How verse novels can engage reluctant readers

Jason Reynolds, former US National Children’s Laureate and verse novelist, thinks our approach to reluctant readers is all wrong. If someone’s afraid of dogs, he argues on YouTube, we don’t present them with a pit bull. 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?” Better the “palm-sized pup” of verse.

I know a school librarian who’d agree. Her Year 8 student (at risk of gang grooming) didn’t read for pleasure, wouldn’t be seen picking up a book. But somehow she persuaded him to open my verse novel based on the true story of a boy caught up in county lines. He devoured it and told anyone who would listen that it was brilliant! Now he wants to start a book club. He’s a reading convert.

Would he have stuck with the same story told in a black block of type? I doubt it. To reach teen boys, I knew accessibility and entertainment would be essential, so I wove in other media, formatted the text to bring the page alive. I stripped syntax to the bone and hid the poetic devices like courgettes in a pasta sauce. I used attention-grabbing ‘tricks’ of calligrams and concrete poems to deliver a message before the reader has time to decode the words and aimed for a read which feels a bit like scrolling through your phone.

One by One Poem

The magic of the verse novel

The verse novel format has been popular on school lists in the States since the 1990s, but despite their Carnegie wins, they’re still not mainstream over here. But they could have a really valuable place in the classroom. Here’s why.

As a quick read, verse novels deliver the dopamine hit of achievement to young people who may have given up on reading for pleasure. The pause for breath of white space helps those challenged by neuro diversity, or who have English as an additional language. Pacey, visually stimulating, cinematic and with some of the appeal of a graphic novel, well-written verse grabs and holds young readers’ attention. Verse novels are immersive, immediate and compelling, but readers can also revisit each poem to spend time, infer, analyse the layout and poetic devices; find the deeper meanings tucked inside.

Blending the power of poetry with the narrative pull of prose, verse novels could be seen (pardon the analogy) as a gateway drug to both prose and poetry.  Many include PSHE topics and can be used for classroom discussions.

I asked some secondary school English teachers. They said students find verse novels “accessible and interesting without the pressure of a page full of words” with a “narrative quality that is unrivalled”. However, they agreed a lack of training, understanding and resources impeded wider teaching of the format. Could confidence be instilled in teachers via ITT and CPD? Could publishers help with resources? If verse novels find their way into the canon of set texts, perhaps more children would enjoy reading right through their teens.

 

Here are some great places to start:

Digging for Victory / Cathy Faulkner Expands on World War 2 knowledge and uses imaginative formatting to explore themes of bravery and prejudice. Y7-8

Blood Moon / Lucy Cuthew An unflinching look at periods, online shaming and mental health. Empathetic, passionate, empowering writing. Illuminating for both genders. Y8+

Long Way Down / Jason Reynolds A young man’s decision whether to avenge his brother’s gang killing. Utterly immersing, dark with the language of the streets, brilliantly illustrated with a companion graphic novel. Y8+ Diverse

The Activist / Louisa Reid A powerful verse novel about institutional misogyny, peer-on-peer sexual abuse and the need to stand up for what’s right. Great for teaching on consent. Y8+

Crossing the Line / Tia Fisher The gripping, authentic story of a teenage Erik caught up in a county lines drugs gang. An ‘outstanding and important novel’ (LoveReading). Y8+

Toffee / Sarah Crossan  A compassionate, empathic read about the transformative relationship between an abused runaway teenager and an elderly lady with dementia. Y8+

Black Flamingo / Dean Atta Cross-media free-form verse about finding your gender identity and flying free. Y8+ Diverse, LGBTQ+

The Poet X / Elizabeth Acevedo A stunningly-voiced novel about the power of poetry and speaking your own truth. Y8+ Diverse

The Final Year / Matt Goodfellow A lovely lyrical story of the intense pressures on Year 6 Nate as he battles transition, friendships, bullies and the looming, all-important SATs. A must-read for KS2.

Want more? Try LoveReading4Kids’ great collection.

Tia Fisher’s debut verse novel for teens, Crossing the Line, came out with Hot Key Books in March 2023. Free school resources are available on her website at www.tiafisher.com

Crossing the Line Book Jacket

Tia Fisher

 

Crossing the Line is Tia’s debut novel and is currently listed for the Southern Schools Book Award and the Warwickshire Teen Book Award. When not writing, she works in a busy children’s library in South London where matching a child with the right book is the highlight of her day. Tia is taking her master’s degree in writing for young people and can be found via linktr.ee/tiafisherwrites.

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