Author Interview: Lisa Krok on Novels In Verse for Teens: A Guidebook with Activities for Teachers and Librarians

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Congratulations, Lisa on the release of Novels in Verse for Teens: A Guidebook with Activities for Teachers and Librarians (ABC-CLIO, 2020)! What is it about novels in verse that fascinates you?

Thank you so much, Cynthia! I think novels in verse first grabbed my attention when I attended an event a few years ago where author Kwame Alexander performed live rap-like performances for his poems from The Crossover (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014). I was in an auditorium full of teens who were thrilled and were so engaged, volunteering to participate when he asked for students to come up with him. The rhythm of the poetry has such strong appeal for teens. Author Margarita Engle once referred to this as the “hoofbeat” of poetry.

Why are verse novels a good choice for reluctant readers? For avid readers?

I served two years on YALSA’s Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers team, and I found that one of the biggest reasons that teens may be reluctant readers is because they have not yet found books that reflect their life experiences.

According to Rudine Sims Bishop‘s Windows and Mirrors 1990 keynote, teens need windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors in their stories. All teens deserve to see themselves in books, whether via race, culture, LGBTQ+, mental illness, various religions, disabilities, sexual assault survivors, personal interests, family dynamics, and more. Teens who are avid readers certainly need this, too.

The additional benefit of verse novels is the physicality of the book itself. With more white space, fewer words per page, and font that can vary in size, style, or format, they are an attractive option for readers who may be intimidated by too many words on the page. Teens who previously would not entertain the thought of reading a book an inch thick find that they can read a thicker book, which in turn helps to build their confidence and may motivate them to read more.

What can they do that prose novels can’t or don’t?

Voice is an important feature of novels in verse. Generally, verse novels present a first-person narrative, which invites the reader into the life of the protagonist. The short lines of verse can be rhythmic, almost asking the reader to “hear” the speaker. This lends itself to addressing topics that can be deep or emotionally intense.

The white space on the pages of novels in verse can be thought of as a silence to be filled in by the reader’s imagination. A favorite quote of mine, which I included in my book is from former Poet Laureate Rita Dove. “Verse novels offer the weight of each word, the weight of the sentence, the weight of the line, the weight of white space, heightened attention to sound, and deep allegiance to silence.”

The subtitle clearly reaches out to teachers and librarians, but it strikes me that it may also be of use to verse novelists themselves, especially those at the apprenticeship stage. Could you give us more of an idea of what readers can expect from the book?

Of course. I created the layout in a way that I think is the most useful and accessible for teachers and librarians. The first section is research-based information about why and how novels in verse can be used to reach all teens, especially those in marginalized communities or those who are reluctant/striving readers.

Part two is a large readers advisory section hosting 53 verse novels. Each book listed includes the following: a cover image (when permissions were available), bibliographic information, grade level advisories, content tags, a brief summary, and poetry writing activities for teens to further engage them with the literature.

Each activity is accompanied by curriculum connections (CCSS and AASL standards) to make lesson planning easier for both teachers and librarians. A plethora of poetry activities are presented throughout the book, with each exercise correlating somehow to the featured novel in verse.

I have also included a glossary of poetic devices and a standard author/title index. The part I think is really special is the content tag index, which corresponds to the tags listed in the reader’s advisory section. This enables librarians and teachers to quickly and easily find books to pair with the experiences and interests of specific students.

Writers often talk about novels in verse succeeding on one level (as stories) on another (as poetry) or both? How do you evaluate what makes a successful verse novel?

Verse novels are different than poetry books in that books of poetry are separate poems, whereas novels in verse tell a complete narrative throughout the book via poems that connect to form a whole story. I feel successful verse novels allow readers to see themselves, are accessible to different types of readers, and draw readers in and engage them with the rhythm of the text, while simultaneously portraying a continued narrative.

What would you suggest to writers in taking on this format and/or trying to take their verse novels in progress to the next level?

Firstly, consider who is your audience. Make sure you are including mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors (Bishop, 1990) for them. This is best achieved by own-voices authors, who identify with the audience they are writing for (LGBTQ+, Indigenous, etc.).

Remember to keep the physicality of the book to fewer words per page and generous white space. What is unique about the narrator that will draw in the audience to their story? Finally, be sure to include rhythm in the lines of the poetry to engage readers.

I would also like to add that as I researched novels in verse last year to feature, I found there was a serious dearth in representation from certain marginalized populations. Own-voices novels in verse in the areas of Native representation, transgender/non-binary, Muslim, and those representing varied disabilities were slim to none in representation. This means there are opportunities there for own voices authors who are interested – go for it!

Cynsational Notes

Lisa Krok, MLIS, MEd, is the adult and teen services manager at Morley Library and a former teacher in the Cleveland, Ohio, area. She is the author of Novels in Verse for Teens: A Guidebook with Activities for Teachers and Librarians, available now from ABC-CLIO.

Lisa’s passion is reaching marginalized teens and reluctant readers through young adult literature. She was appointed to the 2019-2020 YALSA Presidential Advisory Task Force, served two years on the Quick Picks for Reluctant Reader’s team, and is serving on the Best Fiction for Young Adults (BFYA 2021) committee. Lisa can be found being bookish and political on Twitter @readonthebeach.