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9 Standout Verse Novels for Kids and Teens Reading Below Grade Level

by Tanya Turek

As a children’s bookseller, one of my greatest joys was finding the right book for the right reader. When I started work as an elementary school librarian, I found myself seeking out books for a demographic of young readers I didn’t have much experience with: English language learners reading below grade level. Through decades of working with kids and raising three readers of my own at home, I learned that a high density of words on a page can be very overwhelming for a child not reading at grade level, regardless of the actual reading level of the words. I knew this was part of the reason graphic novels are often a good fit for reluctant or struggling readers and it is what led me to discover a genre that has quickly become a favorite of mine and my students: verse novels. Even if you are not familiar with this growing genre, you have probably heard of recent award-winning verse novels like The Crossover by Kwame Alexander (Newbery Medal, 2015), Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (National Book Award and Newbery Honor, 2014), and Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai (Newbery Medal, 2012). In fact, as far back as 1998, verse novels like Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust were winning the Newbery.

With fewer words on the page than a conventional novel, verse novels give struggling readers the opportunity to feel the success and pride of reading a book from cover to cover, often in record time. They are also ideal because the limited use of words demands vivid writing and a tight, condensed plot, making for greater comprehension and retention. Verse novels are at their best when telling a truly suspenseful, powerful story, which could explain why historical fiction and stories of displacement dominate this genre for young readers. Surprisingly, the format also works to alleviate the intensity of the story, making verse novels perfect for older kids reading below grade level as they are able to grapple with plot and vocabulary complexities without feeling overwhelmed by the book itself. Happily, there are a growing number of verse novels with sunnier themes (and illustrations!), from raising a cow to show and finding a lost dog to making new friends and starring in the school play. There is even a verse novel written entirely in rhyming couplets that is a treat to read out loud!

Listed in order of reading level and age appropriateness, here are nine verse novels for elementary schoolers, middle schoolers, and teens that are standouts, both for their memorable characters and plots and the notable ways that the authors use verse to tell the stories.

  • Little Cat’s Luck

    by Marion Dane Bauer, illustrated by Jennifer A. Bell

    Bauer plays with the words on the page in this verse novel the way a cat might play with a falling leaf. And it is a falling leaf that leads Patches, a sheltered indoor cat, outside where she spares the life of a captured mouseling and takes shelter in the dog house of the meanest, biggest dog in the neighborhood, Gus. When Patches unexpectedly gives birth to three kittens, Gus’s heart opens wide and it’s up to him to get this new family to safety. Bell’s gentle illustrations are perfectly paired with this story.
    (Ages 6–8)

  • Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie

    by Julie Sternberg, illustrated by Matthew Cordell

    Eight-year-old Eleanor is coping with the loss of Bibi, her beloved nanny who’s taken a new position, and the challenges of learning to let someone new into her life. Eleanor’s new nanny Natalie encourages her to try new things and work through her sadness and fear of change. They set up a lemonade stand, take pictures around the neighborhood, and chat with Val, the mail carrier who, at the end of the summer, brings a letter from Bibi. What I love most about this book, after Cordell’s marvelous illustrations, are the caring, gentle, connected adults in Eleanor’s life.
    (Ages 6–8)

  • Zorgamazoo

    by Robert Paul Weston, illustrated by Victor Rivas Villa

    There are splendid rhymes in this book,
    And illustrations that deserve a look.
    Inside you will find creatures of every kind
    and a girl who almost (literally) loses her mind.

    With Mortimer Yorgle, a Zorgle, at her side, Katrina Katrell
    Will search for the missing Zorgles of Zorgamazoo and do well.
    They will battle aliens from Graybalon-Four, a planet that runs on Tedium Steam.
    Fighting Octomabots and finding Enchantium Gas, they will foil their wicked scheme.

    The delicious vocabulary and adventures that are both silly and gross,
    Are sure to make this Dahl-Seuss mash-up the book you love most!
    (Ages 6–8)

  • Moo

    by Sharon Creech

    Newbery winner and author of several verse novels, Creech uses cows and art to tell the story of siblings who have their lives uprooted and make a meaningful connection with an elderly neighbor. Moving from the city to the country, Reena and her little brother are forced, initially, to help out Mrs. Falala, the cranky owner of a curious menagerie. Creech’s use of the words on the page, with attention to font, setting, spacing, and typeface, helps bring the story to life and telegraph its big emotions that range from humor to sadness.
    (Ages 9–12)

  • May B.

    by Caroline Starr Rose

    Set on the Kansas prairie in the late 19th century, 12-year-old Mavis Elizabeth Betterly dreams of being a teacher, but struggles to read, the words floating and changing place on the page despite repeated practice. When her father hires her out, just until Christmas, to newlyweds homesteading 15 miles west, May is devastated and frustrated that she has to help everyone but herself. When May is inexplicably left alone in the sodee inhabited Mr. Oblinger and his teenaged wife she has to figure out how to survive the raging winter storms and dwindling food and fuel supply.
    (Ages 9–12)

  • Full Cicada Moon

    by Marilyn Hilton

    Mimi is a half Black, half Japanese, seventh-grader who, in 1969, is following the space race closely. When her father, a professor, takes a new job and the family moves from Berkeley, California to an insular college town in Vermont, prejudices erupt. Part of many marginalized groups, Mimi is a lightning rod for social, political, cultural, and historical events. Mimi meets microagressions (and macro) at school and in town with dignity and determination and the parallel between her small steps and Neil Armstrong’s are powerful.
    (Ages 9–12)

  • Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science

    by Jeannine Atkins

    Verse biographies of three women who, defying prejudices, made major contributions to the world of science. In 17th century Germany, Maria Sybila Merian, a gifted painter, challenged the then-accepted belief of spontaneous generation, discovering how caterpillars become butterflies. In 18th century England, Mary Anning, discovered the first icthyosaur, becoming the first person to make a living selling fossils. In America in the 19th century, Maria Mitchell discovered a comet and became the first woman in the U.S. to work as an astronomer. Atkins’s verses capture each century vividly, along with the challenges and setbacks these scientists faced because they were women.
    (Ages 9–12)

  • Loving vs. Virginia: A Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Case

    by Patricia Hruby Powell, illustrated by Shadra Strickland

    Beginning in the early 1950s, verses alternate between Virginia and Richard Loving as they, along with documents from the time, tell the story of their love, marriage, jail, court battles, and unanimous Supreme Court vindication in 1967. From the bigotry of the local sheriff and the state judicial system to the pain of not being able to see their families when the Lovings were forced to move out of state, this is the painful but ultimately hopeful story of love vs. hate, told in a beautifully made book, from the illustrations to the timeline, photographs, and bibliography.
    (Ages 13+)

  • Karma

    by Cathy Ostlere

    Maya is the child of Hindu and Sikh parents who fled India to Winnipeg because their families would not accept their marriage. In the winter of 1984, 15-year-old, Canadian born Maya finds herself traveling to India with her father and her mother’s ashes. While there, Indira Gandhi is assassinated by her Sikh bodyguard, setting off a religious massacre that leaves Maya alone, traumatized, and mute, and unable to find her father. Maya’s journey continues through the desert with nomads before she is able to make her way back to New Delhi and find her father.
    (Ages 13+)

Know of any other books that would make great additions to this list? Share with us in the comments below.

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