Every year, it’s the same: In the fall, I recommend some of my favorite novels in verse to my middle school readers, only for them to say thanks, but no thanks. It doesn’t matter how interested they are in the content. They take one look at the book’s structure and immediately reject it. “It sounds good,” they say, “But I don’t like those poetry books.” They are so biased against those poetry books that I’ve even tried to trick them by featuring a novel in verse for First Chapter Friday earlier on in the year. Without showing students the interior of the book, I read it aloud. Hands shot up with interest and I raffled off the copy of the book with glee. Mission accomplished! That is, until the kid returned the book the next day. The reason? “I don’t want one of those poetry books.”
BUT – because there’s always a but – slowly, but surely, students eventually pick up those pesky poetry books. And once they read one, they’re hooked. They want to read any and every novel in verse I have available (and many do just that). For many students, this moment doesn’t come until the second semester, when we read Jacqueline Woodson’s Before the Ever After and students nearly forget that they’re reading poetry. After that, my novels in verse fly off my shelves for the rest of the year. It’s like magic! So every year, I work to bring that magical moment sooner. For some reason, novels in verse can be a tough sell in the beginning, but once students give them a chance, they’re game-changers in the reading classroom.
WHY MIDDLE SCHOOL READERS LOVE NOVELS IN VERSE
Students love novels in verse because they’re accessible and quick to read. For struggling readers, finishing a book is incredibly rewarding, so novels in verse keep that reading momentum going strong! Young readers are also attracted to novels in verse because they’re often jam-packed with emotion and real-life issues. Many authors of novels in verse do not shy away from tough subjects, and middle school readers really respect that. They come to love novels in verse because they are so accessible, engaging, relevant, and memorable. Each one offers a unique reading experience, and that keeps readers coming back for more!
Whether your readers are hooked or hesitant, here are 10 of my favorite middle school novels in verse that will please even the pickiest of readers!
1. Before the Ever After by Jacqueline Woodson
This short but stunning novel in verse tells the story of young ZJ and his pro football player dad, whose mental health begins to deteriorate as CTE takes over his body. As ZJ watches life change from “before” to “after,” he clings to his memories and the precious moments he can still share with his dad. The book is heartbreaking but full of hope as it explores the cost of professional football and the effects of CTE on sons, families, and communities. At just 161 pages, it’s the perfect book to pass off to sports fans, the “I don’t like to read” crowd, and any other type of reader. The book will hook them before they even have time to think about putting it down!
PS: I taught this book as a whole-class novel for the first time this year, and it was a massive hit. I don’t think there was one student who didn’t enjoy it. You can read more about why we loved it HERE.
2. Starfish by Lisa Fipps
Written from a perspective we so desperately need more of in literature, Starfish is about Ellie, a young girl who lives her life according to “Fat Girl Rules.” These are the unspoken rules she’s learned the hard way, bullied by her peers and even her own family. This novel in verse follows Ellie’s personal journey of taking up space in a world that shames her, finding confidence and self-love, and living life according to her own set of rules. It’s one of those “should be required reading for all of humanity” books, for sure!
3. House Arrest by K.A. Holt
Written as journal entries, this is the story of Timothy, a young boy who is sentenced to house arrest after stealing a wallet to help his sick, medically fragile brother. As part of his probation, Timothy is ordered to write in a weekly journal and meet with a counselor, which he does with all the reluctance you’d expect out of a 12-year-old-boy. But that’s what makes the book so great: Timothy’s character is as real as it gets. Funny, emotional, and thought-provoking, House Arrest is a crowd-pleaser for middle-grade readers.
4. The Canyon’s Edge by Dusti Bowling
Written in both prose and verse, this is a unique desert survival story. When a flash flood tears through the canyon they’re hiking in, Nora and her dad are separated. In the midst of her raw grief from losing her mom a year earlier, Nora now has to survive without her only other parent. Battling both her PTSD and the elements of the desert, Nora learns to face her fears in this gripping, fast-paced story. Your readers picking this up for a thrilling survival story will get more than they bargained for, but in the best way possible!
5. Alone by Megan E. Freeman
Great for fans of The Canyon’s Edge and other survival stories, Alone is a unique blend of realistic, survival, and dystopian fiction. The book follows Maddie, who is accidentally left behind when her entire town is evacuated due to an unknown “imminent threat.” With no way to contact her family or anyone else in the outside world, Maddie must survive for 4 years, entirely alone. With little world-building, the premise of the book sounds a lot more dystopian than it actually is, and the story focuses more on Maddie’s survival than the societal conflict. Because of this, the book has wide appeal for middle school readers, both dystopian fans and lovers of realistic fiction.
