Expand Your Horizons for Poetry Month: How to Approach Novels in Verse

Novels in verse require a unique collaboration between reader and author: the author depends on the reader to fill in the spaces left by the poetry, and the reader depends on the author to provide just enough for the reader to be able to fill in the rest. As a poet and the author of a novel in verse, I’m frequently asked for suggestions on how to approach writing, reading, and teaching verse novels. It’s a beautiful form. It embodies everything wonderful about storytelling while embracing all the possibilities for brave, powerful, delicious language.

My first suggestion is always to look at what the masters have to say. My favorite book on poetry craft is The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice For Beginning Poets by former U.S. poet laureate Ted Kooser. It’s friendly and accessible, just like Ted, and he uses wonderful, concrete examples in his discussions. Another favorite is Take Joy: A Writer’s Guide To Loving The Craft by author and poet Jane Yolen. Her enthusiasm for playing with words is infectious. Both books are great starting places for anyone wanting to explore poetry, whether for its own sake or as a novelist’s tool.

Studying verse novels and paying close attention to the different choices authors make is another great strategy. Reading and contrasting the voice and style choices in the following list of middle grade and young adult novels would make for a rich book study:

Audacity by Melanie Crowder

Blood Water Paint by Joy Mccullough

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

Inside Out And Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

Moo by Sharon Creech

Out Of The Dust by Karen Hesse

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

When reading, study the word choice and how the authors distill the essence of an idea down to only the most necessary words. Study how the authors use line breaks and punctuation, and how they place words on the page. Study the physical shape of the poems relative to the negative white space around them. Study how some authors use verse and prose strategically in different parts of the same book. Study how devices of sound are used to create effect (rhyme, rhythm, assonance, consonance, alliteration, onomatopoeia, antithesis) and read the poems aloud to hear them as well as see them on the page. Study how the poems throughout the book interrelate with one another to create the larger overall narrative. (Inside Out And Back Again is a superb example of this, as many of the poems interweave and connect topically and chorally throughout the book. Thanhha Lai also provides a page of tips for writing poetry in the appendix.) Studying verse novels through these lenses will help reveal the skeleton under the muscle of the authors’ craft.

The books in the list above primarily employ free verse. For novels that use more formal forms of poetry, David Elliott’s books Voices and Bull are both spectacular, and Lois Lowry’s new book On The Horizon uses a variety of different forms, including prose. Lesléa Newman is another poet and verse novelist who writes in many traditional forms.

My final suggestion to writers is always this. Once you’ve written a draft, go back through and question every. single. word. Do the same with every single punctuation mark and every single capital letter. Make sure each is critical and needed, and test the poem without it to be sure. Poetry is about distillation. Distill the poem down to its essence. Go back again to the mentor texts and look at what they’ve chosen to keep. Most of what they wrote won’t be there. Finally—and this is important whether reading, writing, or teaching verse novels—give yourself permission to have a wonderful time. Poetry is about playing with words and sounds and ideas on the page. Let your experience with poetry be joyful, and let new forms of storytelling transport you.

Megan E. Freeman attended an elementary school where poets visited her classroom every week to teach poetry and she has been a writer ever since. She writes middle grade and young adult fiction, and her debut middle grade novel-in-verse ALONE is available from Simon & Schuster/Aladdin. Megan is also a Pushcart Prize-nominated poet, and her poetry collection, Lessons on Sleeping Alone, was published by Liquid Light Press. An award-winning teacher with decades of classroom experience, Megan is nationally recognized for her work leading workshops and speaking to audiences across the country. Megan used to live in northeast Los Angeles, central Ohio, northern Norway, and on Caribbean cruise ships. Now she lives in northern Colorado.

Website: www.meganefreeman.com

Twitter: @meganefreeman