Novels in verse presenting complex topics, characters, and plots in an accessible format engage young people and inspire their critical thinking. They have characteristics that appeal to readers of all ages such as the visual qualities of the lines on the page, the different poetic styles and structures that authors use, and the rhythm of the language. The books reviewed here are fictional stories and biographies in verse that make good choices for reading aloud and for independent reading on contemporary and historical topics.
African Town. Irene Latham & Charles Waters. Illus. by Vivian Shih. (2022). Putnam.
This historical novel in verse tells the epic story of the last African slave ship that transported 110 men, women, and children to Mobile, Alabama, in 1860 (the U.S. had banned the importation of enslaved people from Africa in 1808) through the voices of Kossola (captured from his Bantè home), Timothy Meaher (maker of the bet that he could illegally import African slaves), Clotilda (the schooner converted to a slave ship), William Foster (captain of the Clotilda), and ten other characters. Entries in the back matter include an author’s note, information on the “voices” and other real-life and fictional characters who appear in the poems, “Africatown Today,” a timeline, a glossary, the distinct form/style of the poems of the 14 voices, and a bibliography. (Gr 6 Up)
Ain’t Burned All the Bright. Jason Reynolds. Illus. by Jason Griffin. (2022). Caitlyn Dlouhy.
“And I’m sitting here wondering why / my mother won’t change the channel // and why the news won’t / change the story // and why the story won’t / change into something new / …” In three sentences, a Black boy narrates a story about his family during the pandemic of 2020. While his brother is distracted by video games and his sister makes plans with a friend over her phone to attend a Black Lives Matter protest, he ponders his mother’s silence and listens to his father coughing in his bedroom. On heavy glossy paper, this heartrending combination of Jason Reynold’s cut-and-pasted words and phrases of his free verse poem and Jason Griffin’s striking multi-media artwork on lined pages of a notebook organized in three sections (“Breath One,” “Breath Two,” and “Breath Three”) show the boy’s emergence from anxiety to finding solace in being with his family. Back matter includes a dialogue between Reynolds and Griffin about their collaboration in creating this timely book. (Gr 6 Up)
Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ’Round: My Story of the Making of Martin Luther King Day. Kathlyn J. Kirkwood. Illus. by Steffi Walthall. (2022). Versify.
In the Foreword to this evocative memoir in verse, Jacqueline Woodson addresses the importance of remembering the past to understand our present and imagine our future. Kathlyn J. Kirkwood was 17 and living in Memphis, Tennessee, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in 1968. Kirkwood’s narrative poems chronicle her personal story and detail key events in the civil rights movement. As a teen, she became one of King’s “foot soldiers” and continued her civil rights activism. As an adult, she was actively involved in the decades’ long struggle of lobbying Congress to pass the law that made Dr. King’s birthday a national holiday in 1983. Back matter includes an author’s note, glossary, bibliography, source notes, and additional archival photographs. (Gr 3 Up)
Alias Anna: A True Story of Outwitting the Nazis. Susan Hood (with Greg Dawson). (2022). Harper.
Zhanna Arshanskaya, born 1927 in Berdyansk, Ukraine, began piano lessons when she was five. When her Jewish family moved to Kharkov, eight-year-old Zhanna and her sister, Frina (age 6), won scholarships to the Kharkov Conservatory of Music, made their concert debut, and became celebrated pianists. The sisters escaped during the 1941 forced march to the Drobitsky Yar massacre site that decimated the city’s Jewish population and, assuming Christian names of Anna and Marina Morozova, survived by playing concerts for the Germans until the end of the war. The extensive back matter includes archival photographs, a note on music the sisters played, poetic forms, an afterword by Greg Dawson (one of Zhanna’s sons), a note about the letter that eighth-grader Aimée wrote to Grandma Z and her grandmother’s response that was the novel’s inspiration, sources, and a bibliography. (Gr 6 Up).
The Ghosts of Rose Hill. (2022). R. M. Romero. Peachtree Teen.
Sixteen-year-old Ilana Lopez is in Prague and staying with her Aunt Zophie, an artist, for the summer. Her immigrant parents hope the experience will curb Ilana’s passion for music as she focuses on studying for the SAT and improving her academic record while away from Miami. In free-verse chapters organized in four “Movements,” Ilana tells the story of her discovery and clearing of the neglected Jewish Cemetery on Rose Hill behind her aunt’s cottage. In the cemetery, she meets the ghost of Benjamin, who died in 1918. He becomes increasingly corporeal in his relationship with her in this novel of magical realism laced with history, tradition, and folklore of Jewish culture. When she meets a strange man without a shadow, Rudolf Wassermann (the narrator of five “Interludes”), who gives Ilana his violin and offers to give her lessons, Benjamin reveals to her that Wassermann keeps the souls of children captive. If Ilana tries to free these captive souls, she risks the growing love she shares with Benjamin. (Gr 9-12)
Hazard. Frances O’Roark Dowell. (2022). Caitlyn Dlouhy.
Hazard Stokes, a middle school student, has been referred for counseling by his football coach for aggressive behavior on the gridiron. Poems presented in various formats such as text messages with his best friend, Jaz, and email messages to his therapist, Dr. Barth, with attachments (responses to workbook questions, transcripts of interviews he has with family members, and forwarded emails from his father), tell the story of Haz’s journey of self-discovery. His early responses to reflective prompts from his therapist are cocky. “Well, well, well, / if it ain’t October 13. / That means in a week I get to go back—right?” Over the next three months, Haz’s emails reveal family problems related to his father’s four deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and return to the U.S. as an amputee and show changes in his attitude. “Listen, compared to a bunch of people I know my troubles don’t add up to much at all.” This multi-layered novel in verse provides readers with a realistic and relatable story of redemption and second chances. (Gr 6 Up)
Hidden Powers: Lise Meitner’s Call to Science. Jeannine Atkins. (2022). Atheneum.
