Big Stories in Small Packages: Give Verse a Chance

Pick up and leaf through a verse novel, say Susan Taylor Brown’s Hugging the Rock. The trim size is small, the pages more white than type. That’s the beauty of a novel in verse, especially at the middle-grade level. All that white space entices even reluctant readers. To quote one eleven-year-old reader: “You can read them a lot faster, and the words sound cool.” A middle-grader can zip through Hugging the Rock, a novel of 12,000 words, in a single sitting.

Such frugality with words doesn’t mean a lack of complexity or depth, though. “Verse allows my words to touch readers’ hearts in a way that the same story, told in prose, might not,” says Susan Taylor Brown. In the opening of Hugging the Rock, Rachel and her father watch as her bipolar mother packs the car. As the pile in the backseat grows, blocking the rear window, Rachel says simply:

No room left for Dad.

And no room left for me.

Author Ann E. Burg agrees: “Poetry novels are simply novels written in an alternate style. A charcoal or pen and ink drawing is different than an oil painting or watercolor, but important details and the same depth of emotion can be achieved in all mediums.”  All the Broken Pieces, her novel about a boy air-lifted from war-torn Vietnam, is proof of that. The narrator, 12-year-old Matt Pin, must make sense of both his past in Vietnam and his present in the United States, a country itself scarred by the war. It’s a story as ambitious as any middle-grade fiction I read this year–in poetry or prose.

Sadly, as much as I and my sixth-grade daughter love verse novels, middle-grade titles seem to be in short supply on bookstores shelves.  On a recent trip to the Bay Area–where I visited more bookstores than I care to admit–I rarely found more than one, or at most two, verse titles in the middle-grade section. Patty Norman of Copperfield Books in Petaluma admits verse novels are a hard sell to middle-graders who still have that knee-jerk “yuck, it’s poetry” reaction. Young adult readers, she finds, are more open to verse.

It doesn’t have to be so, says Burg, a former English teacher. “Middle graders are curious and unpretentious. Poetry delves right to the heart of the matter which they should find appealing. If poetry and poetry novels are presented as genuine literature worthy of review and discussion, most kids will read and respond with open, sincere minds.”

When Susan Taylor Brown was first shopping the manuscript for Hugging the Rock, she recalls one editor passed because she wasn’t sure the genre was here to stay. “The key,” says Brown, “is to keep talking with schools, with young readers.” Fortunately, there are plenty of good books to talk about, and soon there will be more.  Both Taylor and Burg are working on new novels in verse.

Following are some of  my recent favorites. Please chime in with yours and share your thoughts on how we can encourage more young readers to give verse a chance.

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All the Broken Pieces by Ann E. Burg

Airlifted from Vietnam two years earlier, Matt Pin has seemingly adjusted well to his new life in the US. He plays baseball and takes piano lessons and tries to be the son he believes his adoptive parents want, yet he is haunted by the mother and little brother he left behind in Vietnam. Matt says “My Vietnam/ is drenched/ in smoke and fog…./ My Vietnam is/ only/ a pocketful/ of broken pieces/ I carry/ inside me.” Going backward and forward in time, the reader learns about Matt’s two families, the prejudice he faces at school, and the complicated legacy of the Vietnam war for Matt and everyone else whose lives were touched and changed by that war.

Brushing Mom’s Hair by Andrea Cheng; illustrated by Nicole Wong

When Ann’s mom undergoes surgery and chemotherapy for breast cancer Ann finds her home filling up with flowers, meals she doesn’t like, visits from people who say the wrong thing. Worried about her mother, Ann takes refuge in her ballet and art. A mere sylph of a story at 59 pages, Cheng deals deftly with the hard realities of cancer and the return of hope with the return of her mother’s hair.

The Crazy Man by Pamela Porter

With down-to-earth lyricism, Porter tells the story of 12-year-old Emmaline, maimed in a farming accident that gives her father the excuse he’s been looking for to leave the farm he never loved. Left to sow and harvest the Saskatchewan fields alone, Emmaline’s mother hires Angus, a gentle giant of a man from the local mental hospital to take care of the farm. The town buzzes with talk about the “crazy man” in their midst, and when tragedy threatens, Emmaline and her mother learn who their true friends are.

The Dancing Pancake by Eileen Spinelli

Eleven-year-old Bindi longs for a noisy home full of siblings. When her parents separate and she and her mother move into a small apartment above The Dancing Pancake, her mother and aunt’s new café, Bindi finds a host of new friends among the staff and customers and new hope for her family. Both this book and Spinelli’s other MG verse novel Summerhouse Time (Knopf, 2007) are notable for their full cast of appealing characters and touches of humor.

