Ever since reading Out Of The Dust by Karen Hesse (1997), Love That Dog by Sharon Creech (2001), and Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate (2007), I’ve been intrigued with the free verse style and knowing that an author has chosen that format is a strong motivator to pick up the book. The ten titles below are some great titles that I delved into, mostly all were published in 2022. One title received 2023 Newbery Honor Recognition. Writing as poems, the characters tend to dig into their hearts and make poetic observations of events and relationships. Not that authors of prose novels, don’t work carefully to mold sentences and paragraphs but I feel that the free-verse art form encourages authors to choose words carefully to create vivid images and sharp emotions and to shape and re-shape line lengths to tell a story. If you haven’t read books in this format, try it you’ll like it. I do.
ALIAS ANNA by Susan Hood with Greg Dawson
Zhanna (alias Anna) , a young Jewish girl, living in the Ukraine when it was invaded by Germans during World War II is forced to l her entire family when the Nazis force them out of their home. Zhanna has strong musical talent and a promising future as a pianist. When her father bribes a guard, Zhanna is fortunate to take and hide a treasured sheet of Chopin music. This historical fiction title tells the story (one of hundreds) of Jewish children who were forced to give up their names and hide their identities. The author, along with Zhanna’s son, Greg Dawson recount the true, moving story of how two piano prodigies, outplayed their pursuers while hiding in plain sight. Like The Children of Willsesden Lane and Hiding Edith this is a remarkable story of resilience and perseverance set during the Holocaust.
THE DEEPEST BREATH by Meg Grehan (originally published 2019)
This free verse novel;, bu Irish author, Meg Grehan, presents a sensitive portrait of an 11-year old girl who is questioning her sexuality. Stevie has. a fizzy feeling in her tummy about a girl named Chloe in her class whom she makes friend. She has a loving relationship with her now single mother and Stevie doesn’t want to let her down. Grehan presents an inquisitive, reflective -and rather anxious – character on the path of discovery about changes in her life especially on her path to accept her feelings for another girl.
ODDER by Katherine Applegate
Wow! a new book by Katherine Applegate. I’m a fan and was thrilled to see that she has written another free verse novel (I’m so fond of Home of the Brave) and another story honouring the world of animals (I’m so fond of The One and Only Ivan). Odder is an otter. Life is grand for Odder the brave curious sea otter as she enjoys frolicking off the coast of Central California. One day, Odder is attacked by a great white shark and when she is rescued by humans she learns about the possible dangers of swimming freely in the ocean and humans who care and protect for endangered animals. The story is inspired by the true story of a Monterey Bay Aquarium program that paired surrogate orphaned pups with surrogate pups. Katherine Applegate has – of course done extensive research about sea otters and presents a rich hybrid of novel, non-fiction and poetry in this wonderful wonderful book.
Humans envy the way
otters sleep on the water,
untroubled as lily pads.
FLY by Alison Hughes
Life in high school can be difficult but for teenager Felix Landon Yarrow (a.k.a Fly) living life in a wheelchair can be particularly challenging. But Fly is particularly observant of those around him and bravely carrie on. He has a crush on a girl named Daria and keeps this dream a secret. When he becomes aware of a the creepy Carter who is involved in a scheme selling pills, Fly secretly plans to set a trap to catch Carter and perhaps win favour with Daria. This is a wonderful story about the identity of a disabled teenager who bravely wrestles with life’s circumstances. The free verse style of this excellent novel invites readers into the mind and soul of this boy with cerebral palsy. Beautiful writing. Beautiful character.
Fly in the hall,
a fly on the wall –
GARVEY IN THE DARK by Nikki Grimes
There have been, and will likely continue to be, stories set during the Pandemic. In this free verse novel, the author tells Garvey’s story as the world and his family are smothered by lockdown. Garvey is afraid but hangs on to hope and music (‘singing heals my heart) and friendship to get him through the days of living through the outbreak and the heartache of police brutality of Blacks (George Floyd) This is a sequel to the author’s Garvey’s Choice. Much of Nikki Grimes poems in Garvey in the Dark use the ancient poetry form of Tanka (‘short poem’) originally from Japan. The form is usually broken down as follows in a five line format (5 syllables; 7 syllables; 5 syllables; 7 syllables; 7 syllables.
A few times a day
I turn up in the kitchen
hungry for something
to chew on besides worry,
thirsty for back-to-normal.
GOLDEN GIRL by Reem Faruqi
Imagine a novel about a girl who is a kleptomaniac (i.e. lip gloss, ornament from the teacher’s desk, Aafiyah Qamar is a grade seven girl who is drawn to pretty things that she’d like to borrow. On a return trip from Pakistan, her father is falsely accused of a crime and Aafiyah rationalizes that her habit can help with her family problems. Reem Faruqi has written an engaging coming-of-age story about a young adolescent girl who is smart (lists of Weird But True Facts), talented (tennis player), caring (for her sick grandfather who is undergoing cancer treatment), physically challenged (slight hearing loss) and a good friend. The big problem, however, is that Aafiyah needs to conquer her ‘itchy fingers’ habit.
