The Art of Writing and Reading the Verse Novel
Some topics lend themselves more easily to poetry than others. Some subjects refuse to be written as prose. When I sat down to draft my first novel, May B., a survival story set on the Kansas frontier, I was frustrated at the distance between the story in my head and the words on the page. But once I returned to the private writings of pioneer women, I noticed the patterns they used to communicate: simple, guarded language stripped of emotion, as stark as their surroundings. I realized if I mirrored their style I could tell May’s story most truthfully. The rhythm of their voices would make her world come alive.
Each word in a verse novel speaks doubly — first telling the story, second helping the reader feel it. For a genre like historical fiction, which is often viewed as distant or hard to understand, verse becomes a beautiful fit. It strips away the unnecessary and makes room for the reader to connect with characters on an emotional level.
As with any piece of writing, there are joys and challenges in drafting a verse novel. I don’t first start with prose and then somehow later convert my work, but enter directly into poetry. From the beginning the writing is distilled and the process, for me, sometimes painfully slow. Two images keep me moving forward. I pretend each poem is its own square of fabric and trust that as certain patterns and shades in my story are repeated (think themes or story strands), their interconnectedness will eventually surface as a finished quilt. Similarly, I see each individual poem as a photo in an album, capturing key moments that build to tell a complete story.
A verse novelist communicates with language, but she also speaks to the reader through line breaks, stanza breaks, and the placement of words on a page. My favorite passages in my new novel, Blue Birds, come from the poems Alis and Kimi share together. Here are two girls from two entirely different worlds. They share no common language. They’ve been taught to view the other as an enemy. But these girls develop a life-changing friendship instead. It was essential the structure of Alis and Kimi’s dual-voice poems “spoke” their story visually as well as told it through the words they contained. If written as prose, these scenes wouldn’t be as powerful. That’s part of verse’s magic: Fewer words leads to deeper meaning.
The verse novel is a condensed blend of poetry and story that flows from one word to the next. It shows the reader how to listen, how to see more sharply, how to emotionally connect. And somewhere in the journey we are changed.
About the Author
A former history teacher, Caroline Starr Rose’s historical research and distinctive prose blend beautifully, creating a rich portrait of early American life that is perfect for bedside tables and classroom desks. Her debut novel, May B. has received several starred reviews and was selected as an ALA Notable Chlidren’s Book. Rose lives in New Mexico with her family.
Publisher’s Synopsis: It’s 1587 and twelve-year-old Alis has made the long journey with her parents from England to help settle the New World, the land christened Virginia in honor of the Queen. And Alis couldn’t be happier. While the streets of London were crowded and dirty, this new land, with its trees and birds and sky, calls to Alis. Here she feels free. But the land, the island Roanoke, is also inhabited by the Roanoke tribe and tensions between them and the English are running high, soon turning deadly.
Amid the strife, Alis meets and befriends Kimi, a Roanoke girl about her age. Though the two don’t even speak the same language, these girls form a special bond as close as sisters, willing to risk everything for the other. Finally, Alis must make an impossible choice when her family resolves to leave the island and bloodshed behind.
A beautiful, tender story of friendship and the meaning of family, Caroline Starr Rose delivers another historical gem.
Ages 10+ | Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers | 2015 | ISBN-13: 978-0399168109
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