Best Books for Kids » Ages 9-12

Best Verse Novels for 8-12 Year Olds

recommended by Alison King

Verse fiction gets to the heart of a story without much text, the immediacy of the characters and the storyline making it instantly appealing to readers, including reluctant ones. Here, school librarian Alison King explains why everyone should read verse novels, and recommends her top picks for 8-12 year olds.

Interview by Tuva Kahrs

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Why did you pick verse novels for 8-12 year olds as your interview theme?

Verse novels are a fantastic way of engaging readers of all sorts. I tend to go for young adult novels, and having experienced the power of verse novels for teenagers I started looking for something to engage some of my reluctant younger readers in the school. I realised that there are some amazing verse novels for younger readers, but they are just not shouted about quite as loudly and don’t seem to have the same backing behind them as verse novels for young adults. People maybe aren’t as aware of the verse novels for middle grade kids. I don’t know if they get dismissed because they are for a younger audience, but they are absolutely wonderful. I thought picking this topic for our interview would be a really nice way to shine a light on verse novels for children around 8-12 years old.

There does seem to be more awareness of verse novels for young adults, Elizabeth Acevedo’s award-winning books for example. I suppose one of the great advantages of verse novels is that they’re easy to read but the content isn’t simplified.

Yes, the themes can be complex. A lot of it has to do with formatting as well. When you open a verse novel, it’s not quite as intimidating as a normal prose novel, because in the layout there’s a lot more white space. It almost gives you permission to breathe and pause and think. So a lot of readers who maybe find loads of text intimidating just feel like they’ve got a little bit of room to sit with verse novels. They don’t have to keep racing, which—of course—is what you end up doing because the rhythm carries you through the book. It’s almost impossible to put them down. I find I reach the end of one verse and I just want to keep going. I never want to stop, so verse novels usually end up getting read in one sitting with me. There’s a real sense of intimacy and urgency and immediacy that I think sometimes gets lost in a prose novel, particularly if you’ve got a reader who’s maybe a little bit reluctant to invest much time or energy.

Let’s talk about your first pick of verse novels for 8-12 year olds, The Crossover by Kwame Alexander, which won the 2015 Newbery Medal.

The Crossover is a story of identical twins, Josh and J.B., who are basketball legends at their school. The narrative builds towards one of the most important matches of their lives, but tensions are growing at home between the twins, and at school. It seems like Dad is maybe hiding something, and that’s creating a lot of tension as well. On the basketball court is the only place that either of them feels like they can be themselves.

The novel is told through a combination of different forms of poetry. It includes rap, haiku and free verse. The unexpected combination of poetry and sport is a complete surprise, but also a real joy. I certainly would not have picked the book just because it’s about basketball, I’m really not a sporty person at all. But I had heard such great things about the novel so when I saw that it had been launched as a graphic novel and I was given the opportunity to review it, I really wanted to. I had just been taken on as a judge for the Carnegie Kate Greenaway medals and was really trying to challenge myself in terms of thinking about illustration. So this was a fantastic opportunity to look at something in graphic format and pay attention to those key elements. I absolutely loved it! The illustrations themselves make use of a very limited palette of orange, grey and black. They bring all the energy of the sport into a beautifully paced book.

“Verse novels are a fantastic way to engage with books”

It’s incredibly powerful and it will hold such broad appeal for fans of sport, specifically fans of basketball, fans of graphic novels, fans of poetry and for people who like intersections of all those things—I’m sure those people do exist. It’s a very worthy read and it has such a wide reach. It’s a really good example of how much heart a graphic novel can have. I do think that graphic novels are so often subject to really unfair criticism about being a “less than”, a reading experience that doesn’t count as much as reading War and Peace or Jane Austen. But we know it is not true that they are a lesser reading material, because ordering all that information and the graphics and the text is a higher order skill.

The Crossover is such a relatable story. It’s really vibrant, it’s dynamic and it’s got so many layers of meaning. There’s so much more to uncover and in every subsequent reread you spot something else. It is a really rich experience with that book and I would love more people to read it.

Let’s move on to the second verse novel you have selected for 8-12 year olds, Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga. This was a Newbery Honor book in 2020.

Other Words for Home is the story of Jude who lives in Syria. She has to leave and accompany her pregnant mother across to a new life in America with her mother’s brother who lives there with his family. Jude loves American movies, she talks too much, she asks too many questions, and she has a real zest and passion for life. She has always been told to be quiet, there’s this big thing about how she should be respectful and be seen and not heard. But she doesn’t observe any of that. She’s a really fun character to get behind. Navigating life in the United States as a Muslim is way more challenging for Jude than she expected it to be. She has to cope with the pressure of new labels as people start to make assumptions about her, where she’s come from and what she thinks. It’s almost like they’re trying to force her into all these different boxes. She’s never had to observe any of that before, she’s always just been Jude and been allowed to be who she is.

