In honor of National Poetry Month, I’m highlighting YA books (and one adult one) that feature teen characters who are obsessed with poets and poetry. I know it’s not a very original idea, although it’s harder to do than come up with a list of YA books written in verse. Still, I’m happy to know that there are still teens today who adore certain poets and yearn to write their own stirring and meaningful poetry, as I did as a teen. I’m sure it won’t come as a surprise that Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath are favorites with YA characters.
In an emotionally taut novel with a richly diverse cast of characters, readers will relish the poetry of Emily Dickinson and be completely swept up in the turmoil of two girls grappling with demons beyond their control. Goth girl Elizabeth Davis is struggling to control her anger before it destroys her. Her seemingly happy classmate Emily Delgado is struggling with depression. They are both in the same English class studying Emily Dickinson. Which one is driven to suicide? The powerful novel will keep readers guessing.
Eva, 16, still grieving over her father’s death two years previously in a plane crash, has taken solace in devouring romance novels (118 so far), much to her women’s studies professor mother’s dismay. Eva’s interest in writing poetry is reignited after she starts to tutor Will, a senior, and her long-time secret crush. As she helps him refine his college entrance essay and AP English class assignments, they bond over their mutual love of poetry and grief over losing a family member. When Will unexpectedly moves to CA, Eva and her super-intelligent best friend Annie find a way to travel across the country to visit him. Each section includes poetry by Eva’s favorite poets, including W. H. Auden, Nikki Giovanni, Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Adrienne Rich, W. B. Yeats, Mary Oliver, and Marie Howe, as well as Dylan Thomas and Elizabeth Bishop.
And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard (2014) 2015 Printz Honor winner
After her boyfriend kills himself in front of her after she ends their relationship because she’s pregnant and then is pressured to have an abortion, a traumatized Emily Beam transfers to a boarding school in Amherst, MA. Inspired by her namesake and favorite poet Emily Dickinson (whose poems appear throughout the novel) Emily writes her own heartfelt poetry about her relationship with her boyfriend, her suffering, and her journey toward healing.
Gabi, a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero (2014) 2015 Morris Award winner
Sixteen-year-old Gabi Hernandez chronicles her senior year in high school as she copes with her friend Cindy’s pregnancy, friend Sebastian’s coming out, her father’s meth habit, her own cravings for food and cute boys, and especially the poetry she writes that helps her forge her identity. Some of the poets and poems she likes include “Loose Woman” by Sandra Cisneros, Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”; Pablo Neruda’s “Tonight I Can Write”; and Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise”.
Jam, 16, is sent to a therapeutic boarding school in rural VT for “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent” teenagers after her British boyfriend Reeve dies and she’s having trouble coping. She’s assigned to attend an exclusive class called Special Topics in English where a very small group of teens are studying Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar and Ariel. They are asked to write daily in a journal and through their writing, they discover another world called Belzhar where the untainted past is restored.
Adult book featuring Emily, 16, who strikes out on her own after a nuclear power plant in VT explodes and the area is evacuated. Her alcoholic parents worked at the plant – dad as an engineer and mom as communications director. Both are killed in the disaster that they are rumored to have caused. Fearing she will be called to testify about her father’s alcoholism, Emily assumes a new identity inspired by her favorite poet Emily Dickinson. After bouncing from a Burlington shelter to the home of a drug dealer who exploits her and other young women as prostitutes, Emily rescues 9-year-old Cameron, an escapee from an abusive foster home and they attempt to eek out an existence on their own.
Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets by Evan Roskos (2013) 2014 Morris Award finalist
Probably the most poetry obsessed teen from all the books mentioned here is Walt Whitman-loving, tree-hugging, high school junior James Whitman. “I hate myself but I love Walt Whitman, the kook. Always positive. I need to be more positive, so I wake myself up every morning with a song of myself.” James is struggling with anxiety and depression and talks to an imaginary pigeon therapist named Dr. Bird. He’s trying to understand what led to his self-destructive sister being kicked out of the house by his yawp-hating father, the Brute. James’s affecting sense of humor makes this sensitive, heart-rending novel an unforgettable read.
Latino Frenchie is an Emily Dickinson quoting high school grad who hangs out in a cemetery. There she confides in imaginary pal “Em” (for Emily Dickinson) as she tries to figure out why a boy she had a crush on committed suicide after they hung out together one night. Frenchie keeps her guilt and confusion to herself because she’s never told anyone about her feelings for Andy or that she was the last person to see him alive. She embarks upon an all-night trek with Colin, a boy she barely knows, re-creating every step of her spontaneous adventure with Andy as she desperately searches for clues she’s missed.
Set in Canada in 1959, teenaged Teddy is sent to a grim all-boys Catholic school for troubled kids. A number of the priests are physically abusive and one, Father Prince, sexually molests the boys, particularly Wordsworth-loving Cooper, whose mother is a drug addict who couldn’t care less about her son who’s grown up in foster care. The abuse leads Cooper to commit suicide and when Teddy reports it, nothing is done except that he’s kicked out of school. In a somewhat hopeful ending, Teddy ultimately goes to live with the father who ran out on him.
Claire and her father move to Amherst, MA to recover from her mother’s suicide and the disappearance of her best friend that she’s rumored to have had something to do with. Claire finds herself inspired by Emily Dickinson’s poetry, and writes her own to help her deal with her troubled life.
I didn’t realize until I began to compile this list just how many of these books are about suicide and death. Despite this, many of these books contain a lot of humor and are ultimately hopeful, so don’t let the seriousness of the themes deter you from reading them. I’ve tried not to repeat the same titles that have been mentioned in other poetry-related posts from last April. I know I’ve probably missed some. Can you think of others?
-Sharon Rawlins, currently reading The Winner’s Crime by Marie Rutkoski and Scott McCloud’s The Sculptor