Guest Post: Sarah Moon on “Verse Novels That Break Your Heart and Piece it Back Together Again”

40fELAnuoD1r2vo7N1mmCug-4gNCa87EEsbreDzR5wMSarah Moon is the founder of Clear Eyes, Full Shelves, a blog and podcast. For the last four years, the site has hosted Verse Novel week, a celebration of all things verse novel. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, two dogs and not nearly enough bookshelves to contain all her books. Visit the site at cleareyesfullshelves.com and find her on Twitter at @SarahSMoon.

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The fabulous ladies of The Book Wars invited me to share some thoughts and recommendations about verse novels, since I host Verse Novel Week on Clear Eyes, Full Shelves—and obviously, I had to say yes not only because this is one of my very favorite blogs, but also because I can’t not be a verse novel pusher. I know there are a lot of folks out there who are resistant to this oddball form, but I truly believe there’s a verse novel for everyone.

I love so many facets of verse novels: The visual elements that add nuance to the narrative, the sparsity inherent to the form, and—of course—their underdog status. But the thing I always come back to is how verse novelists, whether it’s thanks to the nature of the form, or the sort of storyteller than gravitates to writing in verse, manage rip back the layers of their characters’ experiences and leave them in a state of raw emotion.

As much as I love verse novels, I find myself hoarding them until I’m prepared to be emotionally punched in the face before all the pieces come back together. There’s something cathartic about that reading experience, but it’s also draining.

Here are a few of my favorite verse novels for when I want a deeply cathartic read.

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Cinnamon Rain/Out of This Place by Emma Cameron

Love.

It sure is blind,
or at the very least,
stark, raving mad.

Cinnamon Rain (published in the U.S. and Canada as Out of This Place) is an Australian novel about three friends who grew up in a dead end rural town, and who separately escape their hometown and find their way back to each other. Written in three points of view from Casey, Bongo and Luke, this is a love triangle, kind of, but reinterpreted in an achingly real way.

If you love a friendship story, this is the verse novel to pick up, as it shows the many layers of friendship and how those relationships evolve as older teens catapult toward adulthood.

(I reviewed Cinnamon Rain/Out of this Place on Clear Eyes, Full Shelves a few years ago.)

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The Day Before by Lisa Schroeder

At first it feels
like all you can do
is what you’re
told to do.

But then other options
start to appear.

They creep in,
tap you on the shoulder,
whisper your name.

Because there are always options.

The Day Before is the verse novel I trick the verse averse into reading—I’m sneaky that way. This is an accessible little novel about two teens and the single day before everything changes for them both.

Amber, the narrator, escapes to the Oregon coast out of fear, fear of the unknown and what’s next in her life. There, she meets Cade, a boy who’s also hiding from his future. Together, they spend a magical day living with no regrets. This little book is a fabulous example of how verse can tell a story in a way that traditional prose cannot. Every line is purposeful, sparse and hits hard.

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Love & Leftovers by Sarah Tregay

That’s how we spent the day

drizzling sarcasm over the truth
dropping bad jokes like f-bombs

 

Love & Leftovers is a novel that makes fascinating use of the verse form. Tregay uses more traditional poetic structures that the free verse in the first two novels I recommended, so for the verse novel newbie, it may be a overwhelming. However, if you’re already sold on this style, or you’re a poetry fan, this is a great contemporary story about family and trying to figure life out.

Marcie’s mother has dragged her to New England, ostensibly for a vacation, and yet the school year starts and her mother makes no moves to return to their family in Idaho. Trust into a new school and missing her motley group of friends, Marcie is forced to confront what she wants and who she wants to be. The issues dealt with in this novel are substantive, but they’re sensitively handled, with lots of gray areas.

While the emotional elements of Love & Leftovers are marvelous, and what it’s on this list, I’d be remiss in not mentioning the wonderfully positive portrayal of teen girl sexuality in this novel. The verse form actually adds to the authenticity in terms of the raw feelings Marcie experiences.

(I reviewed this book on Clear Eyes, Full Shelves when it came out.)

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The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

 

Basketball Rule #1

In this game of life
your family is the court
and the ball is your heart.
No matter how good you are,
no matter how down you get,
always leave
your heart
on the court

I believe Nafiza loved Kwame Alexander’s gut punch of a novel as much as I did, so you know it’s something special. The Crossover walks that line between middle grade and young adult fiction, but the smart, playful writing and emotional authenticity make it a great choice for nearly any reader.

Filthy McNasty aka Josh Bell is a 12 year old basketball star whose father was a professional player. He’s also a twin. And as he and his brother grow up, they also start to grow apart. This is Josh’s story of coping with the changing nature of brotherhood and the tension between loyalty to his family and his love of basketball.

I don’t find books making me cry much these days, but The Crossover just bowled me over emotionally—I promise that Josh and his family will melt even the coldest of hearts.

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Skyscraping by Cordelia Jensen

Nowhere

If your past is a lie, what happens to your future?

Skyscraping is the only 2015 release on this list, and one of my favorite new verse novel discoveries. Set in New York City in the mid-1990s, this is another guy-punch family story, in this case focusing on secrets and forgiveness. (If you’re already a fan of Love & Leftovers, this would be a fabulous next read.)

One of the things I love that verse novelists do is make use of the form to show the reader vignettes of their characters’ lives. Skyscraping does this exceptionally well, telling us the story of Mira’s final year of high school and the huge struggle her family faces in the wake of revelations about her father’s sexual orientation and HIV status. These are the blink and you miss it moments that are brought to the forefront in Jensen’s narrative style that just plays beautifully with the limitations (and freedom?) of free verse.

Skyscraping is full of emotional ups and downs, which beautifully emulates for the reader what Mira and her family experience. It’s a beautiful novel, and Jensen is a writer to watch.

(I recently recommended Skyscraping in my Recommendation Tuesday series.)

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