Tuesday Writing Tips – Verse Novels

My first introduction to verse novels was through the work of bestselling verse novellist Ellen Hopkins. Her novels, Burned, Impact and Crank, just to name a few, hook you right into the story from the first page.

I was lucky to first meet Ellen and hear about her books at a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference in 2008.

Inspired by Ellen’s work I moved on to devour the wonderful writing of Australian authors, Sherryl Clark, Lorraine Marwood, Sally Murphy, Steven Herrick, Catherine Jinks and Margaret Wild.

There’s something about the rawness of verse novels that gets right to the heart of the emotions – it draws the reader straight into the main character’s world.

Verse writers tell us so much in so few words. They take the reader on an intimate journey, make you feel that you are there by special invitation – that it’s just you and the point of view character taking this path.

Keep it simple

The power of verse is that it doesn’t have time or space for adverbs and adjectives.

The reader has to visualise using his/her own imagination. They come to understand the main character’s world through the way that the main character acts and reacts to what’s happening around them/to them. And through the way they speak…their voice.

A good verse novel is like a well decorated Christmas tree – balanced and striking with no excess baubles – beautifully simple.

A natural form

A verse novel isn’t just a novel with fewer words in an easy to read format. There has to be poetry and power in those words.

For a verse novel to work, it has to be the natural form for that piece of writing.

Breaking a piece of text up into stanzas or verses doesn’t make it a verse novel.

Sensory Detail

As Ellen Hopkins said at her 2011 SCBWI LA workshop,

” A verse novel has sensory detail…not just in a visual sense but as a way to show information about emotions.”

How long should a verse novel be?

This really varies depending on the age of the readers and the story.

YA verse novels can range from around 14,000 words (Psyche in a Dress by Francesca Lia Block ) to more than 65,000 words (Identical by Ellen Hopkins). Junior novels might be even shorter.

Like any book, a verse novel should be as long as it needs to be to tell that particular story.

Steven Herrick and Pookie Aleera

Steven Herrick is an Australian verse novellist who has been a full-time writer for twenty-five years. The Sydney Morning Herald has described him as “The king of poetry for children”.

His latest verse novel, Pookie Aleera is Not My Boyfriend is a typical example of how Steven weaves reality and strong imagery into his powerful verse.

One of the appeals of his writing is that he takes everyday situations and places like swimming in the creek and turns them into something much more.

Pookie Aleera is Not My Boyfriend is set in a country town and brings together the lives and stories of the Kids in Class 6A.

There’s Mick, school captain and sometime trouble-maker, who wants to make the school a better place, while his younger brother Jacob just wants to fly. There’s shy and lonely Laura who hopes to finally fit in with a circle of friends, while Pete struggles to deal with his grandpa’s sudden death. Popular Selina obsesses over class comedian Cameron, while Cameron obsesses over Anzac biscuits and finding out the true identity of Pookie Aleera.

These characters and their lives are woven together in a rich tapestry that draws the reader into the story…and sparks their curiosity about who is Pookie Aleera?

According to Steven Herrick, Pookie Aleera is Not My Boyfriend is the book “he’d been wanting to write for a long time.” Steven’s strong vision for this book is apparent in the telling detail, and the sensitivity and gentle humour. It’s a story about life and friendship and the differences and similarities in us and the things that make us happy and sad.

Pookie Aleera is Not My Boyfriend has a large cast of characters, but strong characterisation makes each one distinctly different.We see each character’s vulnerability as they walk the line between childhood and adolescence.

Like all Steven Herrick’s works, this book is full of beautiful imagery. For example, Rachel’s response to “Night Sky” written on the board is “It’s like a blanket for the earth to sleep under.”

Pookie Aleera is Not My Boyfriend is charming, funny, and evocative.

It would be a great book for classroom discussion, dealing with life issues in a gentle and non confronting way. Being so accessible in its content and form, Pookie Aleera is Not My Boyfriend would also be a great tool for introducing  kids to verse novels.

Pookie Aleera is Not My Boyfriend is published by UQP for ages 9+

This book is a true example of how verse novels have the power to get to the heart of the emotions, and take the reader deep into the point of view character’s world.

10 thoughts on “Tuesday Writing Tips – Verse Novels

  1. My sister’s boyfriend raved about Ellen Hopkins’ verse novels. I haven’t read them yet, but they’re on my to-read list. The first verse novel I ever read was Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse when I was eleven. I thought it was so amazing how each “chapter” stood alone as a poem yet all of them were cohesive to make a novel. I’ve enjoyed verse novels ever since. I also love Sharon Creech’s verse novels. It’s something I definitely want to try writing! It’d be a great way to challenge myself as a writer; writing out of my comfort zone helps hone my creativity.

    Thanks for the tips and for the verse novel recommendations!

  2. Dee, I confess, decorating a well balanced, good looking Christmas tree is not what I am best known for. So this post about the delicate nuances of constructing a good verse novel is gratefully received. Can’t wait to go back over my first ever attempt and apply some of your’s and Steven’s valuable advice. Cheers Dimity

  3. Hi Laura,

    I love Karen Hesse’s work too, and Sonya Sones also writes fabulous verse novels. I’ll have to check out Sharon Creech’s work.

    Writing verse novels are a challenge, but I think a good verse novel just doesn’t work in any other form. My verse novel came to me in verse and when I tried to rewrite it as prose, it was awful. I love the immediacy of verse novels and how they evoke such powerful emotions.

    Good luck with your writing:)


    P.S. If you ever get the chance to attend one of Ellen’s workshops, I’d highly recommend it.

  4. I have to say, Dimity, I’m not known for my beautiful Christmas trees either, but I’ve always appreciated them in other people’s houses:) When we travelled around Australia we decorated our tree with paper decorations made by the kids. Wouldn’t have won any awards, but it was a tree decorated with love:)

    Good luck with your verse novel rewrites:)


  5. LOL Dee! Our present tree is only about 60 cm high so I have to exercise restraint when trying to cram the homemade decos on it, tinsel, lights, angel….but as Miss 7 says, being small it makes the sea of presents surrounding it look impressively great! I think my verse writing will be a labour of love. But it’s an entertaining and somehow genteel challenge. 🙂

  6. I’m sure it’s a beautiful tree, Dimity.

    Ours is usually one that comes out of the paddock, so it’s never symmetrical, but it always smells nice:)

    Verse novels are definitely not something that can be rushed:)


  7. Hi Dee, I would just like to mention ‘Cinnamon Rain’, a wonderful YA Verse novel by debut Australian Author Emma Cameron and also Di Bate’s recent junior verse novel – Nobody’s Boy which tells the story of a boy in foster care. I think verse novels fit well to the task of tackling difficult issues in story.

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