By Bailey Keimig-Gehrke, Youth Services
In honor of National Poetry Month, consider reading a novel in verse. Novels in verse are just like regular novels, only they are told in a series of free verse poems instead of prose. They are quick, engrossing reads that often tell realistic, slice-of-life stories that can pack a heavy emotional punch. Try out one of these young adult novels in verse to see if this format is for you.
“Jazz Owls: A Novel of the Zoot Suit Riots”
by Margarita Engle
This heavy-hitting novel in verse focuses on the lives of Marisela, Lorena, and Ray, three Mexican-American siblings living in Los Angeles during World War II. Marisela and Lorena spend their days working grueling hours at the cannery, doing their part to support their country during the war. Then they spend their nights dancing with hundreds of Navy sailors, giving them a few last moments of laughter, music, and fun before they are shipped off to fight for their country. Unfortunately, the fun ends when the Zoot Suit Riots begin.
The sailors begin to target Latino teenagers and other young people of color who wear the trendy, oversized zoot suits that are perfect for dancing. Since fabric is meant to be rationed for the war, the suits are seen as unpatriotic, which is how the newspapers justify the violence. But the reality is that these riots are racially-charged hate crimes. Ray and hundreds of other teens sporting zoot suits get their clothes stolen right off their bodies in addition to being beaten and arrested. Despite the violent atmosphere of their city, the siblings keep looking toward a brighter future—when Marisela can be with her love, when Lorena can move up in the male-dominated workforce, and when Ray finally feels the freedom to dance.
“Long Way Down” by Jason Reynolds
This stylistic novel in verse follows 15-year-old Will in the aftermath of the death of his brother Shawn. Will decides that he needs to follow ‘The Rules’ and avenge his brother’s death. The Rules are simple: no crying, no snitching, and always get revenge.
Will is positive he knows who shot Shawn, and he sets up a plan to exact his revenge. First, he needs to get the gun Shawn hid in a drawer in their room. Then he needs to go to the shooter’s house, knock on the door, and take care of business. It should be simple. But when Will gets on the elevator that will take him down to the ground floor, the trip does not go as smoothly as he was expecting. The doors open on each floor, and somebody from Shawn’s past gets on the elevator to share with Will a little more of the whole story surrounding Shawn’s death. When Will reaches the ground floor, he has to take what he has learned and decide what to do. Also available as a graphic novel.
“One” by Sarah Crossan
Grace and Tippi are sisters. Like many sisters, they share everything with each other. Unlike most sisters, they also happen to share a body. Grace and Tippi are conjoined at the stomach, and have survived that way for 16 years. The girls have been homeschooled, but this year they are finally going to experience a real high school. They meet the typical bullies, but end up making some great friends. Together, they collect new experiences and have a lot of fun. Unfortunately, the fun doesn’t last. Grace hasn’t been feeling quite right lately, and when they find out that she needs to have heart surgery in order to survive, the girls face the toughest decision of their lives. Do they get the risky operation that will separate them forever, or do they stay together and keep getting sicker?
Each of these young adult novels in verse are vividly written, emotionally jarring, and completely absorbing. Celebrate National Poetry Month by exploring these stories, and see if you feel inspired enough to write a few lines about your own life experiences.