Stories have been told via poetry throughout human history—think of epic poems like The Odyssey and the Ramayana, incantatory tales that shaped the culture of their time. Novels in verse (sometimes also called novels in poems, or verse novels) have resurged over the last few decades, especially in the realm of young adult literature—with their abundance of white space, verse novels are great for kids with shorter attention spans, kids overwhelmed by too many words on the page. But the form is also great for readers of all ages who want a kinetic and visceral read, who want work pared to the bone that can cut to the bone. Here are a few novels in verse I especially love; many were written for a young audience, but have much to offer adults. All combine the best of novel writing—character arc, vivid settings, etc.—with the best of poetry, the music and the muscle of it.
Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson
Carson takes Greek myth (in this case, the myth of the red-winged monster Geryon, part of the tenth labor of Herakles/Hercules) and makes it modern, makes it new, makes it unlike anything you’ve ever read. “Words bounce,” she writes in the beginning of the book. “Words, if you let them, will do what they want to do and what they have to do.” Words do so much in this novel in verse, which includes Carson’s translations of Stesichoros’s Geryoneis fragments.
Northwood by Maryse Meijer
This hybrid novella is not just deeply compelling—it’s also visually stunning. The black pages and white text amplify the violence of the affair at the center of this adult fairytale.
Watercolor Women, Opaque Men by Ana Castillo
Here, single mother Ella (whose name, Castillo notes, is the Spanish word for “she”) pushes against oppression and unpacks cultural and familial history as she steps into her own power as a feminist and artist.
Embers by Terry Wolverton
It’s fitting that Wolverton adapted her deep dive into family, Detroit, and resistance against injustice, into an opera—Embers has an operatic potency on the page.
October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard by Lesléa Newman
Newman uses a variety of different forms (villanelle, pantoum, haiku, etc.) and a variety of different points of view (including non-human perspectives—the road, a deer, the fence Matthew Shepard was tied to, the rope used to keep him there) to powerfully explore the hate crime that took Shepard’s life.
The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom by Margarita Engle
Spanning several decades and three wars in Cuba—The Ten Years War, the Little War, and the War of Independence—this YA novel-in-verse (a Newbery Honor Book) focuses primarily on real-life hero Rosa la Bayamesa, from her childhood as a slave to the free hospitals she created in caves for people affected by the war.
Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai
Winner of a National Book Award, this tender middle-grade novel follows ten-year-old Hà’s experience fleeing Vietnam with her family and adjusting to their new life in America. In a 2017 interview for the New York Historical Society, Lai said, “The main character is thinking in Vietnamese, which is a naturally lyrical and melodic language. For years I wrote in long, loopy sentences that did not sound authentic to someone thinking in Vietnamese. Once I came up with prose poems, the voice clicked.”
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
In this moving book (another National Book Award winner—books in verse have been raking in the awards, at least in the Young People’s Literature category) Woodson unpacks her own coming of age, coming into awareness of race, coming into her own voice as a storyteller.
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
An accomplished poet—both spoken word and on the page—Acevedo brings energized, voice-forward language to this National Book Award-winning novel about Xiomara, a Dominican-American teen breaking her own silences and discovering the power of poetry.
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
Set in the world of junior high basketball, Alexander infuses his pages with the dynamic movement and rhythms of the game.
Crank by Ellen Hopkins
I list this book last, but it’s one of the first novels in verse I ever read. I met Ellen Hopkins when she invited me to speak at a writers conference before Crank came out in 2004; she wasn’t sure at the time how this YA novel in verse inspired by her daughter’s addiction would be received. It turned out to be a smash hit, and led her to write to several other blockbuster novels in verse, inspiring a slew of other writers to try their own hand at the genre—including, years later, me. All the books on this list inspired me, got under my skin. While I didn’t consciously think of them as I wrote Many Restless Concerns—the book dictated its own form, and I read some of these books after I’d completed it—I know my reading of novels in verse laid the subterranean foundation for me to write my own.
And to close out this wonderful list, we just had to include Gayle’s own novel in verse, Many Restless Concerns, out from Black Lawrence Press today! – Ed.
Many Restless Concerns: The Victims of Countess Bathory Speak in Chorus by Gayle Brandeis
Lidia Yuknavitch writes: “Many Restless Concerns reanimates the stories and bodies of young women who were tortured to death by Hungarian Countess Bathory in the early 1600s. A breathtaking restoration and reckoning. A tour de force chorus built from the voices of women who refuse silence. A body resistance song for all times.”