Friday, June 14, 2013

Using verse novels in the classroom

I don't know how much attention these things are getting anymore.  I think the trend has slowed a bit, but it doesn't seem like it was that long ago that YA/MG novels in verse, like Crank by Ellen Hopkins or Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse, were getting a lot of attention from teachers and students alike.  (And of course, Love that Dog is a classic of this type, though it's probably young for most of my seventh graders.)

I enjoy books written in verse, and not just because they are often quick reads (although that is a major selling point).  I enjoy poetry, of course, and reading a verse novel is a nice blend of two of my favorite things (though I could probably read a bit more poetry these days).  

This format also fits novels about emotional struggle and loss very well, and many of the best verse novels I've read are about trauma.  Shark Girl, probably the first YA novel that I read that was written in verse, is about a young woman whose arm is bitten off by a shark.  This is traumatic enough, but she is also an accomplished young artist who doesn't think she can pursue her dream anymore.  That combination - physical suffering and potential loss of identity - became a resonant, emotionally-dense narrative that I was able to read in less than two hours.  

I haven't read every verse novel that I've heard of.  I read Crank and was disappointed.  It wasn't as searing as I had hoped, and felt predictable.  Here's a short list of my favorite verse novels:

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanha Lai
Shark Girl by Kelley Bingham
All the Lovely Pieces by Ann E. Burg
Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
True Believer by Virginia Euwer Wolff
Yellow Star by Jennifer Roy
By the River by Steven Herrick

There are a lot of other great titles on a list I found here, in case you want to look for more.  The titles above I have read and enjoyed.

The best part about novels in verse is that they can be very motivating for struggling readers.  I've had success using Shark Girl, Out of the Dust, and All the Broken Pieces in the classroom.  Kids might be tempted to read them too quickly, though, so they have to be reminded to pay attention and listen for things that don't sound right, or that might be misleading or confusing.  

I'm also surprised to find several lists of "verse novels" include House on Mango Street.  I love this book, and I love teaching this book, but I suppose I never thought of it as a "verse novel."  It's very poetic, but I'm not sure that I buy into that - it's hard to "see" the poetry here, and opening that door makes the distinction much harder to make.  

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