Until today, I'd never read a novel in verse -- at least not a kid's novel in verse. Yeah, I read Paradise Lost in college, and The Odyssey in high school. That counts, right? And even though I earned my M.A. in poetry writing, it never occurred to me to try to write fiction in verse.
But I started reading Inside Out and Back Again this morning, a middle grade verse novel by Thanhha Lai that's a finalist for this year's National Book Award. And as my blogging buddies know, Lai's subject fits perfectly into my research for novel number two (draft tbc during November Nano). Because Inside Out and Back Again is the story of a Vietnamese girl who immigrates to Alabama after the war.
So, the first question we might ask is, why write any novel in verse? A reviewer for School Library Journal rightly points out that a novel dealing with the immigrant experience might be uniquely suited for verse--because the narrator is somewhat estranged from both her native language and the new one she's supposed to be learning. The effect is "simultaneously intimate and isolating." I like that idea.
But I'm a snob.
I suppose my hesitation about novels in verse is because, well, I'm kind of a snob? I don't believe "verse" is just lines of narrative broken up into short lengths, like you might crack spaghetti to fit it into a smaller pot. Any line of "verse" should have what my old poetry teacher, the late Donald Justice, called a "minute torsion," a turn or a twist or a flutter--of something ineffable, surprising, magical. A tension. A line of poetry should never fall flat. Anybody who thinks writing a verse novel is easier, because there are so many fewer words, has never struggled for weeks or months over a three-stanza poem. I have. It's been a long time, but I sure do remember how painful that can be.
Anyway, I'm down with Inside Out and Back Again. Lai's stanzas are economical; they read like haiku:
to rise first every morning
to stare at the dew
on the green fruit
shaped like a lightbulb.
I will be the first
to witness its ripening.
Look how spare, how pared down Lai's language is. As with all good poetry -- it's as if there's a spirit of something larger, richer, more meaningful, floating over each of these simple lines.
Have you ever thought about writing fiction in verse? Why or why not? Do you read verse novels? I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Children's novelist (middle grade science fantasy and magic realism), repped by agent Kristin Miller at D4EO. One-time journalist, teacher, slow food advocate, now working in the education industry. I post once a week, usually Sunday. Thanks for dropping by!