Guest Post: Caroline Starr Rose on Young Readers and the Magic of Verse Novels
Today I'm thrilled to welcome to Clear Eyes, Full Shelves novelist Caroline Starr Rose, author of the critically-acclaimed May B and a new novel, Blue Birds, both middle grade historical novels in verse.
I posed this question to her: Some of my favorite verse novels are in the middle grade category--why do you think the verse format works so well for young readers? And she had a great answer for me!
Young readers are still open minded. They haven’t been around long enough to decide they don’t like a certain writing style before trying it. While I’ve heard adults talk about how strange a verse novel looks on the page and feels as reading material, I’ve never heard a kid say this.
Another wonderful thing about young readers is for the most part they haven’t yet formed negative opinions about poetry (or if they have, those thoughts aren’t so entrenched that they can’t be reversed). Back in my teaching days, I used to start my poetry unit by having my students interview their parents about their experiences with poetry. Many fondly remembered nursery rhymes, Shel Silverstein, A. A. Milne and the like, but their opinions changed when they got older. Once the parents faced poetry that felt confusing or obscure, those positive memories were forgotten.
I will confess that no matter where I taught, my upper-elementary and middle-school students were transitioning in their thoughts about poetry, moving from those fun younger-year experiences into something more guarded and less interested. What showed me this is the strange but similar words kids gave when I’d ask what they thought of when they thought of poetry. Without fail, they mentioned flowers, love, and girls. Sometimes castles were thrown in for good measure. I’d spend the rest of our time together trying to reverse the idea that poetry is limited to a number of subjects (and therefore a number of readers). Almost always I could win them over by the end.
Another attractive quality about the verse novel is how fast they read. This can be enormously satisfying for readers who find standard prose a struggle. There are no dense paragraphs. The white space, which verse novelists use along with line and stanza breaks to further express the story, makes each page less intimidating. Individual poems run much shorter than chapters, adding momentum to the story’s pacing. Verse is really magical this way.
My plea to well-read and well-intentioned adults is to not let your biases or perceptions discourage a child from trying a verse novel. I’ve heard a librarian say she’ll only buy the books her students will read. How is she sure exactly what that is? Is she just serving the largest reading audience in her library? Is there a smaller number of readers who would pick a verse novel first thing and is waiting for the opportunity? And what about exposure to all types of books, whether it’s a child’s first choice or not? Our job as adults is to inspire children to read and to celebrate literature in all its forms. Let’s make sure verse novels are a part of the reading materials we make available to the young people in our lives.
Caroline Starr Rose spent her childhood in the deserts of Saudi Arabia and New Mexico, camping at the Red Sea in one and eating red chile in the other. As a girl she danced ballet, raced through books, composed poetry on an ancient typewriter, and put on magic shows in a homemade cape. She's taught both social studies and English in New Mexico, Florida, Virginia, and Louisiana. In her classroom, she worked to instill in her students a passion for books, an enthusiasm to experiment with words, and a curiosity about the past. Caroline lives in New Mexico with her husband and two sons.
About Blue Birds
It’s 1587 and twelve-year-old Alis has made the long journey with her parents from England to help settle the New World, the land christened Virginia in honor of the Queen. And Alis couldn’t be happier. While the streets of London were crowded and dirty, this new land, with its trees and birds and sky, calls to Alis. Here she feels free. But the land, the island Roanoke, is also inhabited by the Roanoke tribe and tensions between them and the English are running high, soon turning deadly.
Amid the strife, Alis meets and befriends Kimi, a Roanoke girl about her age. Though the two don’t even speak the same language, these girls form a special bond as close as sisters, willing to risk everything for the other. Finally, Alis must make an impossible choice when her family resolves to leave the island and bloodshed behind.
A beautiful, tender story of friendship and the meaning of family, Caroline Starr Rose delivers another historical gem.