Saturday, March 17, 2018

TOP TEN Verse Novels for Middle Grade Readers

With National Poetry Month coming in another two weeks, I thought it would be a good time to write a TOP TEN list of my favorite middle grade verse novels!

Verse novels are one of my favorite things to read. And to write! There's something especially special about verse novels written for middle-graders. They are so honest, often raw. They can be simple in form, yet complicated and/or tragic at their heart.

Narrowing this list down to ten was challenging, as I've read so many truly wonderful books written in this form. But these are the ones that stick in my heart the strongest. If you see any on this list that you haven't read, take National Poetry Month as an excuse to add them to your reading list!

LOVE THAT DOG by Sharon Creech

One of my favorite books of all time. This book is beautifully simple, heartfelt, moving, and a little bit tragic.

HATE THAT CAT by Sharon Creech

The sequel to LOVE THAT DOG (and my son's favorite of the two). Every bit as lovely, with a hopefully and heartwarming story about a boy and a cat.

HEARTBEAT by Sharon Creech

Another by Sharon Creech. What can I say? She's a genius!

FORGET ME NOT by Ellie Terry

A beautiful story about a girl with Tourette's syndrome trying to adjust to a new school, and the friendship she develops with the boy who lives in her apartment building.

GONE FISHING by Tamera Will Kissinger

A wonderful family/sibling story about a boy who is annoyed that his sister is coming along on the father-son fishing trip. Told in a variety of different poetic forms.

OUT OF THE DUST by Karen Hesse

Gut-wrenchingly tragic, yet hopeful at the same time. Gorgeous poems throughout. This is the first verse novel I ever read, and I was instantly in love.


A bullying story turned on its head! The main character in this story is the bully, and it's fascinating to see what drives him and how he changes. Cool "blackout" poems throughout the book.

THE CROSSOVER by Kwame Alexander

Family, middle school, sibling rivalry, basketball! Kwame's verse is irresistible throughout this un-put-downable book!

BOOKED by Kwame Alexander

Another wonderful sports and family (and school) story told in brilliant verse.

RED BUTTERFLY by A. L. Sonnichsen

Get ready to cry when you read this one. It's the story of a little girl in China, who was abandoned as a baby and is being raised by an elderly American woman.

Do you have a favorite verse novel that didn't make my top ten? I'd love to hear about it!

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Verse novel review: BULL by David Elliott

by David Elliott
Young Adult verse novel
HMH Books for Young Readers

I have always believed there should be more diversity in verse novels. By that I don't mean the characters or settings (although that is good too, of course), but diversity in the types of stories told in the verse format. Verse novels often deal with difficult issues such as heartbreak, death, abuse, broken families, bullying, illness, and even slavery. They are most often realistic stories set in a familiar world or one we can read about in history books. Though they occasionally touch on the paranormal (like in Lisa Schroeder's I HEART YOU, YOU HAUNT ME or Carolee Dean's FORGET ME NOT) it is rare to find a verse novel that ventures outside of the real world.

So, when I stumbled onto BULL by David Elliott while searching "verse novels" on my local library's catalog, I was intrigued. And after reading the jacket flap copy, I couldn't wait to get my hands on it!

See for yourself:

Minos thought he could
Pull a fast one
On me,
God of the sea!
But I'm the last one
On whom you
Should try such a thing.
The nerve of that guy.
The balls. The audacity.
I got capacity!
Depths! Darkness! Delphic power!
So his sweet little plan
Went big time sour
And his wife had a son
Born with horns and a muzzle
Who ended up
In an underground puzzle.
What is it with you mortals?
You just can't seem to learn:
If you play with fire, babies,
You're gonna get burned.

Told in several shifting points of view, BULL is a reimagined version of the greek myth Theseus and the Minotaur, told in poems that are an exciting mix of shocking, humorous, and heart-wrenching. As a verse novel, it is a daring breath of fresh air.

Though BULL, like many verse novels, is a quick read and could appeal to many reluctant readers, I would reserve this one for teens older than 13. Some of its language and imagery make it inappropriate for younger verse novel fans. So pick it up for a teen in your life, or maybe even for yourself. And prepare to see the verse novel in a whole new light!

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Pinhole Art Project: A Read, Discuss, Do! Activity

READ: URSA'S LIGHT by Deborah Marcero

DISCUSS: Ursa made her "impossible" dream come true in an unexpected way. What do you dream of doing some day? How might you make that dream come true?

DO: Create a pinhole picture inspired by the art in URSA'S LIGHT.

You will need:

  • black card stock or construction paper
  • colored tissue paper
  • pencil
  • glue stick
  • scissors
  • toothpick or pushpin

Lightly draw a shooting star, constellation, or other night sky image in pencil on the black paper. Practice beforehand if necessary. Alternatively, you can use this printable template of a shooting star.

Cut a sheet of colored tissue paper so that it is slightly smaller than your black paper. Set it aside. Lay the black paper on a carpeted floor, woven seat cushion, or cork board. Using a toothpick or pushpin, puncture holes along the lines of your design, being careful not to poke the holes too close together. If using the shooting star template, set the printed template on top of the black paper and poke holes through both sheets.

Flip the black paper over and run your glue stick along the outside edge, then affix the sheet of colored tissue paper. Tape your finished project to a window. The light will shine through the pinholes, making it look like stars in the sky!

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

My Middle Grade Verse Novel Manuscript is Out in the World!

Recently something exciting and a little bit scary happened. I finally decided to send my finished middle grade verse novel manuscript to my agent! This project hasn't been mentioned on my blog much, but I did share an excerpt from the first draft in April of 2015.

