I love verse novels. (If you’re not familiar with the genre, they are books written entirely as a series of narrative poems. It’s becoming more common, particularly in the middle grade fiction world.) There’s an immediacy to the language in verse novels that’s striking, and an intimacy in the characters that’s hard to ignore. I usually come away feeling like I truly know the characters, and I find myself missing them when I put down the book.
I find the intimacy and strong narrative voice of verse novels is particularly compelling to me when I pick up a book about someone who comes from a very different background than I do. It helps me to understand. It helps me to feel as if I’ve been in the character’s world and can relate to where he or she is coming from. It gives me empathy with those around me.
As I’ve explored the world of verse novels that feature characters from diverse backgrounds, I’ve found a few that have struck me as truly exceptional. Here are some of my favorites:
Inside Out and Back Again – by Thanhha Lai
Ten-year-old Ha is forced to leave her beloved home in Saigon due to the upheaval of the Vietnam War. Her journey leads her onto a crowded refugee ship, and eventually to a bewildering new home in Alabama. Her perspective is honest, poignant, and often funny, and the book is filled with a variety of cultural interactions — some beautiful and powerful, and others downright heart-breaking. I found this book to be rich and complex, and it’s one that keeps coming to mind when I interact with people coming to the United States from other countries.
Enchanted Air – by Margarita Engle
This beautifully written memoir describes the author’s childhood as the daughter of a Cuban mother and an American father, living in the US during the Cold War. The writing is stunning, and the insights into the experience of belonging to two cultures are fascinating. I was particularly struck by the descriptions of the lush beauty of Cuba, the feeling of between-ness in navigating two cultures, and the fear and isolation as Cuba and the United States discontinued diplomatic relations. I found this book to be particularly poignant since I was reading it when President Obama became the first American president to travel to Cuba since 1928.
Blue Birds – by Caroline Starr Rose
This lovely book follows the beautiful, unlikely friendship between Alis, a member of the European settlement on Roanoke Island in 1587, and Kimi, a native Roanoke girl. The book goes back and forth between poems from Alis’ perspective and those from Kimi’s, giving insight into the difficulties of language and cultural barriers, and how the two girls overcome their differences. The poetry is beautiful, the history is well researched, and the story is compelling.
House Arrest – by K.A. Holt
Twelve-year-old Timothy is on probation. Not because he’s a bad kid, but because he’s desperate. His younger brother has serious health issues, his mom is single, and there just isn’t enough money to do what they need to. So Timothy resorted to stealing, to help his family. Timothy’s voice is powerful and raw — not what I usually expect from verse novels — and it comes through with force and vitality. This is not an easy story. My heart broke for Timothy as I read it. It was truly moving, and wrapped up in a way that was real but satisfying.
Full Cicada Moon – by Marilyn Hilton
The year is 1969, and Mimi has just moved to a small town in Vermont with her father (who is black) and her mother (who is Japanese). No one else looks like them, and even with the encouragement of her warm and supportive parents, Mimi struggles. Her bravery and resilience stand out, as she learns to stand up for who she is — in terms of her ethnic heritage, but also as a young woman who wants to be an astronaut, who would rather be in shop class than home-ec, and who is a true friend to those around her.
Three other books that should probably be on this list are Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson and The Crossover and Booked by Kwame Alexander. They’re on hold for me at the library, but I haven’t had a chance to read them yet! I’d love to hear your other suggestions for other verse novels that feature diverse characters in the comments.
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