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Carolee Dean (Take Me There; Simon Pulse 2010) and Caroline Starr Rose (May B., Schwartz & Wade, 2012) gave a talk on writing novels in verse at Alamosa Books in Albuquerque on April14. May B. is a middle-grade historical novel in verse (1); Carolee’s newest book, Forget Me Not, is a YA paranormal verse novel and comes out in October from Simon Pulse (2).
This event was part of the monthlong celebration of National Poetry Month, and it very fittingly began with the winners of Alamosa Books’ kids’ poetry contest. I won’t reveal any kids’ names here, but two of the winning poems were read by their authors: ”The Way of the World” and “Daisy in the Wind,” and if you were hoping to see a bunch of adults tear up on a Saturday afternoon, it was the place to be. Winners were awarded books and class visits from Caroline and Carolee.
Some thoughts from Caroline on why a writer might use verse to tell a story (in extreme paraphrase):
Poetry speaks to our emotions, which makes it an ideal way to tell an
emotional story. Caroline was reading the writings of prairie women and realized that their spare, plain language was a reflection of their spare, plain lives; it was also a perfect way to tell May’s story.
Because every word comes at a high cost, it forces a writer to cut to the marrow of a story. Poetry asks a lot of the writer in terms of rhyme schemes, effective imagery, and general ruthlessness towards one’s words. It’s not for every writer, and it’s not for every story. A good writing day might produce 300 words.
Narration of a verse novel is very close, which is why it conveys emotion so well. Verse captures images well, as if the narrator were a still camera; think of prose as a video camera. A verse novel is a series of single poems that work together to form a coherent and meaningful whole.
If you want to write a verse novel, consider the following:
Can each poem stand alone? Does each poem also contribute to the story?
Think of a quilt: each square adds to the whole. As you add squares, a picture or pattern emerges.
Vary the length of lines & poems. Match your words to your scene (good advice for all kinds of writing). For example: when May is running, the lines are short and fast.
Consider the white space: form is as important in poetry as meaning.
Carolee talked about the history of verse stories (not as new as you’d think!) and techniques for writing in verse.
Early stories were often told in verse: think of Homer, Virgil, Ovid, and the Beowulf poet. Groundbreaking verse novels in our own time include Virginia Euwer Wolff’s Make Lemonade trilogy and Karen Hesse’s Newbery winner, Out of the Dust.
What does a verse novelist need? Some of the same things a prose novelist needs. A good story is essential. (John Gardner would agree with that one–no hiding behind pretty words (3)).
A verse novelist might use a traditional form like terza rima but arrange the lines in such a way that the rhyme scheme isn’t obvious; this changes the way a poem appears and sounds.
Alliteration and assonace: these are some of the basic tools of verse, and prose writers can make use of them, too. Alliteration: words that start with the same letter sounds. Assonance: words with the same vowel sounds.
Thanks, Carolee and Caroline, for an informative and fun afternoon!
Other novels in verse, for research purposes and plain enjoyment:
Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate
Exposed by Kimberley Marcus
Love That Dog by Sharon Creech
Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai
Wicked Girls: A Novel of the Salem Witch Trials by Stephanie Hemphill
All the Broken Pieces by Ann Burg
T4 by Ann Clare LeZotte
Carol Lynch Williams
1. Caroline’s web site.
2. Carolee’s web site.
3. That John Gardner quote again.
1. British writer Philippa Pearce has a lecture series named in her honor, given since 2008 by such luminaries as Michael Rosen and Michael Morpugo. The 2011 lecture, titled “Both Perhaps Present,“ was delivered by Philip Pullman, and the transcript is available in full, along with a video of the lecture. If you haven’t read Tom’s Midnight Garden already, you’ll want to run out and find a copy after you learn what Pullman has to say about it.
2. What better source is there on this earth for useful writings than The Horn Book? Here is the first of two essays from that fine rag: the recent Zena Sutherland lecture, entitled Why Books? and delivered by Mo Willems. Zena Sutherland was a professor at the University of Chicago and the author of Children and Books. Mo Willems is…well, you know who Mo Willems is.
3. The second: Jane Langton’s insightful 1973 look at fantasy for children, “The Weak Place in the Cloth.” Part 1. Go here for part 2. Keep in mind her great formulation for making the reader read on: What if? Then what? So what?
4. C.S. Lewis has lots of useful things to say, and many of them are said in his essay “On Three Ways of Writing for Children.” Spoiler: only one of the ways is good. Scroll down and click on the title of the essay. Also read “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said.”
5. Heroes, by Diana Wynne Jones. Not strictly about children’s books, but she is a children’s writer extraordinary, so it counts. I only wish there were more of her essays on this site.