20 Aug The Power of Verse Novels: Igniting a Love for Reading in Teenagers
By Tia Fisher, author
Engaging teen readers can be challenging. Too many distractions, re-wired attention spans, competing interests and the conviction that reading’s not for them. But verse novels offer a breath of fresh air in the school library, taking the power of poetry and combining it with the gripping storytelling of a novel.
Jason Reynolds, former US National Children’s Laureate, is all about making literature accessible and relatable. “If someone’s afraid of dogs, we don’t present them with a pit bull,” he says. “So if a young person is intimidated by literature, why do we show up with a pack of pit bulls in the form of pages and expect them to stop running away?” It’s a brilliant point. Instead of overwhelming teens with dense blocks of text, why not introduce them to the “palm-sized pup” of verse? Pacey, with a shorter word count and a lot of white space, a verse novel isn’t so far away from scrolling on a phone; readers swiftly turn the pages, gaining momentum and building confidence with each poem. Verse novels can even be read aloud in their entirety.
Authors bring the pages to life with innovative fonts, sizes and spacing, creating visually appealing and interactive reading experiences. Shaped poems add depth and symbolism to the story; text messages and social media exchanges are often artfully integrated; emojis and abbreviations reflect real-life communication. This is not only relevant in a digital world but may appeal to lovers of graphic novels.
Verse novels blur the boundaries between poetry and prose. A close reading will unearth deeper meanings and students can analyse the author’s word choice, structure and placement on the page; exploring poetic devices such as alliteration, enjambement and assonance.
Immersion and empathy
The concise and evocative language of verse transports readers directly into the hearts and minds of the characters; the distilled immediacy of voice chimes with the emotional intensity of adolescence, allowing teenagers to forge deep connections with the story and its protagonists.
Sparser description allows the reader to imagine themselves in the liminal spaces. The relatability of verse novels creates a powerful emotional bond between the readers and the characters, evoking empathy, sparking introspection and igniting meaningful discussions. My own novel and Jason Reynolds’ Long Way Down (exploring the impact of gang violence) are good examples of how format and subject matter can reach out and change lives.
A Year 8 student told me that Crossing the Line was the first book he’s finished since Aliens Love Underpants. The door to reading has opened, and he’s evangelising his new-found love among his peers. A verse novel has transformed a boy who ‘wouldn’t be seen dead picking up a book’ into someone who now wants to start a school book club.
Verse novels in Book Clubs in Schools’ book list are The Crossing by Manjeet Mann and The Crossover by Kwame Alexander. See the full book list.
For a list of verse novels, try LoveReading4Kids list of verse novels to shout about
Jason Reynolds in conversation with Alex Wheatle in the Book Clubs for Schools event in Brixton.
Jason Reynolds: How poetry can help kids turn a fear of literature into love
Tia Fisher is the author of Crossing the Line (Hot Key Books 2023), a verse novel for teens based on a true story of a teenager ensnared in county lines.Tia Fisher can be found on Twitter @tiafisher_ and on Instagram at @tia_fisher_writes. You can read about Crossing the Line, and access the free school resources at www.tiafisher.com