One of the most readable genres for middle school students is verse novels. Short poems and lots of white space on the page appeal to reluctant readers, while layers of meaning in the poetic form encourages deep reflection. Middle grade biographies and memoirs in verse serve up an additional benefit–they give insight into the lives of real people.
In my experience, middle schoolers love learning about historical and contemporary figures. Perhaps it is because they get to know real people who have experienced emotions, turmoil, conflicts and triumphs that they have themselves gone through–even though the lived circumstances were so different.
Middle schoolers also love to see how real people have enacted social change and overcome their circumstances. Indeed, they will certainly be impressed by amazing voices in these stories!
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Biographies in Verse
Etched in Clay: The Life of Dave, Enslaved Potter and Poet by Andrea Cheng
We know few details about Dave, an enslaved man living in South Carolina in the early 19th century. He learned to read and write and created beautiful pottery into which he etched his name and poetry. Cheng has used these few details to craft a moving tribute in verse to Dave's life and work.
Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science by Jeannine Atkins
In this triple verse biography, Atkins tells the stories of three girls and how their curiosity and willingness to buck the constraints of their gender changed the world. Maria Merian was a naturalist born in the 17th century. In the 19th century Mary Anning searched for fossils on the cliffs of England's coast and Maria Mitchell explored the night sky from the shores of Nantucket.
Fred Korematsu Speaks Up by Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi
During WWII, Korematsu was jailed for his refusal to be rounded up and confined to a detention camp for people of Japanese descent. Atkins and Yogi paint a moving portrait of Korematsu, introducing children to an important and courageous figure they may not otherwise hear about in the history books.
You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen by Carole Boston Weatherford
This is a powerful, poetic account of the Tuskegee Airman who became some of the most successful WWII pilots, despite the rampant racism they faced.
The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano by Margarita Engle
Engle gracefully tells the story of Manzano's life in early 19th century Cuba. Born into slavery but displaying a genius for words, his slaveowner raised him as her own child until her death when he was still a boy. Engle does not shy away from the brutality of slavery. Although she has crafted an excellent book, I don't recommend it for sensitive children.
Memoirs in Verse
Enchanted Air by Margarita Engle
Margarita was born in the USA but her mother came from Cuba. The author grew up in mid-20th century Los Angeles and feels her loyalty being tested by the two countries. She spends holidays in Cuba, but that all begins to change as the relationship between Cuba and the U.S. deteriorates. Stories of immigrants are so important right now (well, anytime, really) and this is a gorgeous one about a girl who also learns to love reading and poetry along the way.
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Woodson describes her memories of growing up in South Carolina, and later in Brooklyn, against the backdrop of the civil rights movement. Verse novels are wonderful to read aloud to 11-year-olds as the cadence and rhythm adds an extra layer to the listening experience. The narrative is funny and poignant as Woodson figures out what makes her special and discovers her love words.
This Promise of Change: One Girl’s Story in the Fight for School Equality by Jo Ann Allen Boyce and Debbie Levy
In 1956, Jo Ann Allen was one of 12 African-American students integrated Clinton High School in Tennessee. Boyce tells her story in this very readable verse memoir. Poems address both her feelings about the fight for civil rights and her own experience with typical teen feelings. A page-turner for sure!