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VCFA Guest Post: How a Novel in Verse Amps Up Emotional Insight

My most recent novel, PURPLE DAZE (Running Press Teens), is a novel-in-verse which I conceived while attending MFA Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Is the prevalence of young-adult novels-in-verse in the last decade merely a trend? Or can the novel-in-verse do something traditional prose novels can’t? Is it, in fact, peculiarly suited to the turbulent, but often secret, inner lives of teenagers?

Perhaps publishers, editors and readers have accepted this form because it’s an appropriate platform to showcase the inner drama of adolescence. Indeed, as I was reading scores of novels-in-verse, it became clear to me that poetry can bring readers closer to the consciousness of teens—perhaps even closer than YA novels penned in traditional narrative prose. When should a writer consider this form?

  1. Stories that are better told from more one than one character’s point of view. Mel Glenn’s verse novel WHO KILLED MR. CHIPPENDALE? has more than fifty viewpoint characters. Even if Glenn had used an omniscient viewpoint – in other words, bouncing in an out of others’ minds — it would be confusing to the reader. However, not all verse novels have more than one viewpoint character.
  2. Stories that are predominantly character driven, as opposed to action-driven. Verse novels tend to deal with highly charged emotional issues. Some issues include, incest (FURNITURE by Thalia Chaltas), mental illness (STOP PRETENDING WHAT HAPPENED WHEN MY BIG SISTER WENT CRAZY by Sonya Sones), and teen pregnancy (FIRST PART LAST by Angela Johnson). In each of these novels, what the characters are thinking and feeling is more important than what they are doing.
  3. Stories with poetry as a subplot or theme. In LOCOMOTION, Jacqueline Woodson’s main character Lonnie is exploring poetic forms to help him deal with the untimely death of his parents. In Ron Koertge’s SHAKESPEARE BATS CLEAN UP the main character is bedridden. He’s a bored kid who reads his dad’s poetry books and then begins writing his own poems.
  4. Stories that are best told in short, energetic bursts – instead of traditional margin-to-margin prose. For example, scenes that capture one moment whether it be an emotion or an idea.
  5. Try this exercise: Take a paragraph from any novel. Rewrite it in verse. Concentrate on metaphor, assonance, imagery and cadence. Shouldn’t all good writing contain these elements? Sure. But I find it easier to focus on ‘voice sounds’ and ‘patterns of expression’ when my writing looks like poetry.

Sherry Shahan has 30 children’s books to her credit, fiction and nonfiction. YA novel PURPLE DAZE is set in 1965 Los Angeles where six high school students navigate war, riots, love, rock ‘n’ roll, school, and friendship. She teaches a writing course for UCLA Extension. Feel free to contact Sherry if you have any questions about novels-in-verse or the VCFA MFA writing program. Email: kidbooks [at] thegrid [dot] net. Or visit www.SherryShahan.com

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  1. Catherine Johnson’s avatar

    I love, love, love novels in verse. Need I say Lisa Shroeder Chasing Brooklyn among others. I sometimes wish I wrote YA for that reason, but I’m sticking to fun and quirky for now.

  2. Caroline Starr Rose’s avatar

    I have a verse novel coming out in January. My novel takes place on the Kansas frontier, and my first attempts at telling the story fell flat. It was only when I returned to the first-hand accounts of pioneer women — matter of fact and spare — that my protagonist found her voice through the close-to-the-bone style a verse novel affords.

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