She’s living under a constant cloud of worry because her father and brother have stayed in Syria where her brother is possibly part of the resistance and her father wouldn’t leave his shop. So while she’s very much there looking after Mum and preparing for the baby’s arrival, there’s a real fear that she’s never going to see her brother or her father again. She desperately wants to be happy in her new home but there is a sense of disloyalty as well, that she’s somehow betraying who she is and where she’s come from by settling in and adapting too well. Through it all, she’s embracing new challenges and making new friends. She gathers new family around her and gets involved in a school musical which you don’t see coming, it completely blindsides you. She’s fighting to be seen and to be loved and respected for the person that she’s becoming.

The story is told in free verse and is incredibly hopeful. It explores really complicated themes like conflict and corruption, the idea of home and what that means to different people, and identity and how we define ourselves. Other Words for Home cuts right to the heart of the reality of life as an outsider and captures the acute honesty of somebody who feels that they don’t fit anywhere. It’s really thoughtful, and it’s funny. There’s so much humour and I think that is surprising in a novel that deals with such hard-hitting themes. It’s exceptionally brave. It challenged my ideas about Syria, about what home really is, and also about the experiences of people who are forced to leave everything they know. It’s very dramatic, and it’s lyrical.

I think the author has written this novel in verse to try and capture the way that Arabic flows. I read a couple of interviews with her where she talks about the poetry of Arabic and the way that it sounds like music, and how she felt like this was going to be the way to catch that and pin it down. The verse format allows the reader to step right into Jude’s experiences so you feel her confusion and her loss and her courage, you are walking beside her through every page. This novel has been very highly acclaimed, and that’s very well deserved. It is a beautiful, beautiful book.

The third verse novel you’ve picked for 8-12 year olds is The Deepest Breath by Meg Grehan, an award-winning Irish author.

I have to hold my hands up here and say that if Meg Grehan rewrote the phonebook I would be all over that. Because honestly she’s got so much skill with verse, and she makes it look so easy. It must take so much effort to shape those verses and craft those sentences, but you can’t see any of the mechanics, it’s just perfect. She’s got this innate ability to hang the right word in the right place every time and the effect is absolutely mesmerising. The Deepest Breath follows 11 year old Stevie. She’s an incredibly anxious child, she’s got a really big heart, and she is trying to understand where she fits in the grand scheme of things. She knows a lot of things, especially about marine life. Her brain is kind of like a sponge, she just soaks up all this information and she really enjoys knowing things. But she doesn’t know why she feels a bit funny when she looks at her friend Chloe. And she’s a bit worried that Mum might read things into it if she talks to her so she doesn’t bring it up. She sets out to find the answers for herself with the help of a librarian and an awful lot of books, and I find that so endearing. It’s not a huge part of the story, but this quest for self-discovery is very much aided by this nameless librarian and a stack of paperbacks, which I think is brilliant.

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Again, it’s written in free verse, and the narrative captures the essence of Stevie perfectly. It’s a very slim book but it could have a profound impact on a child struggling with anxiety or coming out to a parent. Stevie’s fascination with the sea is completely reflected in the rhythms of the verse. It flows steady like a river one minute and then it’s crashing like waves against a cliff face the next, you get that real sense of build and ebb and flow with it. The relationship between Stevie and her mum is beautifully realised and the reading experience overall is incredibly gentle. It’s thoughtful and it’s powerful. This book is an absolute treasure. I really do think it belongs on bookshelves in children’s bedrooms, in libraries, everywhere.

Let’s talk about your next verse novel recommendation for 8-12 year olds, The Bird Within Me by Sara Lundberg. This book won the prestigious August Prize in Sweden in 2017.

It’s based on the life of Swedish artist Berta Hansson, who I knew absolutely nothing about before I read this book. It’s a story of a young woman who flies in the face of convention to follow her own dreams at a time when that really wasn’t something that many people were brave enough to do. Born in 1910, she’s growing up in rural Sweden and longing to be an artist, but her father really doesn’t understand the way that her mind works. Her mother, unfortunately, is very sick and dying. This was particularly poignant reading through the pandemic, because they can’t hug for fear of contagion. I thought that’s going to be relatable on many levels for so many people. It’s an incredibly moving part of the book.

