Verse Novel Roundup
We’ve already said it’s been an exceptionally strong year for poetry, and if you include novels in verse (not to mention FREE VERSE, a novel that celebrates and incorporates poetry, but is not a verse novel), then it is a phenomenally strong year. We’ve already discussed BOOKED, a fairly strong contender on its own merits, but even more so when compared to the rest of the field.
GARVEY’S CHOICE by Nikki Grimes . . . Grimes’s previous verse novel with Wordsong, WORDS WITH WINGS, garnered a CSK Honor Award and an ALSC Notable book. This similarly strong offering uses Japanese tankas to compare and contrast the relationship between Garvey and his father (who wants his overweight son to be more athletic) to the relationship between Garvey and his best and only friend Joe, a friendship which nurtures and supports Garvey’s true talent as a gifted vocalist.
APPLESAUCE WEATHER by Helen Frost . . . Could this be Helen Frost’s Newbery breakthrough? Most of her books are pitched to a middle school audience, although clearly accessible to upper elementary students; this one is pitched straight at that upper elementary audience and is even accessible to second and third graders. This one keeps the nostalgia and sentimentality in check to relay the poignant story of how siblings Peter and Faith await the arrival of Uncle Arthur for apple season, the first time since Aunt Lucy died.
MOO by Sharon Creech . . . Creech incorporates prose, various font sizes, and creative spacings to spice up her latest offering. It’s the story of siblings, Reena and Luke, who move to Maine, next door to the farm of Mrs. Falala. They are tasked with helping. They eventually warm up to her, and vice versa. While this is a good book, I’m not sure it rises above the field of verse novels, let alone all the other forms of distinguished literature. In LOVE THAT DOG, Creech wrote one of the most endearing and enduring verse novels in the canon, but this one doesn’t measure up to that–or more relevantly in terms of our Newbery discussion to some of these others.
CATCHING A STORYFISH by Janice Harrington . . . You may know this author from her excellent picture books, THE CHICKEN-CHASING QUEEN OF LAMAR COUNTY and GOING NORTH. I thought perhaps she had also written novels, but I can’t find them. No matter. Moving from Alabama to Illinois is hard on Keet, but her grandfather encourages her to catch her inner storyfish. An author’s note details ten of the poetic forms used in the book. Another fine Wordsong offering.
FINDING WONDERS by Jeanne Atkins . . . For BORROWED NAMES, Atkins pulled such disparate figures together as Marie Curie, Madam C.J. Walker, and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Here her three historical protagonists–Maria Merian, Mary Anning, Maria Mitchell–all share an interest in science, suggesting that fictional protagonists such as Calpurnia Tate and Faith Sunderly (in the tragically ineligible THE LIE TREE) are not anomalies at all.
TO STAY ALIVE by Skila Brown . . . You may remember discussing Brown’s debut novel, CAMINAR, on this blog a couple years ago. She returns this year with a poetry collection in picture book form, SLICKETY QUICK, and this, her second verse novel, which adopts the first person narrative of Mary Ann Graves, a young survivor of the ill-fated Donner party. Taking off my Newbery hat for a minute, this is a great fit for California history curriculum in fourth grade, but I think it may actually be middle school students who get the most bang for their buck here.
UNBOUND by Ann Burg . . . After a pair of contemporary works in ALL THE BROKEN PIECES and SERAFINA’S PROMISE, Burg delivers us another historical novel in verse to consider. Some folks went north on the Underground Railroad, but Grace and her family instead venture into the Dismal Swamp, a remote wilderness area, to hide from the would be slave catchers. The short, clipped lines are effective. One review thought the Southern patois might be challenging. I didn’t think that, but did wonder how it might play in the aftermath of the WHEN WE WAS FIERCE dust up. To be sure, I’m not equating them. Just wondering.
YOU CAN FLY by Carole Boston Weatherford/AMERICAN ACE by Marilyn Nelson . . . I actually prefer Weatherford’s text to FREEDOM IN CONGO SQUARE , but this is a solid and welcome homage to the Tuskegee Airman. Ironically, Marilyn Nelson also published a verse novel on that subject this year. I preferred the narrative voice of YOU CAN FLY, but preferred the narrative structure of AMERICAN ACE with the white boy unexpected discovering his African American heritage.
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About Jonathan Hunt
Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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