I started this project in late 2014, and it progressed slowly, a little bit at a time over the next two years. But much of the past year has been dedicated to revisions. And more revisions. You know the drill.

When I finally had the manuscript as polished as it could be, I hesitated. I procrastinated. I alternated between hope and doubt.

Finally, I tested the waters. I let my agent in on the details of the project. It wasn't just a verse novel, you see. It would have visual elements--illustrations that appear as doodles and art journal pages. Would she understand what I was trying to do?

I explained my vision in an email and anxiously hit send.

She responded that she loved the idea, she couldn't wait to read it, and she helped me figure out the best way to format it.

After another read-through, a few little tweaks, and formatting the first 50 pages with my main character's doodles included, I sent it off!

A short time later, as in that same afternoon, my agent called me. She had read through the entire novel in one sitting and had loved it! But better than that, she really got what I was trying to accomplish with the art worked into the story!

So now, my beloved MG verse novel manuscript is in my lovely agent's hands.

And I am full of hope!

Saturday, February 03, 2018

Picture Book Review: WHILE YOU ARE SLEEPING by Mariana Ruiz Johnson

Let me tell you about a beautiful book.

WHILE YOU ARE SLEEPING is a wordless picture book by Mariana Ruiz Johnson. This book may not have words, but it says a lot. It begins with a sweet image of a child at bedtime, listening to his mother read a story. With each turn of the page, the image zooms out, revealing more and more of what is happening as the boy sleeps -- in his house, his neighborhood, his town, and even (as I interpret it) in his dreams.

The illustrations in this book are vibrant and richly detailed, showing snapshots of other stories happening throughout the night and into the morning. A child in the hospital, a mother holding a baby, a group of friends having dinner, and a colorful group of interesting characters who head out on an adventure. Where did this group of characters come from? you may wonder when you see them set out to sea for the first time. So you'll turn back to see what you missed. And if you're like me, you'll notice something new even after exploring this book a few times.

I recommend this book to anyone who loves pictures that tell a story. It would be an excellent book to share at bedtime to encourage a child's imagination to wander. Share it with young ones who aren't reading on their own yet, or with budding writers looking for a bit of inspiration. Whoever you share this book with, it will be worth adding this gorgeous book to your home or classroom library.


Saturday, January 27, 2018

Wacky Hairstyle Collage: A Read, Discuss, Do! Activity (and a GIVEAWAY)

Read, Discuss, Do! is a social media campaign that aims to give parents and educators quick and simple ideas to enhance story time. You can read a little bit about that campaign by clicking this link. I've decided to make Read, Discuss, Do! a regular feature on my blog in order to share activity ideas that are slightly more complicated than what I usually post to Twitter and Facebook. That starts today with a craft idea inspired by Susanna Leonard Hill's new board book, WHEN YOUR LLAMA NEEDS A HAIRCUT!


DISCUSS: Have you ever had a haircut you didn't like? How do you feel about getting your hair cut or styled? Why?

DO: Create a wacky hairstyle collage like the one picture below.

You will need:
  • a printed photograph (or one cut from a magazine)
  • glue
  • scissors
  • construction paper or card stock
  • collage items such as yarn, fabric scraps, washi tape, torn paper--whatever you have lying around!
  • pencil (optional)
  • crayons or markers (optional)

Gather your supplies. Cut around the photo of the person so that only the head and shoulders are showing. Glue it onto a sheet of paper, leaving plenty of space above it for the hair collage.

Note: I used a glue stick for the photo and white glue for the yarn and fabric.

Imagine what you want the finished hairstyle to look like, then design it using your chosen collage pieces. If it helps, draw your design with pencil before filling it in. In the sample pictured, I cut out a photo of my husband (he gave me permission to share it with you), then used yarn for the hair, a fabric strip for the bow, and washi tape along the hairline. Be as creative and wacky as possible!

Having trouble thinking of an idea? Use the images from WHEN YOUR LLAMA NEEDS A HAIRCUT for inspiration!

Have fun! And be sure to put your collages up where people can see them. The one of my husband is on the refrigerator!

Now about the GIVEAWAY!

Susanna Leonard Hill is offering a copy of WHEN YOUR LLAMA NEEDS A HAIRCUT to one lucky winner. To enter, simply leave a comment on this post sharing a BAD HAIRCUT story. If you don't have a bad haircut story, anything negative relating to hair will do.

One entry per person please. You must be at least 18 years old to enter.

A winner will be drawn on Saturday, February 3, 2018.

UPDATE: A winner has been announced. Congratulations to Hachen Learning!

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

I Didn't Give Up. Neither Should You.

I received my first rejection letter in September of 2002 (that's it on the left).

About thirteen years later my first book was published.

There's a lot hiding in the blank space between those two sentences. A lot of learning and growing, hope and frustration, failures and successes. More failures than successes, to be honest.

There were more than a few moments during that time that I felt like giving up, but I didn't. I kept writing, kept submitting, kept trusting that God hadn't given me this passion for nothing.

Many of you may be in that space right now, wondering if it is worth continuing. I'm here to tell you that it is worth it. If you have a talent for writing, it will grow. And if you have a passion for what you're doing, you won't let something as simple as failure stop you.

If something is worth doing, it's worth the struggle it takes to get it done.

So don't quit.

Instead, take every rejection as a challenge, and every submission as an opportunity to present your best self. But stay humble. Connect with other writers, published and not. Learn. Grow. Improve.

Eventually, you'll get there.