I cannot adequately express how much I enjoyed reading books for this list. There is a marvelous trend in children’s literature these days for chapter books written in verse. I don’t remember reading a single book written entirely poetry when I was a kid but I can name loads of recent titles. Free verse is a delightful way to experience a novel and I encourage you to give it a try. Even if you claim not to like poetry, I think you will be pleasantly surprised.
One potential benefit to novels in verse is they tend to be quick reads, at least for grown ups. They can also be less daunting than prose novels to middle grade readers who might feel intimidated by long, dense chapter books. Kids don’t have to slog through long, descriptive prose passages full of backstory. There is an immediacy to verse and it carries the reader along on a wave.
Poetry also lends itself well to the expression of diverse voices, and I was pleasantly surprised by the wide variety of experiences I found in these verse chapter books. There is everything from basketball to fantasy to Sudan to Saigon. This book list has a story for everyone. (Note covers and titles are affiliate links.)
Little Dog, Lost. If you are looking for a first book in verse to read to your kids, look no further. Little Dog, Lost is an utterly charming story. Three plot points: a boy who needs a dog, a dog who needs an owner and a neighbor who needs a friends come together in an extremely satisfying story. For me, the cadence of the free verse made this book easier to read aloud than prose. The story is heartfelt and engaging while still providing kids (and parents!) the opportunity to contemplate and discuss ideas like the importance of community and companionship. I read it aloud to my 6 and 10 year olds and we all throughly enjoyed it.
Love That Dog and Hate That Cat: A Novel are a gem of a duo. The narrator is a young boy who is learning to find his own self-expression through poetry. Jack is initially put off by poetry; he doesn’t understand it, but with the encouragement of his teacher, he starts to compose his own poems. There are a lot of references to specific poems, which are in reprinted in the back of the book. I do wish I’d known they were there when I started reading Love That Dog. However, when I read Hate That Cat, referring to the original poem enhanced the narrative for me. Read these two books out loud to your kids as a to kick off National Poetry Month in April, they are a great way to start a thoughtful conversation about the power of poetry.
May B. If your child is a fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder, but turns up his nose at poetry, place May B. in his hands. 13 year old May and her family live on the frontier and in order to help out, May’s parents find her a place working for another family fifteen few miles away. When the couple mysteriously disappear and leave May alone, she must find a way to survive the oncoming winter. A thoughtful touch is May’s strong interest in learning and reading, even as she struggles with dyslexia (although, unlike modern readers, May doesn’t know dyslexia is her problem).
Prince Puggly of Spud and the Kingdom of Spiff. The premise is wonderfully silly: in the Kingdom of Spiff everyone is obsessed with fashion, and ridiculously elaborate fashion at that. Well, almost everyone — the Princess prefers pajamas… and books. In Spud, however, things are a bit different and when Puggly of Spud and Frannie of Spiff meet up they set out to teach the others a thing or two about what is really important. This is really fun to read aloud because of the fantastical vocabulary and the rhyming couplets. Even the font is “fancified.” I do, however, recommend it for more experienced listeners. I certainly think a 5 year old can listen to it, but it is not the usual fare and I found that mini recaps of the action before we began each reading session to be extra-helpful. Nevertheless, it was a hit.
Zorgamazoo, like Prince Puggly, is hard to resist reading out loud. Weston’s novels are written in lively, creative verse. The fast-paced, clever, rhyming story follows Katrina Katrell, who runs away from her evil guardian, and alights on an adventure with a strange creature called a Zorgle from Zorgamazoo. A complicated mystery, with bizarre and hilarious characters follow. Winner of the 2009 E.B White Read Aloud Award.
The Crossover has received a lot of press lately because it won the 2015 Newberry. I admit it took me a long time to get around to reading it because, well… I didn’t think I would find the whole basketball thing interesting. Do not be as foolish as I was! Kwame Alexander’s wonderful tale about twin brothers is touching, relatable and extraordinarily engaging. Josh narrates his story of coming to terms with his brother’s new girlfriend, sibling rivalry, the pressure and joy of playing ball and his relationship with his father. This book does have a sad ending and I recommend it for kids ages 10 and up.
Looking for Me: …in This Great Big Family. 11 year old Edith is the fourth of twelve children in a Jewish family, growing up in Depression-era Baltimore. Edith feels a little lost in her family and the verse is full of her observations — sometimes funny, sometimes sad, always insightful — about her siblings, parents, friends and neighborhood. Edith loves learning and dreams about being a teacher, even though she doesn’t feel very smart. However, she gains the quiet support of a few special people and learns to identify herself as something other than “the fourth child.”
Red Butterfly tells the story of a Kara, Chinese orphan who was abandoned — she speculates because of her gender and her disabled hand — and then informally adopted by an older American couple living in the country. At the start of the book, she lives with her American mother, who has stayed in the country illegally to look after Kara. Kara feels the typical push and pull of an eleven year old who both wants to spread her wings, as well as find comfort in a familiar home at the same time. When an accident happens, Kara is separated from her American mother and placed in the Chinese adoption system. I really enjoyed this book and free verse is a wonderful medium for this surprisingly complex and moving tale of a girl who must decide where she belongs.
The Red Pencil contains some tough subject matter, but it is a marvelous book. 12 year old Amira lives in the Darfur region of Sudan on her family’s farm. It is 2003, just as war is breaking out in the area. She loves her family and dreams of going to school. When the Janjaweed arrive in her village, the survivors make the long walk to the refugee camp, where conditions are hard. Amira receives the gift of a red pencil and yellow notepad which becomes a catalyst of sorts, both for her spirit and for her mind. The most difficult scene in the book is when the Janjaweed terrorize the village and Amira sees the death of her father. The ending of the book leaves a lot of questions unanswered but curious and thoughtful children will want to learn more.
Inside Out and Back Again is the story of Hà, a 9 year old girl living in Saigon at the end of the Vietnam war. Hà, her mother and three brothers escape the city on a ship as it falls to the communists. Rescued by the American navy, they eventually find their way to Alabama through the help of a sponsor. This story is suspenseful, touching and quite funny. Kids everywhere will relate to Hà’s description of learning English and it’s spelling and grammar rules! It is a story of fitting in, the importance of family, and hope even in sorrow. I loved it.
Gone Fishing: A novel. 9 year old Sam loves fishing with his dad, which is why he is horrified when his he learns his little sister is to tag along on this trip! (Never mind that later she commits the sin of catching more fish than he!) Wissinger composes the story with different types of poems. Odes, haiku, quatrains, tercet, and more all come together to tell the story in multiple voices. This book has loads of illustrations and is great fun. There is even a handy author’s note describing the different poetic forms she uses.
Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie. There are three books now in this series narrated by Eleanor, an 8 year old resident of Brooklyn. Kids may not even realize they are reading poetry when they dive into these three books. Eleanor’s experiences as a 21st century kid who worries about losing her beloved babysitter, fitting in at summer camp and overcoming stage fright are incredibly relatable. I’ve put this series on a few lists before, including summer reading and early chapter book lists. This is a good, independent read for kids ages 6-9 who are reading early chapter books.
Brown Girl Dreaming is a gorgeous book. Woodson describes her memories of growing up in South Carolina, and later in Brooklyn, against the backdrop of the civil rights movement. The narrative is funny and poignant as Woodson figures out what makes her special and discovers her love words. See all those medals on the cover? This book totally earned every one of them.
Have you or your children ever read a novel written in verse? What did you think? Did you find it difficult or easy?