I come across a lot of free verse novels for teens in my work as a librarian, but fewer for middle grade readers, especially in recent years. Then I had the good fortune to read Red Butterfly by A.L. Sonnichsen, which recently won the Washington State Book Award for Middle Grade Books, and I was again hooked.
What’s the appeal of novels in free verse? Some readers (often adults) will tell us it’s the imagery, the pacing, the sparseness of writing that requires restraint and specificity of words. Teachers and librarians know that there’s another kind of reader who may be a perfect match for a novel in verse: the reluctant reader.
Opening a book written verse and seeing all that air, all that white space, can be inviting on its own. The books may have 200 or more pages and look long, but have half the number of words as a traditional prose piece. In addition, “novels in verse can be especially appealing to reluctant readers because they use so much vivid imagery,” says Dorie Raybuck in this excellent Horn Book piece “This Is Too Much!” Why Verse Novels Work for Reluctant Readers.”
When trying to find a free verse book for your readers, search the library under the subject heading “novels in verse” (makes sense!) and then filter to the age range and type of book you want. In the meantime, a few recommendations to get readers started.
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
2015 Newbery Medal Winner and 2015 Coretta Scott King Honor Award Winner. “With a bolt of lightning on my kicks . . .The court is SIZZLING. My sweat is DRIZZLING. Stop all that quivering. Cuz tonight I m delivering,” announces dread-locked, 12-year old Josh Bell. He and his twin brother Jordan are awesome on the court. But Josh has more than basketball in his blood, he’s got mad beats, too, that tell his family’s story in verse, in this fast and furious middle grade novel of family and brotherhood.
Mountain Dog by Margarita Engle
When Tony’s mother is sent to jail, he is sent to stay with a great uncle he has never met in Sierra Nevada. It is a daunting move Tony’s new world bears no semblance to his previous one. But slowly, against a remote and remarkable backdrop, the scars from Tony’s troubled past begin to heal. A Kirkus Reviews best books of 2013.
Garvey’s Choice by Nikki Grimes
School Library Journal says: “Grimes’s latest is a sensitively written middle grade novel in verse that takes its syllable count from Japanese tanka. Garvey is an overweight boy who is teased at school and whose father constantly prods him to be more like his athletic older sister, Angie. But Garvey has a best friend (Joe), an open heart (which leads him to a new friend, Manny), and, as readers learn midway through the book, a talent for singing, which lands him a coveted solo in the school’s chorus concert.”
Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhhà Lại
Winner of the National Book Award and also a Newbery Honor Book. Inspired by the author’s childhood experience of fleeing Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon and immigrating to Alabama, this coming-of-age debut novel told in verse has been celebrated for its touching child’s-eye view of family and immigration.
Red Butterfly by A.L. Sonnichsen
A young orphaned girl in modern-day China discovers the meaning of family in this “heartbreaking, heartwarming, and impressive debut” (Publishers Weekly, starred review) told in verse. 2016 Washington State Book Award winner.