Books in Verse: These middle grade works speak to the heart through lyrical language | Great Books

Middle grade readers will relish these 18 excellent books in verse, which convey worlds of feeling in a limited number of words and cover a variety of times, places, and situations, encouraging empathy and understanding.

Well-written books in verse speak to the heart of readers through word choice, placement, and rhythm. Similar to music in its ability to touch the soul, the best verse stories convey a world of feeling in a limited number of carefully crafted words, phrases, and sentences. Even the spaces play a vital role in how the story unfolds. A few words on a page can convey great meaning when they are the right words, arranged in a way that highlights the power of the situation or emotion of the characters.

The books shared here cover a variety of times, places, and situations. Themes revolve around mental health, family difficulties, tragedy, and survival. Music, with its rhythms and emotional connections, plays a key role in a number of these stories. What they all share is the power of words to pull readers into the experiences of the characters, encouraging empathy and understanding.

Alexander, Kwame. The Door of No Return. Little, Brown. 2022. ISBN 9780316441865.
Gr 6-9–Growing up in 1860s West Africa, Kofi loves to swim in the river next to which he was born. His life is full of school, family, and friends until it all unravels after a tragedy involving his brother tears his life apart. As he struggles to make sense of the heartrending turn his life has taken, his dreams help him find the will to survive. The stunning verse carries readers into Kofi’s heart and his pain and confusion, leaving readers with much to ponder.

Applegate, Katherine. Odder. illus. by Charles Santoso. Feiwel & Friends. 2022. ISBN 9781250147424.
Gr 3-6–Based on a true story, this novel in verse follows a young sea otter who has been returned to the ocean after being separated from her mother as a pup. An encounter with a great white shark leaves her injured and needing help. Recovery is difficult for Odder, as her injuries leave her cautious and less wild and playful. Writing from Odder’s point of view, Applegate once again delivers a story that will touch readers’ hearts with a delightful protagonist and her journey to surrogate motherhood.

Arango, Andrea Beatriz. Iveliz Explains It All. Random. 2022. ISBN 9780593563977.
Gr 4-8–Angry encounters with classmates aside, Iveliz feels that she has put her tragic past behind her and wants to focus on her goals for seventh grade. Her grandmother’s arrival from Puerto Rico adds to Iveliz’s stress, as her she has Alzheimer’s and doesn’t approve of Iveliz’s medicine and therapy. Thanks to the author’s beautiful, authentic language, Iveliz’s struggles with her mental health and relationships shine through clearly.

Atkins, Jeannine. Hidden Powers: Lise Meitner’s Call to Science. S. & S./Atheneum. 2022. ISBN 9781665902502.
Gr 5-8–Lise Meitner’s real-life experiences as a female scientist in the early 20th century stand out in this biography in verse. After fleeing antisemitic persecution in Germany just before World War II, she pursues her passion for science, leading to major breakthroughs in physics and radioactivity, although only her male partner won a Nobel Prize. A fascinating combination of science and poetry that makes for an inspiring and important read.

Baron, Chris. The Magical Imperfect. Feiwel & Friends. 2021. ISBN 9781250767820.
Gr 3-6–In 1989 San Francisco, Etan learns to speak up again after his mother’s hospitalization by befriending a young girl with a skin disease. With the encouragement of his grandfather and his Jewish heritage, Etan works to help Malia face the world, aided by magical clay he obtains from his grandfather. In helping his friend, Etan discovers “what he is made of” and finds the courage to face the unexpected himself. The relationships between the characters stand out in their clarity and strength.

Bruchac, Joseph. Rez Dogs. Dial. 2021. ISBN 9780593326213.
Gr 3-6–The sudden appearance of a large dog helps Malian deal with the challenges of waiting out the COVID-19 pandemic at her grandparents’ house on the Wabanaki reservation. Despite a sporadic internet connection, she learns more about her heritage and the history of her people and finds a way to share it with her classmates. Bruchac’s relaxed verse makes this a quick read and a glimpse into an overlooked perspective on the pandemic.

Caprara, Rebecca. Worst-Case Collin. Charles­bridge. 2021. ISBN 9781623541453.
Gr 5-8–Ever since he lost his mother in an accident, Collin has kept a notebook full of emergency preparedness information to help him deal with his worries. But his father’s hoarding is getting worse, and Collin feels like he can’t tell anyone, not even his best friends. When disaster strikes again, Collin must find the courage to use what he’s learned to prevent further tragedy. Emergency preparedness facts slipped in with Collin’s honest perspective make this an informative as well as touching read.

Faruqi, Reem. Golden Girl. Harper. 2022. ISBN 9780063044753.
Gr 4-8–Life looks good for Aafiyah Qamar, with tennis, her friend Zaina, and her good looks leading the way. Except she struggles to control her tendency to borrow things without asking, sometimes not giving them back. When her father is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit, Aafiyah comes up with a plan to help her family, but it may involve giving in to her greatest weakness. Aafiyah makes for a sympathetic character whose voice shimmers, just like her fingers twitch to “borrow” things.

