I was introduced to the novel in verse in college by way of my Literary Theory class. My professor assigned us Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson and it completely changed the way I read fiction, as well as poetry.
What I love about books like Carson's and other novels in verse is that they are experimental; they blur the lines of genre. For example, we categorize Autobiography of Red as Poetry in our store but it was presented to me as fiction. Another is Dreaming of You by Melissa Lozada-Oliva, a book our Lake Forest Park location shelves in Fiction but our Seward Park location shelves in Poetry. To a certain extent, it's arbitrary where things go and leads to the discussion of where things belong which is always fun for a bookseller. But it just goes to show you, (if your mother never taught you) not everything fits neatly into boxes.
A definition of what a novel in verse is can be found in the name itself. It combines the narrative structure of a novel and the lyricism and white space of poetry. Within this, you can create so much. One of the classic examples of a novel in verse is Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin who writes in iambic tetrameter and rhyme scheme. Jane: A Murder, a more contemporary example, is written in free verse, sometimes in couplets, sometimes in stanzas, sometimes in newspaper quotes. Almost all of the books listed below are written in free verse, as opposed to formal verse which keeps a strict meter and rhyme. Like the name suggests, free verse allows the writer freedom to not stick to a particular form within a form that can change so easily from page to page.
And that is why I love this weird, amazing hybrid of poetry and prose. I enjoy seeing the writer having fun with it, pushing the boundaries of what we think verse is, what we think narrative and convention are. Because of this, I think the verse novel really lends itself to people hesitant towards poetry. Because it breaks boundaries and skews our preconceived notions of what poetry is, it can be its own new and different thing.
So, for my folks who want to read poetry without really kind-of-sort-of reading poetry, I've collected some upcoming, new, and classic novels in verse (for Adults, Teens, and Kids) for you to put on your list to pull National Poetry Month into the rest of your year.
Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson
I go back to this book quite often. If I could underline the whole thing, I would. Carson reimagines an ancient Greek myth into a coming-of-age story told through verse. Our main character, a red winged monster, deals with who to love: his brother and mother and the magnetic boy who takes him by the hand. A haunting and beautiful page-turner that at only 160 pages will make you pick it up again after you've just put it down.
Dreaming of You by Melissa Lozada-Oliva
This is one of the newest novels in verse having come out in October 2021 and quickly became one of my favorites. Our main character, also named Melissa like our author, brings 80s/90s pop star, Selena, back from the dead to fill the hole in her life that isn't being filled by romance. Written as a story but with poems that can stand alone, Dreaming of You is beautiful and brimming with personality!
Angel & Hannah by Ishle Yi Park
A 90s retelling of Romeo & Juliet that sweeps you up in the romance and toxicity between a Korean-American girl from Queens and a Puerto Rican boy from Brooklyn. You'll root for them, you'll hate them, you'll get swept up in them. Very digestible and easy to breeze through with less than 200 pages.
Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter
"A powerful, surreal novella-poem of grief and healing. Devastated by the loss of his wife, Dad struggles to take care of his boys, himself, and finish his book on the poetry of Ted Hughes. Crow (a man-size black bird) moves in, taking the role of wild but tender shepherd to the family." --San Francisco Chronicle
Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin
A classic and staple of Russian literature. Written in a form some call the "Onegin stanza" or the "Pushkin sonnet," Eugene Onegin is made up of meter and rhyme. Because of this, it carries a flow and cadence that lends itself so easily to music, Tchaikovsky turned it into an opera.
The Last One by Fatima Daas
Her name is Fatima Daas. She is French. She is Algerian. She is a lesbian. This is more or less how our main character starts each chapter/poem. The Last One, Daas' debut novel is a piece of autofiction told in flowing verse as it dives into Fatima's struggle with identity and love and family.
Jane: A Murder by Maggie Nelson
Not technically a novel as it's the author's own research of her aunt's murder from the 60s but has been categorized as a novel in verse before. It still has plenty of lyricism and line breaks featuring conversations with her mother, newspaper articles, and correspondence with police officers still involved with the case. A beautiful account of a brutal event that keeps you hooked.
Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish by David Rakoff
I like to think of this as an adult Dr. Seuss. Rakoff humorously takes his characters through the primary emotions as listed in the title in the form of rhyming verse. Because of the rhythm of the rhyme, this carries a natural cadence you'll be singing in your head while the characters are cheating on each other or losing their jobs. It's the light and the dark combination that makes this so entertaining in just 130 pages.
Forgotten Work by Jason Guriel
A dystopian, science fiction novel about the search of a one-hit wonder band written in iambic pentameter. Music and robots in rhyming couplets, who would have thought? Lilting and joyful like the music it talks about, Guriel is having fun and it shows.
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
Perfect for the budding writer as our main character is a budding writer herself. Acevedo playing with form while having our main character start to play with writing herself is a joy to witness. Something to get kids (and adults!) reading poetry without really reading poetry!
Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo
A second mention for Elizabeth Acevedo! This is a fun one to read because of the two voices of our main characters, Camino in the Dominican Republic and Yahaira in New York City, telling their own stories in alternating chapters. They may be separated by distance but they are tied together by family they didn't know they shared. Beautiful verse enveloping the sharing and lifting of heartbreak.
Chlorine Sky by Mahogany L. Browne
Mahogany L. Browne writes the story of a teenage girl just trying to play basketball without getting too cold in her best friend's shadow. Her words bite but her voice is delicate, letting me relish in that dichotomy of girlhood. Bright and poetic language you'll want to sink and swim in.
Me (Moth) by Amber McBride
"This searing debut novel-in-verse is told from the perspective of Moth, a Black teen whose life changed forever the day a car crash killed her family. ... Each free verse poem is tightly composed, leading into the next for a poignant and richly layered narrative. The story builds softly and subtly to a perfect, bittersweet ending. Fans of Jacqueline Woodson won't be able to put this one down.-- School Library Journal, starred review
A Million Quiet Revolutions by Robin Gow
"Told in achingly beautiful verse, Gow tells the story of two trans-teens, both boys, as they struggle with identity and family and most of all, first love." --Donna Freitas, author of The Big Questions Book of Sex & Consent, The Healer, and The Nine Lives of Rose Napolitano
Don't Call Me a Hurricane (7/19) by Ellen Hagan
"When I read Don't Call Me a Hurricane with my niece she said: 'a climate change activist love story in verse?! Yes, please.' We both loved taking this journey with Eliza Marino. It is a salve and good company for all of us grappling with uncertainty as we traverse these challenging times." --Angie Cruz, award-winning author of Dominicana
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
A perfect example of a book for children and adults alike. Woodson writes in verse, beautifully combining prose and poetry, to tell the autobiographical story of a brown girl coming of age at the tailend of Jim Crow. She grapples with identity and the idea of home, growing up in South Carolina and New York, while still trying to be a kid with dreams of becoming a writer. This is bound to be a new classic for readers everywhere.
Red, White, and Whole by Rajani LaRocca
"LaRocca showcases the best of what verse can do, telling a story that is spare, direct and true, every word and idea placed with intentional care. A sensitive coming-of-age story with all the makings of a new middle grade classic." --BookPage, starred review
Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
“A novel in verse that spans the length of time it takes for an elevator to descend, Long Way Down finds Will mourning the death of his brother and grappling with the burden of avenging his murder. Will’s grief permeates every page, from his recollections of everyday childhood memories to his encounters with other figures from his past whose lives were destroyed by gun violence. Jason Reynolds says more with a stanza than most authors can say with a chapter.” — Lelia Nebeker, One More Page Books, Arlington, VA
Crossover by Kwame Alexander
"This novel in verse is rich in character and relationships. . . . Poet Alexander deftly reveals the power of the format to pack an emotional punch." -- Kirkus, starred review
In the Beautiful Country (6/14) by Jane Kuo
"Deftly touches on complex issues. A powerfully candid and soulful account of an immigrant experience."-- Kirkus Reviews