Verse Novel

The word verse is derived from the Latin versus meaning row, specifically a line of writing which turns to begin another line. Versus comes originally from the Latin vertere which means to turn. Verse now means a line of words written according to the recognized rules of prose to form a complete metered line, or poetry. This meaning has been in usage since c900. It can also mean the sense of composing in or consisting of verse as verse drama, verse epistle,verse epitaph, or as in this discussion, verse novel[1].

The word novel comes from the Latin novella which means the new shoot of a plant. As a young plant grows and adds girth, so has the meaning of the word novel. By 1450 the word came to mean something “new”, or “the news.” By the 1500s, novel meant a larger collection of “news” in the manner of stories or fables. The more modern definition became the common usage in the 1700s, “A long fictional prose narrative, usually filling one or more volumes and typically representing character and action with some degree of realism and complexity; a book containing such a narrative”[2].

The verse novel is a fairly recent development in young adult literature, although long poems for teaching children moral messages were common in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries[3]. The verse novel is more than a long poem. It is a conscious use of the verse form to tell a story with the length and complexity of a novel. Karen Hesse and Virginia Euwer Wolff were among the first young adult authors to gain critical acclaim for their verse novels in the 1990s. Since the turn of the 21st century this genre has grown in popularity [4][5].

Definition

Defining the verse novel is somewhat problematic because of the evolving nature of the genre. It is a question of distinguishing between a “series of poems linked in a narrative sequence” and a “novel told in verse”[6]. It may be wrong thinking to try to box the verse novel in with either poetry or prose because it is a unique hybrid of both. A good verse novel should use poetic devices like metaphor, natural cadences, and condensed language [7]. However, a verse novel is more than poetry. It must also have the character development and narrative structure of a novel. One critic argues, “To write a true verse novel, you have to be aware of both the musicality of the poetry and how the narrative structure works. This means that an epic poem is still a poem, not a verse novel. Nor does ‘prose-with-line-breaks’ count as verse novel material” [8]. A successful verse novel should be a harmonious combination of poetic devices and a good story.

Qualities

There are some common characteristics emerging that make the verse novel unique. The entire novel is normally written in free verse. The sections are short, about one or two pages in length. The sections have titles to help guide the reader as to who is speaking or what the topic of the section is about. Each section reflects a single perspective [9][10]. An example of these qualities can be found in Thanhha Lai’s verse novel, Inside Out and Back Again, about the experience of a young Vietnamese girl who comes to America as a refugee during the Vietnam War. In the short section titled, “Rainbow,” Lai expertly illustrates the racially diverse American classroom her young protagonist is placed in:

Rainbow

I face the class.
MiSSS SScott speaks.
Each classmate says something.

I don’t understand,
but I see.

Fire hair on skin dotted with spots.
Fuzzy dark hair on skin shiny as lacquer.
Hair the color of root on milky skin.
Lots of braids on milk chocolate.
White hair on a pink boy.
Honey hair with orange ribbons on see-through skin.
Hair with barrettes in all colors on bronze bread.

I’m the only
straight black hair
on olive skin. [11]

To hear Thanhha Lai read from her novel follow this link: [1]

Other qualities of a verse novel include the use of voice and poetic devices. The first-person voice of the character is central to the story and lends itself to dramatic monologue. It is intensely personal and almost always written in present tense. Poetic devices such as enjambment and repetition are used and give a more aural quality to the writing. The free verse form rather than structured meter and rhyme takes the patterns of ordinary speech [12][13]. The action usually centers on a particular event and the character(s) reaction to the event. Campbell says, “The verse novel is often more like a wheel, with the hub a compelling emotional event, and the narration referring to this event like the spokes” [14].

Karen Hesse’s verse novel, Out of the Dust, has all of the above mentioned features. It is the story of a young teenaged girl living in the Midwest in the 1930s during the drought referred to as the Dust Bowl. The central emotional event in this story is a tragic fire that takes the life of her mother and unborn sibling. Hesse gracefully uses poetic devices to tell the story in the voice of Billie Jo. In this section she describes what it is like to be in a classroom taking a test during a dust storm:

Tested by Dust

While we sat
taking our six-weeks test,
the wind rose
and the sand blew
right through the cracks in the schoolhouse wall,
right through the gaps around the window glass,
and by the time the tests were done,
each and every one of us
was coughing pretty good and we all
needed a bath.

I hope we get bonus points
for testing in a dust storm. [15]

The unique structure of the verse novel demands more active reading. The condensed word choice—the lack of excessive description and narration—allows the reader to fill in the blanks “both demanding and enabling the reader to imagine appropriate and personally satisfying images . . .”[16]. The verse novel is a developing genre that has potential for experimentation. When well done it can have both the expressive language of poetry and a compelling story with developed characters that we expect from an engaging novel.

Works Cited

  1. Jump up verse, n. OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2015. Web. 27 March 2015.Web.
  2. Jump up novel, n. OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2015. Web. 27 March 2015. Web.
  3. Jump up Cadden, Mike. “The Verse Novel and the Question of Genre.” The Alan Review Fall (2011): 21. Print.
  4. Jump up Cadden, Mike. “The Verse Novel and the Question of Genre.” The Alan Review Fall (2011): 21. Print.
  5. Jump up Alexander, J. “The verse-novel: A new genre.” Children’s Literature in Education 36 (2005): 269. Print.
  6. Jump up Alexander, J. “The verse-novel: A new genre.” Children’s Literature in Education 36 (2005): 270.Print.
  7. Jump up Campbell, P. “The sand in the oyster: Vetting the verse novel.” Horn Book Magazine 80 (2004): 612. Print.
  8. Jump up Pereira, Gabriella. “What Is a Verse Novel?.” DIY MFA. N.p., 20 Apr. 2012. Web. 17 Feb. 2015.
  9. Jump up Alexander, J. “The verse-novel: A new genre.” Children’s Literature in Education 36 (2005): 270. Print.
  10. Jump up Campbell, P. “The sand in the oyster: Vetting the verse novel.” Horn Book Magazine 80 (2004): 613. Print.
  11. Jump up Thanhha Lai. Inside Out & Back Again. New York: HarperCollins Children’s, 2011, 142. Print.
  12. Jump up Alexander, J. “The verse-novel: A new genre.” Children’s Literature in Education 36 (2005): 270.
  13. Jump up Campbell, P. “The sand in the oyster: Vetting the verse novel.” Horn Book Magazine 80 (2004): 613. Print.
  14. Jump up Campbell, P. “The sand in the oyster: Vetting the verse novel.” Horn Book Magazine 80 (2004): 614. Print.
  15. Jump up Hesse, Karen. Out of the Dust. New York: Scholastic, 1997, 37. Print.
  16. Jump up Cadden, Mike. “The Verse Novel and the Question of Genre.” The Alan Review Fall (2011): 27. Print.