Fipps, Lisa. Starfish. Penguin/Nancy Paulsen. 2021. ISBN 9781984814500.
Gr 4-8–In this debut novel in verse, Ellie struggles with the bullying she experiences because of her weight. Even her mother and siblings offer almost constant criticism. After making a new friend and with the support of her father and therapist, Ellie learns to stand up for herself. Readers will immediately empathize with Ellie as her thoughts and feelings are expressed beautifully through the poems she writes.

[Read: 21 Middle Grade and YA Novels in Verse for National Poetry Month]

Freeman, Megan E. Alone. S. & S./Aladdin. 2021. ISBN 9781534467569.
Gr 4-8–Maddie’s scheme to sneak off for a sleepover with her friends backfires badly when she ends up alone for the night. Things get worse when she wakes up to discover the whole town has been evacuated. With no way to communicate and only the neighbor’s dog for company, Maddie must learn to survive using whatever she can scrounge from the town. Freeman’s free verse pulls the reader right into Maddie’s dilemma and keeps the story fresh and compelling, even as Maddie herself struggles with being so very alone.

Fritz, Joanne Rossmassler. Everywhere Blue. Holiday House. 2021. ISBN 9780823448623.
Gr 4-8–As 12-year-old Maddie works toward her first solo on oboe for school, her world is thrown into chaos when her brother, Strum, disappears from college. Her family falls apart, and she finds that even her compulsive counting doesn’t comfort her. She learns that maybe her special connection with her brother will help locate him, but the cracks in her family will require more than that to heal. The way Fritz integrates music and rhythm into the story, as well as poetry, makes this a particularly lyrical read.

Grehan, Meg. The Deepest Breath. HarperCollins/Clarion. 2021. ISBN 9780358354758.
Gr 4-6–Stevie fears many things, but the ocean tops her list. Her anxieties overwhelm her at times, but she doesn’t want to worry her mother, who struggles with anxieties of her own, especially as Stevie wonders about her feelings for her friend Chloe. Through Grehan’s lovely poems, readers will be able to relate to Stevie’s struggles with her mental health and the challenges of friendship and growing up.

Grimes, Nikki. Garvey in the Dark. Wordsong. 2022. ISBN 9781635925265.
Gr 3-6–Garvey’s life takes a turn for the worse when the “invisible beast” strikes. No longer able to play ball with Joe or sing in the choir with Manny, he worries about his father, an essential worker installing internet connections. When his father does get sick and George Floyd gets murdered, Garvey wrestles with his emotions. Difficult questions arise with no easy answers in this glimpse into life during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hood, Susan with Greg Dawson. Alias Anna: A True Story of Outwitting the Nazis. Harper. 2022. ISBN 9780063083899.
Gr 6-9–This biography in verse tells of Zhanna Arshanskaya’s experiences as a young Ukrainian Jew living through World War II. After her family is murdered by the Nazis, Zhanna and her sister, Frina, take on aliases in order to hide their identities. Even in an orphanage, their musical abilities bring them to the attention of the local authorities, forcing them to share their talents with the enemy. This powerful story of family and survival doesn’t shy away from the atrocities that the Nazis perpetuated during the war.

Kuo, Jane. In the Beautiful Country. HarperCollins/Quill Tree. 2022. ISBN 9780063118980.
Gr 3-7–Zhang Ai Shi, called Anna when she arrives in America, imagines that moving to “the beautiful country” with her family in 1980 will be her “happily ever after.” But when her parents’ restaurant struggles and she faces bullying at school, she wonders if coming was a mistake. Anna’s voice stands out for its heart-touching clarity, vivid imagery, and inspiring determination.


[Read:Tragically Playful: How Verse Novels Lend Levity to the Difficult, a guest post by Caroline Brooks DuBois]


LaRocca, Rajani. Red, White, and Whole. HarperCollins/Quill Tree. 2021. ISBN 9780063047426.
Gr 4-8–Reha struggles to balance her two lives: her Indian life at home and her Americanized life at school. Everything changes when her mother gets sick, and Reha tries to become the perfect daughter in hopes it will bring her mother home. Readers will connect with Reha on her emotional roller coaster through the beautiful, resonant poetry and realistic characters.

Lowell, Rebekah. The Road to After. Penguin/Nancy Paulsen. 2022. ISBN 9780593109618.
Gr 4-8–Lacey and her mother and sister escape their abusive situation and work to find healing. As the family creates a new life for themselves, Lacey finds peace and hope in the natural world through growing a sunflower and drawing what she sees in the world around her. The beautiful imagery comparing Lacey and her family’s healing to the growth of a seed makes this a standout read.

Salazar, Aida. A Seed in the Sun. Dial. 2022. ISBN 9780593406601.
Gr 4-8–Lula dreams of becoming a Mexican circus ringmaster. But her damaged voice, migrant lifestyle, and her papa’s temper make it difficult to keep dreaming. Getting involved in the labor movement of the 1960s leads Lula to find her voice in new and powerful ways. The free verse highlights Lula’s emotions as she works to find her courage and speak up.

Heidi Grange is an elementary school librarian who loves to talk about children’s books anytime and anywhere.

Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing