Poetry is making a come-back in a big way. As an avid reader of poetry (and a writer of admittedly mediocre poetry), I am very excited about this. I have three books of poetry on my bedside table, one happy, one sad, and one angry so that I can read whatever I'm in the mood for without crossing my tiny bedroom to my tiny bookshelf.
The books of poetry that circulate today, though, are a little different from the battered old copy of Sylvia Plath poems I've got on my nightstand. Whereas I love a poem for its own sake ("A poem points to nothing but itself," E. M. Forester said), these newer works tell a story. Like Homer's Odyssey or Dante's Inferno, they use verse the way a novelist uses prose. The difference between prose and poetry, besides the form, is that prose is largely concerned with telling the reader a story while poetry is concerned with the beauty of the language itself. New poets like Ellen Hopkins, though, are uniting the form and grace of poetry with the storytelling of traditional prose. And the kids. Cannot. Get. Enough. I'm generalizing, here, of course, but a large portion of my students wait rabidly for the next Hopkins release and then devour them (most are well over 500 pages) in a matter of days.
So what is it about poetry that appeals to teens? Perhaps the jarring, disjointed style works well with a generation used to constantly flipping between webpages and clicking out of pop-ups. Maybe it's just the fact that there is something inherently sad in poetry, even happy poetry, that speaks to both the brevity and depth of the human experience. Or maybe less text on a page is just less intimidating to a reluctant reader. Whatever the reason behind it, verse novels are here to stay. But which ones? I'm glad you asked...
Absolutely Anything by Ellen Hopkins. I'm serious. This woman can't write a bad book. Though her subject matter is dark (ranging from drug abuse to incest to self mutilation to sex trafficking), her writing is beautiful. She even manages to capture the voice of male teen poets without sounding inauthentic.
Shark Girl by Kelly Bingham. Poetry about a shark attack? Yes. Bingham writes as fifteen-year-old Jane, who has lost her right arm in an attack. She was going to be an artist. Who will she be now that that has been taken away from her? The story is by turns funny and heart-breaking, this was one I could not put down. Who says poetry has to be boring? But I will be staying away from the beach, thank you very much.
I Don't Want To Be Crazy by Samantha Schutz. Sam freaks out sometimes. Like "I think I'm going to die what is wrong with me I can't breathe" freaks out. They're called panic attacks. She has anxiety disorder and this frank, honest book examines her struggles to talk to her parents about it, find a medication, and free herself from her own craziness. Schutz doesn't pull her punches in this intimate verse-memoir.
A Bad Boy Can Be Good For a Girl by Tanya Lee Stone. Josie, Nicolette, and Aviva all get mixed up with a senior boy who can talk them into doing almost anything he wants. In a blur of high school hormones and personal doubt, each girl struggles with how much to give up and what ultimately to keep for herself.
Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff. While earning money for college, fourteen year old LaVaughn babysits for a teen mother, Jolly. At first it's just a job but LaVaughn finds herself learning a lot more than she could in a classroom as she watches seventeen-year-old Jolly make lemonade out of the lemons in her life.
Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse. Hesse won the Newbery for this heartbreaking and beautiful novel about Billy Jo, a girl growing up in the Dust Bowl during the Depression. It's not an easy read: poetry is an effective vehicle for Billy Jo's grief as her mother passes away and her guilt at not being the boy her Daddy wanted. The result, though, is absolutely stunning.
Love and Leftovers by Sarah Tregay. When her father starts dating a man, fifteen-year-old Marcie's depressed mother takes her to New Hampshire but just as Marcie starts falling for a great guy her father brings her back to Iowa, where all of her relationships have become strained. In this new novel, Tregay proves that there's no wrong way to make a family, and that your family is not limited to the people who share your DNA.
There are, of course, dozens upon dozens of other verse novels. These are just a few I've read lately but they are by no means the only titles this subgenre has to offer. If you want a look at a more extensive (but by no means exhaustive) list, check out this one put together by the Dover Public Library.