Teachers Write 7.2.16 Novels in Verse with Caroline Rose Starr

Weekends are laid back on Teachers Write. There’s no official “assignment,” but we still love to give you something to read & reflect on as you drink your morning coffee or tea.  With that in mind, I’ll introduce today’s guest author, Caroline Rose Starr.

Caroline was named a Publishers Weekly Flying Start Author for her debut novel, May B. She’s also the author of the verse novel Blue Birds and the picture book Over in the Wetlands. Caroline spent her childhood in the deserts of Saudi Arabia and New Mexico, camping by the Red Sea in one and eating red chile in the other. She has taught social studies and English in four different states and worked to instill in her students a passion for books, an enthusiasm for experimenting with words, and a curiosity about the past. Today, she joins us to talk about novels in verse.

Back in my teaching days, I used to introduce poetry to my students by first asking them to interview their parents about their own experiences with the form. Many fondly remembered nursery rhymes, Shel Silverstein, A. A. Milne and the like, but their opinions changed when they got older. Once the parents faced poetry that felt confusing or obscure, those positive memories were mostly forgotten.

I will confess that no matter where I taught, my upper-elementary and middle-school students were transitioning in their thoughts about poetry, moving from those fun younger-year experiences into something more guarded and less interested. What showed me this is the strange but similar words kids thought of in connection to poetry. Without fail, they told me poetry was about flowers and love and it was definitely for girls. I’d spend the rest of our year together trying to reverse the idea that poetry is limited to certain subjects and a select type of reader. Almost always I could win them over by the end.

Verse novels are a perfect fit for young readers in this phase of conflicting thoughts. Here are three reasons the verse novel is worth sharing:

A verse novel is a fast read. This can be enormously satisfying for readers who find standard prose a struggle. There are no dense paragraphs. The white space, which verse novelists use along with line and stanza breaks to further communicate their story, makes each page less intimidating. Individual poems run much shorter than chapters, adding momentum to the story’s pacing.

Because each word is carefully selected, verse novels strip away the unnecessary. If a prose novel is a rolling film, a verse novel is a collection of still photographs, placed one against the next. This streamlined structure, which often includes a close first-person point of view, gives readers an intimate picture of a book’s central characters. Readers can feel and hear the rhythms of a character’s inner world, can experience the story alongside her.

My students were right about the love thing. Poetry heightens the emotions. And verse novels make stories come alive by pushing readers one step closer to the world on the page. Each word speaks doubly — first telling the story, second helping readers feel it. Emotion and physical sensation are intertwined, so much so that as the verse novelist leads readers through a story they might feel the darting movement of fear, the gentle calm of reflection, the scattered sense of confusion, the security of being known and loved.

Poetry isn’t exclusive, as my students first thought, but sometimes it feels like it is. That’s the beauty of the verse novel, a succinct, condensed blend of poetry and story that flows from one word to the next. Those words sink deep, move with the familiar rhythms of the everyday. The verse novel doesn’t just tell a story, it shows us how to listen, encourages us to linger. It changes us along the way.


36 Replies on “Teachers Write 7.2.16 Novels in Verse with Caroline Rose Starr

  1. Oh, Caroline Star Rose!

    I just want to weep with excitement over seeing you post here.

    The first two years of TW for me was thrilling as I was realizing that I could write….and dream of someday publishing.
    And, at the same time, my strongest writing and the writing that is most satisfying to me is verse.

    I’m on my path to my dream…..realizing with each step there’s more to learn and enjoy in the journey along the way.

    One of the most amazing experiences I had recently was to attend a novel-in-verse Highlights Workshop (waving at Marcie another TW friend who was with me). Together with attendees and masters Kathy Erskine and Alma Fullerton I learned so much. I think I even got new hiking shoes for my journey with all the learning there.

    May B. has been such an inspiration to me….I have a love for historical novel and novel in verse….and I imagine that combination to be a tough sell with agents/editors (mind you I’m still completing a mss).

    But, I’m still walking forward on the road.
    One of my craft questions of late is this: how much “before” is good before an inciting event in a verse novel?
    I realize each story/novel is different and “it all depends”.
    How did you figure it out for May B.?
    How much advice on this did you get from agent/editor?

