- "As Slippery and Tricky as a Wild Inky Word":Margarita Engle's The Wild Book and the Advantages of Verse Novels for Children with Dyslexia
Not long after emerging in the 1990s as a "new" literary form for children and young adults, the verse novel began to earn a reputation for attracting reluctant readers and students with reading disabilities. Librarians, teachers, authors, and critics have all postulated that even though verse novels are popular among striving and thriving readers, they hold a special appeal for readers who struggle (Farish; Napoli and Ritholz 31; O'Neal 39; Sutton 282; Vardell 27). Many experts have offered multiple explanations for the verse novel's reputed accessibility. The most commonly cited include generous amounts of white space, an economic use of language, dramatic storylines that elicit strong emotions, and an intimate narrative voice (Alexander 270–71, Campbell 614–16, Farish; Napoli and Ritholz 31–34; O'Neal 39; Vardell 27). As a middle school librarian, I frequently receive requests from reading and language arts teachers for books to use with students who struggle with or dislike reading. These same students, when assigned to select a "free-choice" book, also come to me on their own for recommendations. In recent years, I have found well-written verse novels to be among the best-received recommendations I make among both students and teachers. In this essay, I explore how and why Margarita Engle's The Wild Book (2012) is exceptionally suited to children who find reading difficult or disengaging, especially those whose difficulties are due to dyslexia.
The Wild Book serves as an interesting case study of verse novels' appeal to struggling readers, not only because it is a well-written example of the genre, but also because the narrator, Fefa, is herself a struggling reader. The Wild Book was well-received critically, with multiple starred reviews [End Page 198] and appearances on notable and best-of lists. Engle is a Pura Belpré and Lee Bennet Hopkins Poetry Award winner, a Newbery Honor recipient, and was named the Young People's Poet Laureate by the Poetry Foundation in 2017. In her author's note, Engle identifies Fefa (who is a fictionalized version of Engle's maternal grandmother) as dyslexic (125). Like Engle's grandmother, Fefa is diagnosed with "word blindness," which, as Engle explains, is an antiquated medical term used to describe dyslexia (125). Growing up in the highly unstable political climate of Cuba in the early twentieth century, Fefa struggles in school. Nevertheless, she has positive experiences with poetry that are pivotal in her efforts to become a better reader and writer, potentially echoing the experiences that today's children with dyslexia might have as they read the very book Fefa is narrating.
Pioneering young adult verse novelist Virginia Euwer Wolff claims that form should be "an extension of content" (qtd. in Sutton 283). For Wolff, the purpose of using poetic devices in novels is not to "show off" or "preen" (qtd. in Sutton 282), but to contribute to and extend meaning. The Wild Book is a striking example of a carefully constructed novel whose form is fitted to its subject. Even though Fefa leads a very different life from contemporary children, the strategies she uses that help her grow as a reader are supported by the most up-to-date research about treatment for dyslexia. Furthermore, many of the poetic devices in the novel can be linked to current reading methodologies designed for children with dyslexia. Engle's use of poetic devices echoes and amplifies the methods that her heroine, Fefa, utilizes to become a stronger reader. The Wild Book suggests the intriguing possibility that verse novels offer built-in reading strategies for struggling readers in general, and students with dyslexia in particular.
Before turning to the novel, a brief overview of dyslexia is in order—in-sofar as this is possible. Anita Keates reports that she gave up her attempt to find a useful definition of dyslexia after "discovering 28 different ones and not even exhausting my search" (1). Kelly and Phillips note that there is "no universally accepted definition" of dyslexia, although "there is substantial agreement about its characteristics...