to tell a story well. On the other hand, I have questions about the legitimacy of the form. What makes a novel in verse? Is it enough for a writer to simply employ line breaks and call it poetry? What about figurative language, and formal poetic form? But wait, I counter, isn’t the line break a legitimate tool of the poet?

Many authors defend the form saying that line breaks are a valid poetic tool. The breaks allow the reader to fill in the space between what is written and what is implied. Absolutely! This is similar to the space between the panels in a graphic novel or comic strip. The reader creates, as Scott McCloud says, “closure” filling in the gaps between the frames. Holly Thompson, RA from SCBWI Japan and author of the verse novel ORCHARDS wrote in her Hatbooks Blog ,“In a verse novel all that white space needs to carry meaning.” (And I would add emotion.)

Here’s my problem, in too many “novels in verse,” I could easily get rid of the line breaks and the passage would read perfectly well. No space for the reader. No closure necessary.

One of my very favorite novels for children is, A CROOKED KIND OF PERFECT by Linda Urban. I listened to this book before I read it, (I highly recommend the audio version BTW) and I wondered, as I listened to the first few short, titled chapters, if Linda had written a novel in verse. It is poetic, and rhythmic. When I picked up the printed book I was pleased to see that she had written the book in prose but her language, emotion, and sensory details were so beautiful, honest, and specific that it read like poetry. I spoke to her at the recent NESCBWI conference and asked her if she had considered writing a novel in verse. She said no, but the novel in verse format gave her the liberty to consider a different format.

I shared an elevator ride with fellow poetry lover Kelly Fineman at the NESCBWI conference where we discussed the issue briefly. She’s done a number of interviews on her blog with authors of verse novels. Perhaps she’ll chime in here with an opinion.

Unfortunately, I’m ending where I started– with no real answers. However, since I’m considering this structure for one of my own WIP’s, I’ll continue to study the genre. What novels in verse do you love and why? What makes a novel in verse work, or not work for you? I’d love your thoughts in the comments below. 

12 thoughts on “Poetry Friday: Novels In Verse

  1. Anna, I have no answers for you, because I don’t think there are any, when it comes to the verse novel. I would suggest, though, that you listen to Martine’s lecture on the verse novel from this past January. Her experiences in writing ANGEL might be of benefit to you. Also, have you read Helen Frost? It’s been years since I read THE BRAID, but I remember being quite taken with it.

  2. Oh goodness. There is no way that I can collect my thoughts — on a Friday afternoon after a long week of school children (with three weeks left until summer break) bouncing around me in their sheer exuberance — into anything cohesive. So I will give you my knee-jerk thoughts. And I will probably pop back in for a few more thoughts when my brain is able to THINK again.

    My favorite, full stop, is THE HOME OF THE BRAVE by Katherine Applegate. For me, the test of a novel in verse is if it can trick me into forgetting the form–if, without realizing it, I sink into the rhythm of the line breaks without my head breaking the surface because of a phrase that is too cute or pat or frilly. When a novel in verse is authentic and trembling with heart, it is tough to beat. Take that, prose novels!

    As to bad novels in verse–they don’t make me question the form, just as bad picture books don’t make me question the validity of all picture books. Instead, I see it as a missed opportunity: a beautiful seed of a story that was simply mishandled.

  3. For a knee-jerk comment… your reply was amazingly thoughtful! I love the idea on sinking into the rhythm of the line breaks. The comparison to bad picture books is making me rethink my concerns. I picked up Inside Out & Back Again, and Shakespeare Bats Cleanup. I’m looking forward to both.

  4. I share some of your concerns and questions about verse novels. To me there are a few different things that can happen:
    1. A good novel in verse (NIV) wherein the verse both enhances and suits the narrative, does something new with verse or uses existing verse forms in a new narrative way. Examples are SHAKESPEARE BATS CLEAN-UP and pretty much anything by Ellen Hopkins. This the standard to which we all strive.
    2. A good “novel in verse” that’s not really in verse. Examples are THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN and THE DEATH OF JAYSON PORTER. Spare prose is different than verse. I’d be thrilled to write something as good as either of these and if my publisher wanted to call is a verse novel I’d probably not complain, but still.
    3. A good novel, good plot, interesting characters etc, wherein the verse is not especially innovative or poetic, nor does it add to or interact with the plot or characters in a particularly innovative way. GLIMPSE by Carol Lynch Williams is an example, that for me anyway, the verse did not add anything to. This is a short book with a lot of line breaks
    4. A verse novel that’s just not very good. I won’t name names.
    The verse novel is rising in prominence, especially in YA. I think we’ll get more of all of the above categories over the coming years. Since I have a verse novel (AUDACIOUS, Orca Books) coming out next eyar, I hope their popularity continues to rise.

  5. Apologies for the delay in commenting! I think that poets often seem to want a novel in verse to be a novel in poems. Shakespeare Bats Cleanup and Helen Frost novels are novels in poems. Many of the titles that are often referred to as novels in verse are, to me, novels in poems. But not all verse novelists set out to write novels in poems. I don’t. There are all sorts of approaches to structure in verse novels–the poem as a unit, the chapter as a unit, scenes as chapters or scenes as poems, page turns or no page turns–and I think the experimentation with the form, if it can be called that, is exciting, especially in YA lit. There are good verse novels and there are not so good verse novels. But there is so much possibility with verse novels and fiction told through poetry that I really look forward to seeing where writers take verse novels in the future.

    1. So glad you did comment, Holly. Thanks for your perspective. I suppose that Sharon Creech’s Love that Dog and Hate that Cat would also go under the “novel in poems” subset.

    1. Thanks Emma. I read Heartbeat a while ago but don’t remember it as a novel in verse. That’s the great thing about revisiting books we’ve read. We notice something new each time.

  6. Hi, Anna, I’ve loved following the trail of the discussion. HEARTBEAT is extraordinary. Sharon Creech uses the rhythm of a heartbeat and of a runner’s footsteps to tell the story. It seemed like the best possible way to tell it, in verse.

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