    If you are ever teaching a workshop for adults will you let us know?

    I could keep writing…..but I want to give others a chance.
    THANK YOU KATE MESSNER for listening to my (and others) crazy rantings about the connections between poetry and verse novels and prose in kid-lit. I have a print out of the informative thread from your FB page last year when you posed the question: SO WHAT’S WITH NOVELS IN VERSE?

    I’ve been kinda waiting for you to turn that thread into something — such as a 59 Reasons to Write type of craft book. HINT!


    1. Linda, you are a gem. Forgive me if this is typo-laden. I’m on my phone and on a road trip! It’s so funny you’ve brought up inciting incidents, as I’ve always struggled with them and am not even sure if I can identify them in my own books. I am also a habitual underwriter, which does make verse easier, as its spare, but also means I have never started at the right place in any of my books. I had to add a new poem or two to both May and Blue Birds. God bless my editors. I would love to teach a verse workshop (though if you attended Higjlights you now officially know more than I do!). You’ve got me thinking, Linda. Your passion is obvious and I know it is shining through in your work.

    2. You attended the workshop I sooooooo wanted to attend. I am wildly envious! If YOU are ever teaching a workshop, will you let us know? Your enthusiasm for writing is fantastic!

  2. Good Morning, Caroline.

    I was one of those kids who enjoyed poetry at an early age, but found myself drifting away from it after the required English 101 class in college. I dabbled in writing it myself, but my first love was always prose.

    Following last year’s TW, (and somewhat influenced by one of my partners-in-crime – a.k.a critique partner – Linda Mitchell) I purchased several NIV titles for my hs library. One was Audacity by Melanie Crowder. That blew me away, and I recommend it to everyone. Then of course, Brown Girl Dreaming by Jackie Woodson. The Crossover by Kwamie Alexander I push into as many basketball players’ hands as possible.

    When I picked up May B, I immediately fell into the story. I adore historical fiction, which is why that’s the current ms I’m working on. In fact, one of my comp titles is May B because of the theme of loneliness my mc feels, being away from her mother.

    Thank you for sharing this post, and for sharing your wonderful writing with the world.

  3. Good Morning!
    Your post brought me so much excitement this morning. I am a reader of verse novels but find it difficult to find verse novels appropriate for my 4th graders. After reading your blog I now have two new books to read this summer that I did not plan on reading and that connect perfectly to my 4th grade curriculum. I am so overwhelmed by the pressure to meet standards based on a long drawn out curriculum that finding a read aloud that can inspire, engage and help make connections is thrilling.

    Thanks for posting!

    1. Check out the post for today’s 7/2 Nerdy Book Club on verse novels. Also add:
      Love That Dog
      Rhyme Schemer
      The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary
      for starters.
      Book Riot has a list of 100 verse novels…most are MG to YA but you can use databases such as novelist and your library catalog to search for more with parameters for younger kids.

      1. Linda and Marcie,
        Thank you for the additional ideas. In NY 4th grade uses Love That Dog in one of the ELA modules. Thank goodness my district has let as alter the unit a bit so we don’t drag out the book. I will check out the other titles and resources and maybe my biggest problem will be having too many to choose from.

    2. Hi Ursula, I taught 4th grade for 12 years. I echo what Linda Mitchell said. I also recommend Sarah Tregay’s list of MG verse novels here: http://www.sarahtregay.com/middlegrade.html Also, Julie Sternberg’s novels in verse would be totally appropriate for 4th grade. I really love Laura Shovan’s Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary. I know Linda mentioned this one. It’s brand new and great for 4th graders. I read Love that Dog with my kiddos every year. 🙂 Now I’m a library and get to push books to everyone. 🙂

    3. Check these out:
      Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
      Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai
      Witness by Karen Hesse
      Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate
      Serafina’s Promise by Ann Burg
      The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkneyhttp://www.whatdowedoallday.com/2015/03/chapter-books-written-in-verse.

  4. Good morning, Caroline!

    Thank you for the post on novels in verse. It was not only an informative post, but it was also a joy to read.