6. What About Will by Ellen Hopkins
Similar to Before the Ever After, this book explores how a traumatic brain injury changes the relationship between two brothers and their entire family. In typical Ellen Hopkins fashion, What About Will addresses tough topics like mental health, addiction, divorce, – in a direct, engaging, and accessible way. If you’ve read any of Hopkins’ gritty, disturbing YA novels, like Crank, rest assured that this book is middle-grade approved! It’s real, raw, and heartbreaking, but it ends with important messages that all adolescents need to hear.
7. Becoming Muhammad Ali by James Patterson & Kwame Alexander
Perfect for sports fans, this biographical novel in verse takes readers back to boxing legend Muhammad Ali’s days of growing up as Cassius Clay in Louisville, Kentucky. Thanks to the dual perspectives, action-packed boxing scenes, illustrations, and accessible, entertaining language, Becoming Muhammad Ali is that book you can easily recommend to kids who “don’t like to read.” Trust me on this one!
8. Loving vs. Virginia: A Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Case by Patricia Hruby Powell
Written from alternating points of view, this book tells the true story of Mildred and Richard Loving and their fight to legally marry and live together as an interracial couple. Loving vs. Virginia is structured “documentary style,” with illustrations, photographs, quotes, excerpts from speeches and Supreme Court decisions, and more. This brilliant, rich context, combined with Mildred and Richard’s engaging narrative, brings history alive in an accessible, powerful way that’s perfect for young readers.
9. Lifeboat 12 by Susan Hood
If your middle schoolers are just as obsessed with Alan Gratz books, the I Survived series, and other action-packed survival stories, they’ll love Lifeboat 12. Written by Susan Hood, Lifeboat 12 is suspenseful historical fiction based on the sinking of the SS City of Benares during WWII. The story follows 13-year-old Ken Sparks, one of the child evacuees aboard the ship when it is torpedoed by a German U-boat. Whether your readers are looking for some history or suspense, Lifeboat 12 will keep them curious and engaged.
10. Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga
Last but not least is this gorgeouslly written and powerful novel from one of my newest favorite Ohio authors, Jasmine Warga! This is the story of Jude, a young girl who flees unrest in Syria and moves to Cincinnati with her mom, leaving her brother and dad behind. As she struggles to adjust to life in America, Jude grapples with her identity, home, and place in the world. Jude offers a perspective that our young readers–and the rest of society–so desperately need right now. HIGHLY RECOMMEND!
Whew, there’s a lot more where that came from! I could recommend novels in verse all day, and I guess I kind of do. Ha! In all seriousness, if you love these recs and are craving more, I’ve got you covered. 🙂 Check out the following resources and blog posts for MORE.
READY TO HARNESS THE POWER OF NOVELS IN VERSE?
If you want a fun lesson that will give your students a chance to explore these amazing novels in verse (and many more), check out this engaging digital book menu. It’s a super cool tool that is linked to samples of ebooks so students can easily browse books. The resource comes with two different variations of engaging lessons: a digital book tasting and an inquiry-based “What do you notice?” lesson. You can check it all out HERE.
If I’m beginning to convince you to teach a novel in verse, 1. YOU TOTALLY SHOULD & 2. Read this post about why Before the Ever After is such a perfect whole-class novel. Even if you’re not planning on teaching that exact text, the post makes the case for teaching a novel in verse.
If you’re considering teaching some novels in verse via book clubs or lit circles, you’re in the right spot because that’s exactly what I do, too. For tips on setting up book clubs, check out this blog post that covers the logistics, frontloading, and planning. For ideas of facilitating the book clubs, head to this post that covers everything else.
WANT MORE BOOK RECS FOR YOUR MIDDLE SCHOOL READERS?
Want even more book recommendations for your students? You and your readers will love these fun book recommendation brochures. Each brochure includes an interactive reader personality quiz that automatically gives students personalized book recs based on their interests. Yep, you read that right: instant, automatic book recs!
It’s a magical, self-sustaining system that will get good books into the hands of your readers! Both you and your students will love it! Happy readers = Happy teacher. 🙂
If that doesn’t cover it, here are a few quick links to find what you may need: