In my teaching years, no matter where I happened to live or what grade I was teaching, when I asked my students to define poetry they would all tell me the same thing: Poetry is about love and flowers. These upper elementary and middle school kids were saying more than they realized. They were revealing they’d already latched onto the message that poetry isn’t for everyone — just the people who are fans of sappy sorts of things.
Every year I tried to prove this idea wrong. I’d read my kids poetry about sports and vacuum cleaners, about growing into too big feet and laughing when you shouldn’t. We’d hunt down perfect poems to exchange with secret pals, sing Emily Dickinson’s lines to the tune of Gilligan’s Island (Try it! It works!), and share memorized poems in our classroom version of a beatnik coffeehouse. In one of my favorite lessons, we’d read aloud Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” clapping out the beats as we chanted the words. Sometimes we’d add in some funky rhythm, and half the room would whisper train-like chu-chu-DU sounds that lined up perfectly with each clap. Then we’d swap roles, playing with the poem’s sound and meter again and again. One year a student pulled out his trombone and blurped along to the beat. It was a magical moment, our own poetry happening.
Those kids who’d said weeks before that poetry was about flowers and love? They weren’t buying it anymore.
That sort of transformation is what I experienced the first time I picked up a verse novel. It was Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust, and when I closed the book I had changed. The story was raw and beautiful, its spare language a straight shot to my heart. I’d climbed into Billie Jo’s skin and left myself behind. The same thing happened when I read Sharon Creech’s Heartbeat:
bare feet hitting the grass
as I run run run
in the air and like the air
weaving through the trees
skimming over the ground
In reading those first lines I was with my students again, our hearts-beating-hands-clapping. Verse novels pushed me one step closer to the world on the page. Each word spoke doubly — first telling the story, second helping me feel it.
My students were right about the love thing. Poetry heightens the emotions. And verse novels made stories come alive for me in a way they never had before.
For a genre like historical fiction that is often viewed as distant or hard to understand, verse becomes a beautiful fit. It strips away the unnecessary and gives readers an intimate picture of a book’s central characters. I stumbled into writing my first verse novel, May B., a survival story set in 1870s Kansas, when I realized my early writing efforts felt lifeless. Once I went back to my research and re-read the private writings of frontier women, I realized I could most honestly tell May’s story through mirroring their spare language. Instead of explaining, I could let the words speak for themselves. I could get out of the way.
I chose verse deliberately for Blue Birds, my historical novel about the Lost Colony of Roanoke. My favorite passages come from the poems Alis and Kimi share. Here are two girls from two entirely different worlds who nevertheless become friends. The structure of these dual-voice poems speak the story visually. They invite the reader to look and listen in as the girls move from distrust to curiosity to mutual understanding. It was so satisfying for me to watch their friendship take shape upon the page.
Poetry isn’t exclusive, as my students first thought, but sometimes it can feel that way. That’s the beauty of the verse novel, a succinct, condensed blend of poetry and story that flows from one word to the next. Those words sink deep, move with the familiar rhythms of the everyday. The verse novel doesn’t just tell a story, it shows us how to listen, encourages us to linger. It changes us along the way.