Over the years, several of my middle school students have gotten turned on to reading and writing poetry through reading novels in verse. The spare lines of a good verse novel offer “pure energy horizontally contained between the mind of the poet and the ear of the reader,” as poet Nikki Giovanni says in her poem “Poetry,” and young readers respond to that energy. Such popular verse novels as Sonya Sones’ What My Mother Doesn’t Know, Kelly Bingham’s Shark Girl and Paul Janeczko’s Worlds Afire have that kind of power, and I have used Karen Hesse’s Witness and Angela Johnson’s The Other Side to teach poetry writing in a way that connects well with middle school students.
A RIBBON OF VOICES
Helen Frost is a master of the novel in verse, and her new novel Salt is a fine example of how one writer in the genre goes about her work. Set in the Indiana Territory on the eve of the War of 1812, the novel features a friendship between two 12-year-old boys—Anikwa, of the Miami nation, and James Gray, who lives in a fort called Fort Wayne. Their friendship is tested by events beyond their control: British forces are moving in from the north, Americans from the east, and the impending war over land threatens to change the Miami culture—and the boys’ friendship—forever.
All three novels demonstrate how the lines of a well-crafted poem can be a direct line into the minds and hearts of readers.
Frost lets the boys tell the story, each in a first-person narrative. Since how poems look on the page is a concern in Frost’s books, she chooses here to represent Anikwa’s voice in hourglass shapes like Miami ribbon work, a traditional art form she explains in the notes at the end of the volume. James’s voice on each page is in seven sets of double lines, like the stripes on the American flag. A third voice is interspersed, the voice of salt, a commodity important to both the Miami people and the American settlers and a player in the unfolding story. As with any excellent novel in verse, the voices and themes of individual poems accumulate and weave into each other like the ribbon work of Anikwa’s poems, and it is one of the pleasures of the reading experience to settle into the quiet, reflective state of mind where we can hear those voices speaking quietly to us.
BATTLING THE PAST
Margarita Engle’s Mountain Dog, like Salt, has alternating voices—11-year-old Tony, from Los Angeles, and Gabe, a search-and-rescue dog. Tony’s mother is in prison for “turning meanness into money” by raising pit bulls for fighting, so Tony has come to live in a cabin in the Sierra Nevadas with his great-uncle, a forest ranger. Engle’s simple and poetic lines effectively delineate the two characters—Tony, who says, “My only battle / is against / my own past,” and Gabe, who lives only in the present: “I can’t imagine ever needing / to do anything but play, right here / right now, together.” Rescue is a theme here, as is healing and finding a future. Engle’s writing demonstrates the power and elegance of simple words finely crafted: “With a silvery bell on his collar / and Halloween light sticks / fitted into tabs on his bright / orange vest, Gabe sounds / like Christmas and looks / like a shooting star / as he streaks / through the darkness / of night / making light / seem like something alive / and growing.” Like many of the best novels in verse, Mountain Dog would be a great read-aloud novel in the classroom or perfect for readers’ theater, when students bring to life the voices of the characters.
HOPE AND HAPPINESS
Finally, Sarah Crossan’s The Weight of Water humanizes the immigrant experience by creating in 12-year-old Kasienka an earnest and memorable immigrant from Poland. She’s now in England with her mother, searching for the father who walked out on them. Kasienka is the narrator in these free verse poems, reflecting on the difficulties of surviving in a school where she’s different, a victim of mean girls’ constant torments. But a neighbor from Kenya, once a doctor and now a janitor, helps her to have a perspective on her life: “Happiness should be your revenge, Kasienka. / Happiness.” Hope and happiness arrive in William, a first love and a first kiss, a boy who likes her, who corrects her English and finds her mispronunciations cute. Kasienka says, “And for the first time / Ever / I can be wrong / And it’s okay. / Better than that— / It’s cute.”
All three novels in verse demonstrate how poetry has energy and how the lines of a well-crafted poem can be a direct line into the minds and hearts of readers, their voices speaking with power and a spare elegance.
Dean Schneider teaches seventh- and eighth-grade English at the Ensworth School in Nashville.