Heartbeat by Sharon Creech

Heartbeat tells the story of 12-year-old Annie, her family, and her best friend and running partner, Max. The short-lined verse mimics the rhythms of running—sometimes breathless, always moving forward. Running helps Annie keep pace with all the changes in her life: the new baby her mother is expecting, her grandfather losing his memory, and her best friend Max who keeps bugging her to join the track team when all she wants to do is run for the joy of it.

Hugging the Rock by Susan Taylor Brown

Rachel has always taken care of her bipolar mother, staying up late with her, making sure she takes her medicine, while her father seemed distant and unknowable…until her mother packs up and leaves with no explanation beyond “I don’t belong here anymore.” Hurt and angry, Rachel lets her schoolwork slide, lies to her friend about her mother’s absence. She and her father live together like a pair of ghosts haunting the same house until, little by little, Rachel learns about her mother’s past and her father’s devotion.

Reaching for Sun by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer

Thirteen-year-old Josie Wyatt has cerebral palsy. Teased and called a “tard” by the popular girls at school and betrayed by her own slow tongue and limbs, Josie feels perfectly at home in her grandmother’s garden, like the poppies that start their lives “hairy, grayish…./ easily a member/ of the ugly family,” but bloom “the same red/ as a Chinese wedding dress.” When her grandmother suffers a devastating stroke, Josie’s inner strength pulls her through, like the wisteria vine “reaching for sun.”

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Laurie Schneider reads, writes, and revises in the Palouse, the rolling wheat country of Eastern Washington/North Idaho.

Good reader giveaway winner!

Thank you to everyone who commented on our interview with Elise Broach and Marie Rutkoski. I recognized many of your favorite books for good readers but there were some new ones I’m adding to my list.

And now for the winner of our good reader giveway….

Congratulations to Jemi Fraser! Please send an email to with  “Good reader giveway winner” in the subject heading. In your email, include your mailing address and which book you would like sent to you: Masterpiece by Elise Broach or The Cabinet of Wonders by Marie Rutkoski.

Thanks again to everyone. Check back here all of next week for more posts and more giveaways!

Clever Books for Good Readers – an interview with Marie Rutkoski and Elise Broach

In our previous post, Sydney Salter wrote about books that appeal to reluctant readers. Today we’re switching gears and talking about what might draw the eager reader into a story. With us here to help are authors Elise Broach (Shakespeare’s Secret, Masterpiece) and Marie Rutkoski (The Cabinet of Wonders, The Celestial Globe), who were the stars of a signing event I recently attended titled, “Clever Books for Good Readers.”

Join us for a joint interview with Elise and Marie as they share their take on mystery novels, history, middle-graders, and good readers.  

AND AS A SPECIAL BONUS, I WILL HOST A GOOD READER GIVEAWAY! See the end of the interview for details.

   Marie Rutkoski
        Elise Broach                        Marie Rutkoski

(photos courtesy of Words Are Wonderful and Macmillan respectively) 

Hi Marie! Hi Elise! We’re so happy to host you both at From The Mixed Up Files. What’s the special appeal that mysteries hold for middle-grade readers that’s different from a young adult audience? What drew you both to the genre? 

Marie: My friend, the writer Neel Mukherjee, says that all novels are mysteries, and I think that’s true. Maybe young readers are more attuned to the natural mystery of the process of reading books, because it is a newer experience to them than to adults, and so actual mystery novels seem like the perfect thing. Also, all of us are trying to untangle the mysteries of our worlds (relationships, how things work, etc.), but the younger you are, perhaps the more aware you are that this is an important aspect of life. Children learn so many amazing things every day that we take for granted, like what makes the moon shine.   

Take E.L. Konigsberg’s From the Mixed-up Files (great blog title, by the way). There are two mysteries in that book: who sculpted Angel, and who is Saxonberg? The Angel mystery is one that readers can’t ultimately figure out before Claudia and Jamie do, but readers can guess at Saxonberg’s identity.  

 This is a really clever move on Konigsberg’s part, because it creates a symmetry between the reader’s experience and Claudia and Jamie’s; they’re all trying to solve a mystery. And the different mysteries tap into children’s growing awareness that there are different paths to discovering the truth to secrets, in books and in the world.  

As for what drew me to the genre of mystery, I don’t have a particularly interesting answer. I knew that I wanted Petra to go to London in The Celestial Globe but I wasn’t quite sure, for a while, what she would do there beyond learning from John Dee. At some point I thought, “Hey. What if she had to solve a murder mystery? That’d give her something to do.” Then I thought, “Uh oh. Can I actually write a murder mystery? I don’t know!” I figured it would be good for me, as a writer, to find out.   