    I completely agree with “A verse novel is a fast read.” I find that for a reluctant reader, the verse novel can be a great confidence builder (especially for a slower reader). For example, this year I had a student, who was a slower reader and therefore reluctant. He loved sports, so I put Crossover in his hands. He loved it, and it gave him the confidence to read other novels. By the end of the school year, he had read over twenty-five novels and his parents were thrilled. It all started with a novel in verse.:)

    I love the idea of having the students interview their parents about poetry. I teach sixth graders and it seems to me that this is the age when poetry is not as much fun as it was when they were in elementary school. I attempt to change this mind set, and I believe the interview could be very helpful. I hope that you don’t mind if I borrow this idea.

    Also, thank you for your beautiful stories. This was a great way to start a Saturday.
    Happy writing!

  5. Caroline, thank you so much for this post! I was with Linda at a recent Highlights Novel in Verse workshop. We could sing about Novels in Verse all day long! 🙂 Thank you so much for the important distinction between prose and verse novels. Your definition really solidifies it for me. I’m struggling with transitions between poems in my own novel in verse. How much to transition and how much to leave unsaid. I’d love to hear your thoughts about this. I will also go back through my huge pile of novels in verse and study this too.

  6. Thanks for your informative post, Caroline! Novel in verse is new to me. Brown Girl Dreaming is in my TBR pile right now, and I’m putting holds on May B and Blue Birds at my public library. I would like to become very familiar with NIV because I think, as you mentioned, reluctant and struggling readers could feel immersed in a story, and also experience the satisfaction of finishing a book in a shorter amount of time. I’m really looking forward to reading these books!

  7. I am a very big fan of books in verse. At the end of fifth grade my students participate in a books in verse book club. It is a great way to end the year. At the present time I read aloud Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson which has so many great examples of different structures of poetry. The really interesting coincidence is that I bought home May B to read over the summer with the goal of adding this book to my classes choices for their book clubs

  8. Caroline, you have made my day! Since last year, I have been reading NIV’s and working on my own. I still hold close to my heart the feedback you gave me on a few lines of my verse. Last year, I ordered Over in the Wetlands and love it. Now I will order May B. and Blue Birds. Your ideas and suggestions, along with all the comments have my brain pop, pop, popping with thoughts for my own WIP! Thank you for this post and the conversation it generated.

  9. Dear Caroline,
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on verse novels. I ran across these types of novels a few years ago and fell in love with them. I even wrote one myself. I think verse novels are great for those who struggle to read or aren’t always interested in reading. Not have a page full of words is sometimes what students, and adults, need to encourage them.
    Best wishes on your future work and thanks again for sharing.

  10. Coming back to reread this at the end of the day. As Kate recommended it was my breakfast reading and as a result I have “found” verse all over (including the Nerdy post already mentioned and the “Hamilton” songs I am enjoying over and over. Thanks for sharing!

  11. I couldn’t agree with you more. My 5th graders love verse novels, yours included, for all the reasons you’ve mentioned. Hearing your reflections on teaching poetry to middle graders gave me hope and solace. Thank you for your post and your books!

  12. Caroline, you know how much I loved MAY B. and BLUE BIRDS. What an inspiring post this is! Thank you. I was lucky enough to share that Highlights Novel in Verse workshop with Linda and Marcie (and others). And I learned so much! But I’m still learning all the time. I especially love what you said here: “verse novels make stories come alive by pushing readers one step closer to the world on the page.”

  13. I love, love, love novels written in verse. I shared several with my students this year that I think changed their perceptions of what poetry is all about. Out of the Dust, The Red Pencil, Home of the Brave. My students all agreed that poetry needs to rhyme. I spent most of the year trying to convince them that’s not the case. Thanks for writing this post.

  14. Thank you for this post, Caroline. It is so timely for a conversation one of my crit groups is having. I’m sending them over here-in case they’re not already! Thanks again…perfect!

  15. Thank you Caroline for your words today. I will definitely be adding May B. to my summer reading list and classroom library! Some of my recent favorites have been Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson and The Read Pencil by Andrea Pinkney. I’m always on the lookout for great titles written in verse. Thanks!

  16. My students fell in love with “Crossover” by Kwame Alexander, and we will be using his other novel in verse in our summer camp