For the Love of Verse Novels

Updated: Apr 10, 2018

When I first started telling people that I was writing a verse novel, I was surprised to learn that most people don’t know what a verse novel is. Some thought I was crazy. A novel told through poetry? To me, it makes perfect sense. Verse novels take two things I love a lot, and mush them together.

In Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon encourages writers not to write what they know, but to write what they like. “Write the book you want to read,” he wrote. I’ve been writing full-length prose novels for the past eight years, and I love to write them, but verse novels are books I really, really like.

I remember reading my first verse novel when I was about ten. It was Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse. I read it all in one sitting! And that felt great. It was beautiful, accessible, and drew me in with its language and its perfectly placed line breaks.

After college, I discovered Ellen Hopkins. I’d known about her books for a long time, but I didn’t know if they fit the hype. So, I took one on an airplane from Buffalo to Chicago. It’s a short flight, but for someone who hates to fly, it feels like forever, especially when you hit turbulence over the Windy City. Reading Crank, the flight seemed to be over in a matter of minutes, and I’d flown through hundreds of pages. I’d devoured the richness of Hopkins’ verse poetry, turning page after page. She’s an amazing storyteller, and verse just enhances her gift, adding grit and edge and tenderness all at the same time.

When people ask me for a verse novel example, Hopkins is the first author I suggest. She’s gotten teens who hate reading to fall in love with it. I went to the Rochester Teen Book Festival last year and stood in the longest line just to meet her. Her line was the longest for good reason. She’s a rock star.

Hopkins’ books made me realize something else about verse novels—they have the ability to tackle tough topics without sounding like some D.A.R.E or health class lecture. With verse novels, they’re not just a “drug book” or a “sexual identity book” or an “abusive relationships book.” They’re something completely unique that stand on their own and never preach to their readers.

When I realized I wanted to write a book in verse, I read a whole lot more. And I realized that verse novels A) have been around a long time (hey, Sonya Sones!) and B) are picking up speed in the young adult fiction world. For a good reason! Teens love to fly through books. It makes them feel confident in their reading abilities. Heck, it makes me feel confident. And also, they love a good stanza as much as the rest of us (even if they won’t admit it).

When I sat down to write Every Little Bad Idea, something just clicked. I knew this was the medium for this story. The book is rooted in my own experiences with relationships in high school and college. I felt so close to the material that at times, it made me uncomfortable. But the verse never stopped flowing. It lent a voice to the protagonist, Skyler Wise, and for once in my writing career, I had a character who never shut up. And I wouldn’t have wanted her to. She had something to say.

Here’s a list of my favorite YA books in verse. Once you get bit by the novels-in-verse bug, there’s no going back!

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

Solo by Kwame Alexander

Crank by Ellen Hopkins

The You I’ve Never Known by Ellen Hopkins

Saving Red by Sonja Sones

Glimpse by Carol Lynch Williams

Freakboy by Kristen Elizabeth Clark

Because I Am Furniture by Thalia Chaltas

Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff

All the Broken Pieces by Ann E. Burg