Eight Verse Novels that Illuminate Disability Experiences

Verse lends itself to conveying big feelings around disability, as these powerful works for middle grade readers show.

From left: Sally J. Pla, photo by Stephanie Sundell; Cindy Baldwin, photo by Lindsey Allen Photography; Meg Eden Kuyatt, photo by Vincent Kuyatt; John Schu, photo by Saverio Truglia.

Novelists are drawn to the verse format for many reasons. A notable one is poetry’s power to portray the emotional and physical realities of disability experiences. Recently, several middle grade authors have taken to verse to explore these stories.

“When you are trying to share a life experience that is personally and profoundly different—when you are trying to dig deep and convey much—then you may reach for a more poetic form,” says Sally J. Pla, author of the middle grade novel-in-verse Invisible Isabel (HarperCollins, Jul. 2024). The story follows a young girl with undiagnosed autism and anxiety who struggles to befriend a new girl at school. “Elevated aims call for elevated language; heightened emotion calls for heightened language,” adds Pla.

Here, Pla and seven other middle grade authors of verse novels centering disabled characters talk about how and why verse excels as a medium for telling these stories.

[Also read: Disability, Adversity, and Kid Lit: Authors Sally J. Pla and Margaret Finnegan Discuss Disability Representation in Youth Literature | Teen Librarian Toolbox]

Exploring difficult topics

“Poetry does a really good job of capturing the limitations that extreme sickness places on a body and mind,” says Cindy Baldwin, author of No Matter the Distance (Quill Tree/HarperCollins, 2023), about a person with cystic fibrosis (CF), which Baldwin also has. The novel follows tween Penny as she bonds with a sick dolphin stuck in her backyard creek. The dolphin’s illness reminds Penny of her CF.

Baldwin has written several middle grade prose novels. But she knew when it was time to write a character with CF like herself, she would do so in verse.

“I feel like verse is an exceptionally good medium to explore difficult topics,” she says. “The white space on the page and the spare quality of the prose gives space for the reader to process tough ideas....It took me a long time to be mentally and emotionally ready to write a story that drew on my experiences as a person with CF, and the stream-of-consciousness feeling of writing in verse really helped me to be able to approach the big emotions of Penny’s story without it being too much.”

Other authors concur that verse lends itself well to conveying big feelings around disability. Meg Eden Kuyatt, author of Good Different (Scholastic, 2023) says, “For me, writing about discovering my neurodivergence in a neurotypical world—all the exhaustion and overstimulation and confusion of not being able to keep up—the feelings were too big for prose. They just made sense in poetry.”

Kuyatt’s protagonist, Selah, often feels overwhelmed and overstimulated at school and home. After lashing out at a classmate, she goes through a process of discovering she has autism and fighting for her right to have a diagnosis and accommodation.

“Verse is where we go when we have something that’s really emotion-packed, something really close to us, that doesn’t translate well into prose,” Kuyatt adds. “There’s that musical theater saying that the characters sing when the emotion’s too strong for spoken word. They dance when the emotion’s too strong for music. Poetry’s like that. The emotion has to be so strong that it comes out in poetry.”

In addition, verse lends itself well to “focusing on a handful of characters and recreating the smaller moments of their experience,” notes Kuyatt.

John Schu, who based his debut middle grade novel, Louder Than Hunger (Candlewick, Mar. 2024), on his experiences with anorexia nervosa, obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety, and depression, agrees. The story follows poetry and musical-loving Jake as a voice inside him compels him to restrict his eating and disappear. Jake’s family sends him to an in-patient treatment facility for help.

“Jake told me right away that Louder Than Hunger needed to be told in verse,” says Schu. “He spoke to me through poetry—loud poems, quiet poems, poems that required four words, and ones that filled multiple pages. I cannot imagine writing the story in any other way.”


From left: Jasminne Mendez, photo by Tasha Gorel; Dawn Quigley, photo by Tadpole Photography; Andrea Beatriz Arango, photo by Ciela CreativeX/Lily Graciela; Ann Claire LeZotte, photo courtesy of Ann Claire LeZotte.

White space and poetic forms

Jasminne Mendez, who primarily identifies as a poet, says using verse and white space can capitalize on how it feels to be disabled in an accessible way for young readers. “For me, it’s about being able to use imagery and metaphor and sensory details to really amplify those internal emotions,” says Mendez, author of Aniana del Mar Jumps In (Dial, 2023). Her book describes the experiences of a young Dominican American swimmer who begins experiencing severe joint pain and swelling and is eventually diagnosed with Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis.