But these hands have borrowed too many things,
These hands are guilty.
These hands are going to do better.
A SEED IN THE SUN by Aida Salazar
Lula Viramontes is a Mexican farm-working girl with big dreams (being a daring ringleader in a traveling circus). The novel is set in the mid 1960’s in Delano, California. Lula and her brothers work under dangerous conditions during the grape harvest. Adding to Lula’s problems is the responsibility she feels for taking care of mother who has fallen ill and combatting her father who has a volatile temper. When she meets labor activists, Dolores Huerta and Larry Itliong, Lula is passionate about striking for better treatment and wages. A richly detailed story of activism and a universal narrative protesting for what you believe in in any generation. A wonderful free verse title.
WHAT ABOUT WILL…by Ellen Hopkins
With over 14 free verse novels, (mostly YA / Crank, Tricks, Smoke), author Ellen Hopkins is a master at the style. What About Will… is her second middle grade title and she provides readers with a strong story about family and about a teenager dealing with pills. Twelve-year-old Trace Reynolds admires his brother, Will, and enjoyed a strong bond with him, especially during the divorce of his parents. After Will was knocked out in a football game he was struck with a brain injury that left him with a facial tic and severe depression. The bond between the two brothers subsequently becomes stressful, especially when Will keeps secrets and his addiction to pain medication keeps him with angry and withdrawn. Not to add any more strain to his family, Tracy covers for Will who skips school, steals, and hangs out with the ‘wrong’ people. Family is important to Tracy and when he learns that his father has a new girlfriend and discovers that his mother, a recording artist devoted to her singing, seems to have officially abandoned her sons, Tracy tries to hold things together. Conversations with a senior neighbour, laying baseball, and forming a new friendship with Cat, a star baseball player help Tracy through troubled times. Readers ages 12+ are certain to care about Tracy and Will and many students will recognize the anxieties that these characters face. Ellen Hopkins powerfully captures the voice and emotions of this age group.
Dedication: “For everyone who has lost someone they love, I hope you are able to find them again. If you haven’t keep looking.:
WORDS WITH WINGS by Nikki Grimes (2013)
For Gabriel, daydreaming is an escape from family arguments. Even though her daydream distractions get her in trouble at school it is essential for her to put thoughts to paper, especially to celebrate words that particularly inspire her (“Say ‘comet’ and I am weightless..” / “Say ‘spring’ and I am bouncing on the balls of my feet…” / “Say ‘butterfly’ and I am swimming in sunshine, sprawled in the grass…” It is a caring teacher who recognizes how daydreaming is vital to Gabby and devises a program to honour and celebrate her dreams and words and wings. At 83 pages, a gem of a free verse novel.
sit still on the page
holding a story steady.
IVELIZ EXPLAINS IT ALL by Andrea Beatriz Arango (ages 12+)
This novel was brought to my attention with the announcement of the Newbery Award winners 2003. Arango’s novel was chosen as an honour book (Newbery medal went to Freewater by Amina Luqman-Dawson) and when I learned that Andrea Beatriz Arango’s book was a free verse novel I was intrigued. This is a special book, probably one of the most powerful recent novels for young adolescents that deals with Mental Health. The book compassionately shows what many kids and teens go through from day to day. “You are not alone and there’s nothing wrong with you.” (author’s note p. 265) The author hopes s that Iveliz’s story will encourage anxious, troubled students to get support from friends, family or professionals.
Iveliz (EE-VEH-LEASE) is a 7th grade student who is burdened with the memory of a traumatic event in her life. The book is presented as a series of journal entries where the young adolescent girl pours out her heart, explains her feelings and shares stories about her meds, her therapist (‘Dr. Turnip’), school bullies, her best – only – friend Amir from Afghanistan, her new friend, her grandmother (abuelita), Mimi, diagnosed with Alzheimers’ who has just moved from Puerto Rico to live with Iveliz and her mother. Some thoughts are written in Spanish bringing authenticity to the novel. (not understanding Spanish is NOT a deterrent). Iveliz ties to explain all her fears, worries and sadness in the journal because she feels like no one else is listening to her. The book packs an emotional wallop. The free verse style , the lined journal format, the font, the ever-changing list of coping goals, and the inclusion of illustrations help to make this a special, a very special book.
“It’s stupid how a journal is the only one I can talk to right now.
The only one who won’t judge me or call me crazy
or mad.” (page 106)