Elise: I think middle-grade readers love puzzles and games and anything they can play an active role in solving, so this genre is perfect for them.  As Marie says, they like the idea of an answer or solution that they can figure out alongside the characters in the book, and the best middle-grade mysteries leave plenty of room for the reader… to assess the evidence, hunt for clues, and make deductions alongside the detective character(s) in the story.  Mysteries are a good fit for this audience because the story usually points to a solid, specific conclusion–the missing thing is found; the culprit is apprehended; the disappearance is explained, etc.  Young adult fiction tends to be more open-ended and ambiguous.  If I can make a gross generalization, I think teenagers are less interested in ‘the one right answer’ than they are in exploring the question.  

As to how I came to write mysteries: the simplest answer is that my children loved reading them, and I remember loving them when I was that age.  When I started to write my first novel (Shakespeare’s Secret), I wanted it to have that kind of natural appeal to kids that would keep them turning the pages.  A good mystery by its very nature has suspense, twists, surprises, revelations–all things I love in fiction.  

Both of your books are cleverly crafted mystery/adventures with references to history. What were some of the considerations you made when keeping in mind your audience’s age?  

Marie: I didn’t know that middle-grade existed as a category before writing The Cabinet of Wonders. I knew it was for children, and I thought it would be for somewhat older children, but I wasn’t aware, at the time, of the different age categories there are for young readers.   

I didn’t think too hard about my reader’s age when writing my first two books. The historical elements spring from my own interest in the Renaissance, which I’ve studied and researched for, oh, about fifteen years now. Sometimes things appear in the book only because I read or saw something and thought, “That’s awesome! Everyone will think so! I have to share it!” So when I read an original book from the 1600s about how to make fireworks, or build a water fountains with fake birds that sing, I decided I had to work that in. I did a lot of research on ships in the Renaissance for The Celestial Globe, and when, for example, I learned the names of the various sails, and what a drogue is and how Sir Francis Drake actually used one to capture a Spanish galleon, I thought, “Would young readers be interested in that? Sure! I am!” You can probably guess that I have a laughable confidence that what is interesting to me will also be interesting to my readers.  

Elise: Like Marie, I didn’t consciously shape my plot according to the age of my audience.  The age of the book’s central character tends to determine the age of your readers, so both Shakespeare’s Secret and Masterpiece were by definition middle-grade.  The challenge when you have a historical basis to the plot is not to overload the book with details.    

I try to only include the most interesting, relevant historical facts, and to weave them into dialogue or dramatic scenes so they’d engage the readers.  I also try to build the story in a logical way so that the historical tidbits seem important when they appear; the reader is primed to pay attention to them, and to know that they will matter to the solution of the mystery.    

And finally, what’s your idea of a good reader?

Marie: I think there are different ways of being a good reader. You can be an enthusiastic reader, and tear through books. You can go slowly, and notice the details. You can dislike what you read, and argue against it, and decide exactly what it is you don’t like. I think being a good reader is making a promise to give a book your best effort.   

Elise: My idea of a good reader is a reader who brings an open mind and heart to the book… not even a reader who loves the book; just a reader who engages with it fully, on its own terms.  I have three children who are very different readers.  The one who devours books and reads non-stop never tested well on reading comprehension exams; the one who tests very well would pretty much do anything to avoid reading, though he will spend hours with a chess book or other nonfiction; the third is an exceptionally fussy reader and it’s hard for her to find a book she likes, but once she does, you can’t pry it out of her hands and she will make sure all of her friends read it too.  My point is, they are all good readers for the right kind of book. 

MARIE RUTKOSKI is a professor of English literature at Brooklyn College. She specializes in Renaissance drama, children’s literature, and creative writing. Her books, The Cabinet of Wonders and The Celestial Globe are the first two books in the Kronos Chronicles. Marie lives in New York City, where she is hard at work on the third book of her series.

ELISE BROACH holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in history from Yale University and lives with her family in Easton, Connecticut. Shakespeare’s Secret, named an Edgar Award Finalist, an ALA Notable Book, and an IRA Teacher’s Choice. She is currently working on a mystery series set in Arizona at a place called Superstition Mountain, which has been the site of many historical disappearances and unexplained deaths.  The first book comes out next year.

Many thanks to Marie and Elise for speaking with us! And now the good reader giveaway!

For today I will be giving away a brand-new copy of Elises’s Masterpiece OR Marie’s The Cabinet of Wonders. You choose! To enter, leave a comment and share with us some of the middle grade books that have been favorites with the good readers in your life. And yes, that good reader can be YOU!

Sheela Chari hearts mysteries and good readers of all kinds. Her middle-grade mystery novel, VANISHED, will be published by Disney-Hyperion, July 2011.