“Verse allowed me to capture that loudness [of chronic pain] on the page using different font sizes,” says Mendez. “Writing in verse and being able to play with words on the page and where they land and having those individual words on their own against the white space adds to that sort of emotive experience for the reader.”

Baldwin also tried to mirror her personal disability experiences through format.

“Poetry’s artistic flexibility can allow you to shape things in ways that echo the experience of the disability,” she says. ”When Penny’s getting sick, I have poems where every few words are punctuated with coughs—much like it feels to speak when you’re having a cystic fibrosis exacerbation! I also played a lot with the format of some of the poems when Penny is hospitalized to convey the disorientation and sensory overwhelm that has always been a hallmark of the hospital experience to me.”

Similarly, while working on her new novel Red Bird Danced (HarperCollins/Heartdrum, Jun. 2024), author Dawn Quigley says, “I began to see how a writer can use fonts, spacing, bold/lightened colors to create art, mood, and tone in stories.”

The narrative alternates perspectives between two Ojibwe tweens who live in a Native American urban housing community, one of whom has a reading disability.

“It was so freeing to write in verse, since there is “no one way to do it,” adds Quigley. “I love making my own writing rules!”


Accessible expression

While freeing to authors, the verse format can also make characters’ experiences more accessible for readers.

“It can feel so daunting to try to explain pain to someone—whether in our brains or our bodies,” says Andrea Beatriz Arango, author of the Newbery Honor title Iveliz Explains It All (Random, 2022) and other works in verse. Arango’s protagonist in Iveliz Explains It All, a Puerto Rican seventh grader, experiences PTSD after her father dies in a car accident they were both in.

“I think the intimate nature of verse novels can help bridge that communication gap between character and reader just a tiny bit faster than books in prose,” she says. “It also makes the books extra accessible for readers who could benefit from having less words on the page.”

Reader accessibility matters to other authors as well. “I tried to make Isabel read quickly and gently,” says Pla. “No big dark blocks of text. Enough white space to encourage a reader’s gentle page-turning rhythm.”

In Baldwin’s view, “Because verse is so visceral, it’s able to help folks who are able-bodied and/or neurotypical better understand perspectives outside their own.”


The challenges

Composing poetry-based works has its hurdles, however. “If you have a story with a lot of characters and a multi-layered plot, verse may not be the best medium for all the details and nuance of the narrative,” says Kuyatt. Dialogue can also be tricky, according to Schu.

Mendez argues that, as with a prose work, it’s essential to maintain the integrity and arc of a novel in verse. “You have characters. You have internal and external conflicts. You have subplot, a climax, a denouement.”

But in the spare format of verse, elements often must be boiled down to their essence. Pla says, “It is challenging, trying to find the nugget or kernel of a scene and portray that and that alone [and] to search for beautiful poetic expression that is also very simple and accessible to young readers,” Mendez adds.

Despite these challenges, these authors show poetry’s adaptability in capturing the nuances and complexities of their characters’ varying experiences.

Ann Claire LeZotte’s forthcoming middle grade novel in verse, Deer Run Home, (Scholastic, October 2024), follows Deaf tween Effie as she navigates abuse and neglect in a home where her family refuses to learn American Sign Language (ASL). One way she finds her voice is through writing combined English and ASL poetry. In one of Effie’s last poems, she writes about how poetry has helped heal her soul: “Poem / letter / word / sentence / page. / Poem. / My healing. / My soul.”

Healing through writing poetry is also a theme in many other stories. Jake composes poems while in his treatment facility in Louder Than Hunger, the characters in Red Bird Danced grapple with grief and prejudice through poetry, and Penny in No Matter the Distance comes to better understand her identity by crafting poems.

For authors, too, creating these books is often cathartic.

“Writing Louder Than Hunger helped me realize I’ve held on to a lot of the trauma of my childhood,” says Schu. “Writing helped me let go. It helped me heal.”

Margaret Kingsbury is a journalist and book reviewer based in Nashville, TN. Her pieces have appeared in BuzzFeed News, IGN, The Observer, The Lily, SLJ, StarTrek.com, Parents, and elsewhere. She’s Hey Nashville’s daily newsletter editor and writes Book Riot’s twice-weekly kidlit newsletter, "The Kids Are All Right". Follow her on Instagram @BabyLibrarians and on Twitter and Bluesky @AReaderlyMom.




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