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The book overall was inspired by Bertha’s paintings, her letters and her diaries. It’s told in first-person verse, so it gives us a really intimate insight into the life of this capable and very imaginative rebel. There’s tragedy in the story but it’s ultimately brimming with beauty and with hope. The rhythms of the verse and the careful word choice support a really emotional and affecting experience. And we can’t not talk about the illustrations because they really do make the book. They are shockingly intimate, and they capture the startling beauty of a bird, a landscape, a hand… One image that I have to mention is a depiction of Mum’s bedroom in the moments after she’s died. The weight of loss in that painting of it, she really is just showing you an empty room but the sense of loss is palpable. It’s one of those images that stays with you long after you finish the book, and it does linger with me now. I think about it often. So it’s incredibly affecting, it’s a story that lingers. Its simplicity is deceptive. It’s not merely a book to be read, it’s a story to live and breathe and to hold on to. I think it’s a stunning book. Absolutely beautiful!

What is your experience of children reading it? Do you think it’s the kind of children’s book that adults like even more?

I think it might be. I had a shadowing group when it was shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Medal and initially, based on just the cover, it didn’t grab the children’s attention. But when they had explored the illustrations and read some of the text and learned a little bit about it, it moved significantly up the rankings. For one of our pupils, it was their absolute favourite. The illustration style—and perhaps because it’s based in truth—appeals to older children and adults, but I certainly think there’s plenty in there to resonate with middle grade readers.

It is surprising how few children’s books are translated from Nordic languages to English.

It’s frustrating because it’s not because people don’t want it. I love books in translation, and the Nordic ones always really strike a chord, I have really satisfying reading experiences with those books. We need more.

Let’s talk about your final verse novel for 8-12 year olds, Zombierella by award-winning poet Joseph Coelho.

It’s Cinderella like you’ve never seen it before. You have to love Joseph Coelho because everything he does is so quirky and offbeat.

It’s funny – it’s so macabre, but sweet at the same time.

It’s the first in a three-part series of twisted fairy tales. We’ve got a librarian who’s discovered that these books have gone off, which I love. When he reads them, everything is completely wrong. So with this version, we’ve got Cinderella returning from the dead with her faithful horse Lumpkin to wreak revenge on her horrible fake sisters and fake mum. Elements of the story feel really familiar. It is recognisable as Cinderella but there’s enough in the retelling that’s different to make it feel very fresh and original. It’s very funny. It’s dark, but it’s kind of Lemony Snicket/Roald Dahl sinister, so there’s a lot of comedy there and it has really broad appeal. The verse structure is sneakily simple, and it does really control the pace. It makes use of the most delicious language as well. Coelho is an absolute master at that. Lots of readers are going to be completely unaware of the fact that it’s in verse, but that verse element is intrinsic to the rhythm and the structure of the narrative that really pulls you along.

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You’ve got great illustrations in here by Freya Hartas, which break up the story and add an additional layer of meaning and humour. So it’s a really good in-between step for readers making that leap from picture books to chapter books. It’s spectacularly fun to read, and I think it will engage even the most reluctant reader. It’s an absolute riot, this book.

I’m glad you picked this topic. I read a lot of middle-grade fiction but verse novels isn’t a genre I had particularly thought about. This has made me much more aware of their appeal in general, as well as these excellent verse novels for 8-12 year olds.

That’s good, I feel so proud of that. Fingers crossed more readers catch on as well!

In general, I do think verse novels get a really bad rap. The second you mention verse people sort of roll their eyes and think they’re going to be reading sonnets or overblown romanticised language, which is not the case at all. I think verse novels are a really brilliant way of engaging all readers, not just reluctant readers, but they do work very well for reluctant readers. They have a real sense of immediacy. You get closer to those characters than you get to characters in any other book, because you are pulled into the story so close to them, and you get to feel what they feel and think what they think. You reach the conclusion along with the characters, you learn so much alongside them. Verse novels are a fantastic way to engage with books, and I think everybody should be reading them.

Interview by Tuva Kahrs

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Alison King

Alison King

Alison King is the librarian at Kings Monkton School in Cardiff, Wales. She was the Welsh representative on the Carnegie Kate Greenaway (CKG) judging panel for the 2020-2021 awards and currently chairs Not Judging, But... , a shadowing group for former CKG judges. Alison is a regular reviewer for The School Librarian and is a passionate advocate for a staffed library in every school.

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Alison King

Alison King

Alison King is the librarian at Kings Monkton School in Cardiff, Wales. She was the Welsh representative on the Carnegie Kate Greenaway (CKG) judging panel for the 2020-2021 awards and currently chairs Not Judging, But... , a shadowing group for former CKG judges. Alison is a regular reviewer for The School Librarian and is a passionate advocate for a staffed library in every school.