When I was in high school, a specific set of books was very popular with a wide swath of students, not even students that were especially bookish. Some read nothing else, as far as I could tell, which surprised me. Specifically, Ellen Hopkins was fast turning into the belle of the ball at my school, with books like Crank, Burned and Glass, amongst others. First glance at each of these books will tell you one thing, besides how edgy the covers were trying to be for their teen audience; these books were crazy thick. I’ll admit, I wondered how I was supposed to defend my title as one of the schools biggest bookworms if everyone started reading books as thick as a small town’s phone book. I had to investigate these books, see what was up.
Well, when I got my hands on one of Hopkin’s books I opened it up and found the heft was real, but the pages were relatively bare. Sparse lines of poetry dotted each page. So they were verse novel (or novels in verse, as they are also called.) The extra thickness of each book was only accommodating how few words were on each page. These kids were maybe reading more pages than me, but I could hold my head high still, knowing that I was still bookworm champion of my school, that these books weren’t really as dense as what I was reading every day. I started to think of them as “cheating books,” books you read to seem cool, edgy, and well-read, when really you were ready a dozen or so words per page, tops.
So that was my first impression of YA and children verse novels, for the most part; cheating books built to make kids feel more well read than they are. I wasn’t a fan of the realistic “tough stuff” genre that Hopkins and her books represented, so I didn’t really feel compelled to go deeper than that. YA verse novels remained in my periphery for quite a while after that. Like so many sappy song lyrics might’ve warned me, I didn’t realize what I had until it was gone. Love That Dog, The Crossover, Inside Out and Back Again, I was aware these books existed, and were pretty popular at that, but I never let them enter my circle.
As I migrated out of the Young Adult section and into regular Adult reads (no, not those adult books you pervert,) in library and bookstores, I noticed one particular type of book was not following me. While I could find matured versions of many YA books I loved, from high fantasy to urban fantasy to some sci-fi. Look, I had specific tastes, okay? Novels in verse all but disappeared from the shelves. That’s when I first realized that the popular verse novel was, for the most part, a YA phenomenon, which struck me as odd. There was nothing inherently juvenile about those books. If you went by the content, it was usually quite the opposite, with the books typically aiming for a gritty and serious air.
Perhaps it was this mystery around why I couldn’t have these books, or perhaps it was my general increased interest in poetry as I discovered some poets I’d come to love, like Mary Oliver and Billy Collins (I wouldn’t learn much about the wave of Instagram poets until later.) Either way, I started to read a few more verse novels and try to piece together why they couldn’t break out of the YA genre with any widespread success.
Was my original instinct right? Were these books just trying to trick kids into reading books with more pages and no pictures? Were adults too smart to fall for this trick? Maybe grown ups didn’t need those books because they didn’t need to pick a book of so many pages for a book report. Well, that’s the cynical answer anyway, or the most cynical one I could come up with. Would that really make it the truth, though?
I started to build a kinder answer too, another side that thinks more of the teens that love reading these books, which maybe was not possible while I was actually stuck with them in high school. Are teens and kids the only ones adventurous enough to read these books? Novels in verse remain some sort of alternative, fringe phenomenon for adult readers, even as poetry gets more popular with the rise of Instagram poets getting on the bestseller lists. Adults will dip into poetry in the short little pieces typical of these internet poets, but they won’t crack open a whole wacky novel in this style. Only teens are adventurous and experimental enough that they managed to turn the verse novel into a booming genre.
Those are the closest things I have to answers on the matter of YA verse novels. Pick from either side of the coin you feel like; the cynical or the hopeful, a trick of the YA publishing industry or a demonstration of literary curiosity and adventurousness. Depending on the day, I sometimes believe in one and sometimes the other.