This post was written by Sasha Dowdy, Program Specialist in the Literary Initiatives Office. It appeared originally on Bookmarked: Celebrating Contemporary Books & Writers at the Library.
For the close of National Poetry Month, I’d like to highlight novels in verse. The Academy of American Poets defines the form as follows:
The verse novel is a hybrid form in which a narrative with structural and stylistic similarities to a traditional novel is told through poetry.
A novel in verse can be a fantasy or a work of nonfiction, as long as it is a narrative told through poetry. It is one of my favorite formats—because of their fast pace and emotional charge, whether they cover someone’s life, an imaginary tale, or a difficult moment in history, novels in verse tend to stick with me for a long time.
This type of story-telling has been used frequently in children’s and teen books in the recent past. Many writers choose this format for its ability to create stronger emotional connections with the reader. Others may choose it for the challenge!
Contemporary novels in verse are frequently written for young audiences because the lyrical storytelling, the brevity, and visual accessibility often appeal to young readers, including those who hadn’t yet found a book that spoke to them (a.k.a. kids formerly known as “reluctant readers”). And, of course, there are many benefits to all readers of novels in verse (all readers: adults can get just as much enjoyment when dipping into the world of books for children and teens), such as a new opportunity to enjoy poetry, its beauty and novelty of storytelling.
The National Book Festival has hosted many authors and their novels in verse—here are some highlights:
- R. M. Romero, “The Ghosts of Rose Hill”
- Ellen Hagan and Renée Watson, “Watch Us Rise”
- Ellen Hopkins, “People Kill People”
- Margarita Engle, “The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette’s Journey to Cuba”
- David Bowles, “They Call Her Fregona”
I must also mention that two of our previous National Ambassadors for Young People’s Literature wrote novels in verse. Jacqueline Woodson (Ambassador term: 2018-2019) received many awards, including the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, and is known for possessing an approachable yet intentional voice in her writing. You can view one of her talks about her award-winning autobiographical novel in verse “Brown Girl Dreaming” in this video of her Inauguration as Ambassador.
Jason Reynolds, who served as ambassador from 2020-2022, also received many accolades for his work. His hard-hitting novel in verse “Long Way Down,” about a boy faced with an impossible decision while descending in an elevator, won the Newbery Medal. See his talk about the book and a few others in his video:
And finally: as someone who works at the Library of Congress, I couldn’t help but look into what we have in the collections on novels in verse. I will share just one of my discoveries, which was a duo of illuminated books of epic poetry published in the 15th century, telling the tales of knights and courtly love: “Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart,” written by Chrétien de Troyes (circa 1135-circa 1181) and published as an illuminated volume in 1470-1475, and “The Book of the Love-Smitten Heart,” written by René I, King of Naples and Jerusalem (1409-1480), published between 1457 and 1499:
My curiosity piqued, I’ll just say I enjoyed getting lost in that rabbit hole.
If you’d like to and explore as well, try these keywords and resources:
- “Novel in verse”
- “Stories in verse”
- “Narrative poetry”
- “Epic Poem”—The roots of contemporary novels in verse can be traced to epic poems. Epic poems are characterized by stricter format and rhyme, and a clear indication that they were created as oral stories.
Where to search:
- Loc.gov: search through over 2 million digitized items by typing into the search bar in the upper right-hand corner
- Online catalog: create your own to-read list
- Chronicling America: collection of digitized newspapers from 1770 to 1963. Can you find some book reviews from 60+ years ago?
Happy researching and reading!