featuring Ashley from Basically Amazing Books!
Ashley is awesome, if you didn't already know. Need a book review? ASK HER! Seriously. She knows what she's talking about, and has not given me one bad recommendation yet. She is the Book Recommendation Queen.
She's also a lover of Contemporary YA books, and is hosting a GREAT event:
Click to check it out and sign up!
It's no secret or surprise that I love to read. I mean, seriously - I run a book blog, am guest posting on a book blog and books show up enough times in conversation that, if counted, I'd border on the obsessed. But, with how much and how often I read, I have come to the conclusion that all books are not equal and that (unlike with people) I'm allowed my biases and prejudices when it comes to reading.
My one true bookish love has always been and forever will be Contemporary in all its many forms. It can be mysterious, thrilling, romantic, suspenseful, terrifying, heartbreaking, soul-shattering, uplifting, and so many other things. But the Contemporary fiction that I've always been drawn to most, the ones I love more than any others, are almost always the stories that deal with really tough issues, that break my heart and shatter my soul, genuinely mourning the fact that they aren't actually real (coughJellicoeRoadcough).
But then, I discovered something new, something that blew my mind and changed me. These stories, these intensely emotional and powerful stories were also told using poetry. I was really confused the first time I picked up a verse novel (I was really quite young) because I didn't see how a book could be told through poetry. I don't have the aversion to poetry that many people have (most likely because I grew up with a dad and grandpa who could spout a poem to fit an occasion, to teach any lesson or to lighten any mood) but even still, I didn't think you could use it to actually write a book (apparently 13 year old me missed the fact that The Odyssey (which I read) and Paradise Lost (which I didn't) were also poems). But, I read it anyway and Oh. My. Goodness. Did things ever change.
I think my first verse novel was Stop Pretending: What Happened when My Big Sister Went Crazy by Sonya Sones. But I don't remember a lot about it or the experience, other than being really interested and intrigued by it. But then, in college, I kept hearing about Ellen Hopkins and her novel Crank that used the addiction and decline of her own daughter as inspiration. I went to the library and checked out Identical, the only Hopkins novel available. It's a big book, almost 600 pages, but when I opened it, I realized it was told in a series of poems and the style and the writing, and its ability to tell the story completely blew my face off. I'm not even kidding. I remember getting about halfway through the book when I realized that the poems that initiated the perspective shift between sisters actually contained a poem within a poem that often had an entirely different meaning, a sort of read-between-the-lines effect and I'm pretty sure I stopped breathing. I immediately went back to the beginning, needing to read all those poems again to make sure I hadn't missed anything.
By the end of the book, I was a wreck. A wreck in the very best way, that is only possible after having your soul eaten alive by a book, being utterly consumed by a character and just needing the story to go on, to be real. And I admit that I was incredibly shocked by how much power and emotion and force Hopkins packed into those pages. Such few words, but so much feeling.
And so, I started to actively seek out verse novels. And after finding some insanely amazing verse novels, some great reads, some good, some bad and some incredibly disappointing, I think I've finally reached a point where I sort of understand what it is about verse novels that really just draws you in and makes it impossible to breathe when you are reading one of the greats. And, on the flip side, I've discovered what doesn't work as well.
It's a hard thing to really identify and put into words that will make sense to anyone who isn't me (because such is the way with all realizations that are more feelings than thoughts) but as best I can say, a verse novel is so powerful and offers such a strong connection to me, as a reader, because everything except that raw power and emotion and that umph that feels a little like you've been punched in the stomach and can't breath has been stripped away. You don't have the room or the time or the space for fillers and descriptions so instead of being able to take time and use the setting or other characters or their history do the talking, you rely on so few words that the emotions and feelings are the only things left, and it's impossible not to feel. There is also an urgency to a verse novel that is impossible to capture in a prose novel.
But to everything there is an opposite and verse novels, just like prose novels, are not all created equal. And a piece of my heart mourns every poorly written verse novel, because it could have been so great. But some verse novels try to be prose, written in stanzas instead of sentences and I tell you, it does not work. When a verse novel tries to incorporate the same amount of detail that is found in prose, or implement too many side stories and additional 'things' it begins to fall apart and the magic of the verse is lost.
Verse novels are meant to be sparse. It's like make-up; use sparingly and it can accent and highlight and accentuate all that is good and beautiful about you, but use too much and you end up looking like you are trying too hard, don't know how to handle the make-up brush and look fake.
I love verse novels because they don't pull their punches. They don't sugar-coat. They are. They exist. They exude raw emotion and depth and dare you to discredit them. They cajole and lull you into a false sense of complacency and then they eat your heart for breakfast and and wear your soul as a hat. And the craziest part of that? It makes you happy and eager to do it again.
It's very true that the same can be said for a well written prose novel. But right now, for this post, I'm talking about verse and there is something magically special when you truly find those verse novels that connect to you that make you believe in the power of the written word. And when you find them, it's definitely something to hold tight to, and to share with the world.
And on that note - Let me share with you some of my most highly recommended verse novels:
*The Day Before by Lisa Schroeder: This is one of my absolute favorite reads from this year and Lisa has seriously mastered her writing. This is the book I recommend most highly to 'verse virgins' as a starting point. This story just pours from the pages, takes your breath away and reaches inside to touch you. I've read all her novels now, and while this is far and away my favorite, all are worth reading.
Identical, Tricks or Impulse by Ellen Hopkins: Pretty much anything by Hopkins is worth reading, but these three are my favorites. They are long, powerful, painful, raw and real. But be warned - Ellen Hopkins is not for the faint of heart and her novels handle a lot of tough subjects and she doesn't shy away from them in her writing (incest, rape, child abuse, teen prostitution, suicide etc). Not everyone likes reading about those topics, so know about that before you start with these ones. But if you do or can read about these subjects, then Hopkins is a phenomenal writer who should not be missed.
Heartbeat by Sharon Creech: This is a MG title and while it's missing some of the complexity as the books written for older teens, it loses none of the emotion and the confused feelings of our young narrator are so transparent. I've read and reread this one, and am reminded why Sharon Creech was one of my most favorite writers when I was a kid - Because she somehow knows and understands. Because she gets it. And that is clear in her writing both to the eyes and the emotions.
I'm always on the lookout for new verse novels to love, so if you have a favorite, please, share! And if you are still unsure whether verse is really for you, let me know. I've convinced quite a few others to try one, and none have been disappointed so far!
The Realm of Possibility by David Levithan: Just wanted to add a personal favorite of mine along with Ashley's! David Levithan is amazing to begin with, but when he writes in poetry it's all the better. Told through longer poems, The Realm of Possibility is one of the first verse novels I ever discovered. It's beautiful.
** Thank you so much for the great post, Ashley!
It was awesome to have you on the blog! **