Lise Meitner (1878-1968), born in Vienna, Austria, was inquisitive and independent and loved science as a child. Devoted to learning and research, she completed her doctorate from the University of Vienna and became the first female professor of physics at the University of Berlin. As a Jewish woman, she faced both gender discrimination and antisemitism in her work in chemistry and physics. In short poems, Jeannine Atkins chronicles Meitner’s life and work with Otto Hahn and other noted scientists on the nature of the atom, and with poetic metaphors, she explains Meitner’s research on nuclear fission in atomic chain reactions. With the rise of Hitler in Germany, Meitner was forced to secretly flee to Sweden in 1938 where she continued her research on radiochemistry and collaborated with Hahn, who remained in Berlin. When he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1944 for research on nuclear fission, he did not acknowledge Meitner’s role. Only toward the end of her life was she recognized for her contributions to science. Back matter includes an author’s note, timeline, biographical notes on Meitner’s friends and colleagues, and a bibliography. (Gr 6 Up)
The Hope of Elephants. Amanda Rawson Hill. (2022). Charlesbridge.
Ten-year-old Cass, who lives for playing baseball, is days away from her eleventh birthday. In every other year of her life, her father has had treatment for different kinds of cancer, a result of Li-Fraumeni syndrome, a genetic mutation of the p53 gene. Treatment requires the family’s focus to be on him, not baseball. When she accidentally learns about the possible genetic transmission her parents have been secretive about, Cass wonders whether she should have a test for the gene. While working at the zoo, she befriends Hazel, an aging elephant with twenty copies of the p53 gene, whose blood is used for experiments on how her body fights cancer. When Cass was four, her father, a blog writer, had posted an essay relating life, cancer, and family to baseball. His former employer loved the essay so much that he promised the family annual tickets to the World Series. Readers will especially enjoy the poems in which Cass recalls the family’s attending the series each year—something they probably won’t be doing this year. When Cass learns that her father’s cancer is terminal, she faces issues of living and dying and must make decisions about what is important in this complex novel of hope and courage. (Gr 6-8)
Singing with Elephants. Margarita Engle. (2022). Viking.
“Poetry Is a Dance / of words on the page. // These poems are a story / about the summer / I learned / how to twirl / and leap / on paper.” In 1947, on one of her daily walks, eleven-year-old Cuban immigrant Oriol, who lives with her veterinarian parents in an expansive enclave in Santa Barbara, meets her elderly neighbor, the poet Gabriela Mistral. La poeta offers to give her poetry-writing lessons. Oriol soon learns to hear poetry around her, including the singing of an elephant, Chandra, who under her parents’ care, gives birth to twins. “La poeta / and the elephant help me feel whole / in an odd way…” When a movie actor purchases one baby, Oriol uses her voice and discovers what Mistral calls the “power of paper,” when she writes and disseminates “poetry-pleas” for kindness not cruelty for animals and organizes a campaign to reunite the elephant family. Like Mistral and Oriol, Margarita Engle blends Spanish and English words in her poems. Back matter includes an author’s note explaining the fact and fiction of the verse novel, an example of one of Gabriela Mistral poems for children, and suggestions for further reading. (Gr 3 Up)
Turn the Tide. Elaine Dimopoulos. (2022). Clarion.
When twelve-year-old Demetra, nicknamed Mimi, and her parents move from Massachusetts to Wilford Island, Florida, to open a Greek restaurant, she is appalled by the amount of plastic refuse she finds on the beaches and decides to do more than clean it up. In short poems, she explains how her responsibilities of creating the home garden, forging friendships, and continuing her piano practice become less important to her than immersion in a project to end the use of single-use plastic bags. Mimi is inspired by the activism of Melati and Isabel Wejsen on the island of Bali (the Foreword is written by Melati Wejsen, cofounder of Bye Bye Plastic Bags). In this middle-grade novel, Mimi learns to sustain connections with friends and helpers in her campaign to improve the environment. Back matter includes an author’s note, a timeline of the history of the plastic bag, information on ongoing activism, an interview with a scientist on plastic pollution, resources, and bibliography. (Gr 3 Up)
Wave. Diana Farid. Illus. by Kris Goto. (2022). Cameron Kids.
Living in Southern California in 1987, eighth-grade American-born Ava loves surfing with Phoenix, her lifelong friend, and preparing for a singing performance with her friends Naz and Bel. Poems in Ava’s voice about her fears and hopes for Phoenix when he has a recurrence of Hodgkin lymphoma are particularly expressive, and two-voice poems reveal the unexpected lessons volunteering at the hospital teach her about pursuing the dream her mother, a medical doctor, has for her. Diana Farid’s verses, written in different formats, show Ava’s longing to find her voice “If I wrote / my own long lyrics / AND sang them, / I’d be afraid to tell people of the parts / of me that feel broken.” Inclusion of lines from poems of the Sufi mystic, Rumi, builds the sense of Ava’s searching for her own identity as she comes to new understanding about relationships, and references to Iranian culture illustrate the richness of her family heritage. (Gr 6 Up)
Sandip Wilson is a professor at Husson University, in Bangor, Maine. She is President-Elect of the Children’s Literature and Reading SIG and is currently serving on the Outstanding International Books Committee of the United States Board on Books for Young People (USBBY).
These reviews are submitted by members of the International Literacy Association's Children's Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CL/R SIG).