Tender Spaces: Verse Novels Provide Healing and Hope for Middle-Grade Readers




Reviewed by Dana VanderLugt


During the fourteen years I taught middle school English, one of the best parts of my job was playing book matchmaker: I’d stand in my classroom library, pull a stack of books off the shelves, give a quick advertisement for each, and send students off to their desks to peruse. Through this process of book brokering, I was witness to the explosion in popularity of middle grade and young adult novels written in verse.


Lured in by the white space offered on its pages, the promise of fewer words in a verse novel leads many young readers to assume these books may be quicker or easier to read. But paradoxically, novels written in verse allow readers the space to do the exact opposite—to slow down. While adolescents commonly speed-read through novels focusing mainly on plot, in a verse novel they often find themselves taking time to notice beautiful language. Additionally, in English classrooms where poetry may earn an unfair reputation as tricky and inaccessible, novels written in verse provide a gateway for young readers to approach, and learn to love, the lyrical form.


Google the term “novel in verse,” and you’ll find hundreds of middle grade and young adult novels, most published in the last fifteen years. While this term has become common in the vernacular, academics still grapple with naming and defining the form. In a 2005 article titled “The Verse-novel: A New Genre,” Joy Alexander examined “A new phenomenon in the world of children's literature,” acknowledging that “Definitions of the verse-novel are necessarily elastic, since as a genre it is still evolving. There is the vexed question of distinguishing between a novel told in verse and a series of poems linked in a narrative sequence.”


Mike Cadden continues this conversation in “The Verse Novel and the Question of Genre” (2011), reminding us that book-length dramatic monologues were the genre of choice for children in the 18th and 19th centuries. He challenges those who find themselves frustrated when deciding in which section of a library or bookstore verse novels belong, as well as those who question whether the form can hold up to the pressure of its name. “Rather than bemoaning its failure to be one thing or another—thus making it out to be some sort of monstrous and insufficient form—we should be celebrating its rich combination of generic strengths, its melding of the most engaging aspects of three genres to create a very appealing form. We have the sustained story typical of the novel, the guided pace provided by free verse’s use of enjambment, and the dialogue-rich nature of drama.”


Whatever they are called and wherever they are placed, books written in verse for young readers continue to fly off the shelves of classroom and public libraries, with dozens more published in 2021. Read on to encounter three new middle grade verse novels that share the coming-of-age themes of healing and self-acceptance.




Lisa Fipps


Starfish


Nancy Paulsen Books / 2021 / 256 pp / $17.99


Middle-grade readers, and readers of any age, will find Lisa Fipps’s debut, Starfish, and its eleven-year-old narrator, Ellie, endearing, vulnerable, and tender. Ellie feels most alive and happy when she’s swimming, but her exhilaration is subdued thanks to a nickname she was given by her sister at her fifth birthday party: Splash. While Ellie attempts to live by the “Fat Girl Rules,” a self-protective scheme to make herself less visible, her best friend moves away and she endures harsh criticism and constant nagging from her mom, who insists on dragging her to doctors to fix her:


Mom always says,

“You’d be so pretty”

— and all the big girls in the world

can finish this sentence in unison —

“if you lost weight.”


Ellie’s stress is compounded as she is tossed about by the “teeter-totter” her parents put her on. While her mom brandishes shame and posts articles about diets on the refrigerator, her dad rips the articles up and breaks the news that they’ve signed her up for therapy. The harsh judgement and verbal lashings that Ellie faces, from her family, peers, and complete strangers, is often so cruel and alarming that I found myself hoping the incidents were exaggerated from reality, until the author’s note at the end of the book confirmed that much of it was based on lived experience. Though painful in its vulnerability, the novel does move readers toward hope and empathy, as Ellie finds safety and acceptance both in therapy and the companionship of a new neighbor, Catalina, whose Mexican American family offers her perspective into the lives of others who are also judged by their appearance. Fipps’s instructive and accessible verse makes clear the power of words to hurt and harm, and guides readers through Ellie’s journey to self-acceptance as she learns to stand tall rather than succumbing to pressure to shrink herself down.



Rajani LaRocca


Red, White, and Whole


Quill Tree Books / 2021 / 224 pp / $16.99



Thirteen-year-old Reha feels split in two, pulled between being an American teenager and a good Indian daughter. Her name means “star,” and her mother’s name, Punam, means “moon,” and she is desperately aware that her life revolves around her mother, whose sacrificial love helps Reha shine. And yet, the weight of these expectations mutes Reha’s light: it’s 1983 and she only wants to fit in with her peers at school, to “chew gum / wear cheap earrings, tight jeans, short skirts / roller-skate holding hands,” while at home she is constantly reminded that she must be different, modest, and focused on schoolwork. Obedient, but conflicted, Reha confesses she is “caught between the life I want to lead / and the one [my mother] thinks I should.” When Reha finally convinces her parents to allow her to attend a school dance, it feels like maybe she’s finally fitting in. But the magic of the evening is shattered when Punam is raced to the emergency room and later diagnosed with leukemia. Though she has always dreamed of being a doctor, the sight of blood makes Reha queasy and she is forced to confront her doubts about who she is and whether she will ever reflect her mother’s strength. In the author’s note, Rajani LaRocca, who was born in India, raised in Kentucky, and now practices medicine in the Boston area, tells readers that she loved to read as a child, but never saw herself in a book until she was an adult and read Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. “That book spoke to me in a way I’d never felt before, because it wasn't about being Indian or being American but being both. And that is the kind of book I wanted Red, White, and Whole to be for young readers.” LaRocca has accomplished this with her beautiful verse that builds a mirror for those who see themselves in Reha’s story, while also providing a window of empathy for readers less familiar with the strain of bridging two worlds.





Chris Baron


The Magical Imperfect


Feiwel and Friends / 2021 / 336 pp / $16.99



Words are sacred, traded with trust and care in Chris Baron’s The Magical Imperfect, a middle grade verse novel about two misfits whose friendship forges a healing path forward. Set in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1989, twelve-year-old Etan hasn’t been able to talk since his mother left. While a doctor diagnoses him with selective mutism, Etan’s explanation is less complicated: it’s not that he’s unable to talk, but that he doesn’t have anyone he wants to talk to. Etan’s father and grandfather try to reach him—his father through baseball, as they cheer their San Francisco Giants into the World Series, while his deeply religious Jewish grandfather offers him quiet space and wisdom from another world in his jewelry workshop. When Etan is asked to make a delivery to a house on the outskirts of town, he meets Malia, a girl whose acute eczema has earned her the nickname “The Creature” and kept her out of school and hidden at home. The new friends, both navigating their own shifting emotional landscape, find peace and confidence by helping each other, even as tremors and earthquakes shake the ground on which they stand: “Does it take an earthquake / to bring your voice to life?” The Magical Imperfect weaves empathy in its carefully-chosen words about family, faith, and friendships that provide a firm foundation, even in a rocky world.


Dana VanderLugt lives in West Michigan with her husband, three sons, and spoiled golden retriever. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University, works as a teacher and instructional coach, and is working on her own young adult verse novel. Her work has been published in Longridge Review, Ruminate, The Reformed Journal, and Relief: A Journal of Art & Faith. She can be found online at danavanderlugt.com and on Twitter @danavanderlugt.