- Verse-atility:The Novel in Verse and the Revival of Poetry
Crystal Sands, in an article titled "Why Children Need Poetry," observed: "Poetry is a form of expression that we all seem to love as young children. The rhythms in poetry are exciting to small children who love to dance and move to rhythms and sing rhymes" (par. 1). Indeed, childhood is filled with poetry. In examples ranging from Mother Goose and Shel Silverstein to Dr. Seuss and Edward Lear, the writers that many boys and girls encounter first—as well as the ones that they enjoy the most—are poets.
While poetry is a favorite genre among young children, this situation changes drastically for most when they grow older. As Sands reports, "by the time we're adults, something has happened to our love of poetry. A national poetry survey in the mid 2000s indicated that 9 of 10 American adults do not enjoy poetry" (par. 1–2). The experiences that kids have with verse in classroom settings are often responsible for this shift. Especially amid the rise of standardized testing, poetry no longer represents a venue for encountering fun linguistic rhythms, playful word rhymes, and clever rhetorical arrangements. Instead, it becomes a realm for engaging in prescribed forms of analysis in order to obtain the "correct" interpretation. Through this process, poetry shifts from being a source of pleasure to a source of dread; from a locus of verbal exploration to one of rote memorization; and from a site of boundless creativity to one of rigid conformity. The end result is that, by the time young people enter high school, they have gone from loving poetry to loathing it.
Given the antipathy toward poetry among middle-grade and young adult readers, the rise of the verse novel—or "novel in verse"—during the 1990s is especially astounding. As the name implies, this genre is already a narrative paradox or literary oxymoron in its own right. After all, it uses poetry to compose a type of text that is commonly written in prose. While the roots or origins of the verse novel date back to at least the nineteenth century in [End Page v] the West,1 these books increased both in their frequency and in their popularity during the closing decade of the twentieth century. In examples ranging from Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust (1998) and Ellen Hopkins's Crank (2006) to Thanhha Lai's Inside Out and Back Again (2011) and Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming (2014), verse novels enjoyed both laudatory reviews and equally impressive sales. By the second decade of the new millennium, in fact, they constituted one of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful genres in Anglo-American children's literature.
This special issue of The Lion and the Unicorn gives much-needed critical attention to this vibrant but currently understudied area of children's and young adult literature. As the essays in the pages that follow demonstrate, not only is the verse novel a rich and innovative genre in its own right, but it is also reinvigorating enthusiasm for poetry. Whereas young people in middle school and especially high school previously avoided verse, they are now voluntarily as well as eagerly reading it. In so doing, verse novels are not simply getting youth audiences excited about reading; they are helping to revive audience interest in poetry as a whole. Moreover, as Julie Fogliano's recent article explains, verse novels can also be a rich, fertile, and productive venue for discussing issues of social justice. Both fiction and nonfiction works can help to foster empathy, generate compassion, and address trauma.
The issue opens with three essays that are expanded versions of presentations from a panel about the verse novel at the Modern Language Association Convention in 2016: Richard Flynn's "Why Genre Matters: A Case for the Importance of Aesthetics in the Verse Memoirs of Marilyn Nelson and Jacqueline Woodson," Mike Cadden's "Rhetorical Technique in the Young Adult Verse Novel," and Karen Coats's "Finding the Poetry in Middle Grade and Young Adult Verse Novels: Form as Metaphor." These essays examine the genre from an aesthetic...