Too. Many. Words.
For a reluctant reader who may not be able to create that internal video that brings a narrative to life, a book in verse is a lot less intimidating. We loved these four titles with four very different approaches that still manage to capture contemporary concerns.
In Bull, author David Elliott gives a famous Greek myth a facelift that transforms it into a tale that can be paired with George O’Connor’s graphic novel Poseidon: Earth Shaker to bring a whole new perspective to an old story.
Sonya Sones grabs readers by the heart as she tackles youth homelessness and mental illness in Saving Red.
Then Nikki Grimes pairs brilliant art with classic verse and provides current context with One Last Word.
We round out our four with Solo by Kwame Alexander who mastered this style of writing with predecessors like The Crossover and Booked.
These four titles contain just the right number of words to build a powerful emotional response in our reluctant young adult readers.
Bull by David Elliott
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
March 23, 2017
Bull is a retelling of the ancient Greek Minotaur myth told in verse. Fans of Greek mythology know the basic story. Poseidon curses the King of Crete, his wife gives birth to a monster child with the body of a human and the head of a bull, he’s put in a labyrinth where the hero Theseus eventually vanquishes him. But in the modern trend of reimagining old tales from unique perspectives, David Elliott, gives us insight into the mind of the fabled Minotaur, named Asterion, as well as his family, the god Poseidon, and his eventual conqueror Theseus. David Elliott reimagines these ancient characters with fresh modern voices. The writing is in verse, and is at times lyrical, humorous, and heartbreaking. Potential readers should take note that there is a LOT of cursing in this book. The third page opens with Poseidon saying “whaddup bitches?.” And emphasis is placed on adult elements found in the original myth, such as the episode of bestiality between the bewitched queen and a bull that produced the minotaur.
Points of interest: the cover is eye-catching, the text is sparse with plenty of white space, and the book itself is short. The characters feel modern and engaging. Elliott doesn’t pull any punches with regards to cursing and references to adult themes.
Suggested for mature teens who can handle some adult humor and references. Recommended for fans of mythology retellings, Kwame Alexander’s novels in verse, and readers looking for a short engaging read.
Saving Red by Sonya Sones
Harper Teen/Harper Collins
Who doesn’t recognize procrastination as a valid reason for putting off the community service required by one’s high school? In one quick free verse poem, readers are hooked and brought into Molly’s world. They are held there by an engaging plot told in spare verse.
It’s a story about family. Molly’s family is falling apart. Readers have no idea why Noah, her older brother is gone, but they do know that her family is not the same. With a father who is spending more time at work, and a mother who is using drugs to drown out the pain, Molly could spend the time feeling sorry for herself. Instead, she is trying to find love and she is trying to save Red.
Red is a red, hot mess. For one, she’s homeless. It’s not like she is looking for help, though, so Molly’s desire to “save” Red is falling a little bit on deaf ears. More than that, Red isn’t convinced that she wants the medication that will keep her mental illness at bay. Without that medication, though, Red cannot be reunited with her family in San Francisco, and that is Molly’s greatest wish.
Sones’ choice of free verse format tackles the issues of homelessness and mental illness in a way that makes the topic accessible. Readers can’t help but relate to Molly. Readers will be won over by Red’s stubborn determination to be self-reliant. The issues raised in Saving Red will resonate with fans of Ellen Hopkins, but the hopeful, innocent tone will appeal to fans of Kelly Bingham’s Shark Girl.
— Jodi Kruse
One Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissance by Nikki Grimes
Bloomsbury USA Childrens
Young adults who love having the last say will take a look at “One Last Word” by Nikki Grimes. Once they open the book, however, they will see Nikki Grimes has taken last words and used a poetry art form that captures and embraces art, history, culture, wisdom, and truth. Inspired by poets from the Harlem Renaissance, Grimes integrates their powerful words of wisdom with those of her own.
Artwork has been selected from some of the best illustrators: Jan Gilchrist Spivey, Shadra Strickland, R. Gregory Christie, E.B. Lewis, Christopher Myers and more. Each work of art, in its own unique media, enhances and supports the text of Grimes’ poems. Visually appealing, these colorful and vibrant illustrations are stimulating and thought-provoking.
Historically and culturally, Grimes’ selected poetry from one of the most important literary and artistic eras in the United States, the Harlem Renaissance. From 1918 to the late 1930s, visual artists, writers, poets, dancers, and actors filled the Harlem scene, bringing and sharing their talents. Grimes selected poems from well-known poets like Langston Hughes and Paul Laurence Dunbar to lesser known poets like Clara Ann Thompson, (William) Waring Cuney, and Georgia Douglas Johnson. Themes of identity, beauty, courage, and history are expressed so beautifully and truthfully in each of these poems. Grimes adds her voice, expressing these same themes that are relevant today as they were during the Harlem Renaissance.
Last, but certainly not least, are the words of wisdom and truth that connect these poems. Young adults will love Grimes’ contemporary poetry style and how she connects her poetry with the literary style of the Harlem Renaissance poets. Using the “Golden Shovel” poetry form, Nikki takes some words from the Harlem Renaissance poets and writes a new poem putting the word last in each line. These are some last words that everyone will love!
— Karen Lemmons
Solo by Kwame Alexander with Mary Rand Hess
August 1, 2017
Two things matter to seventeen-year-old Blade Morrison: his girlfriend, Chapel, and his guitar. Son of an attention-seeking alcoholic rock star father, Blade struggles to escape his demons and find his own identity. His mom has passed away, so after Chapel betrays him and a deep family secret surfaces, Blade travels to Ghana seeking answers.
Cover art is slick and eye-catching with a silhouette of a guitar player on a bright red background. The fast-paced, rhythmic verse engages readers immediately into Blade’s rock star world. Plenty of white space makes the book accessible and appealing to reluctant readers. Candid yet witty wordplay lends humor to otherwise intense situations… one of Alexander’s specialties. Musical references abound, which may entice readers to create a playlist. During Blade’s expedition in Ghana, the complexity of the Morrison family dynamic highlights the flawed characters, while at the same time creating a likeability, even sympathy, for Blade’s dysfunctional father. The richly detailed Ghana environment provides a strong sense of place, one that will change Blade and his family forever.
Readers of character-driven fiction will be fascinated by Blade’s journey. Particularly, fans of books with music thrown into the mix, such as Exile by Kevin Emerson or Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell will adore Solo. Additionally, music fans will relish the audio version of the book, which is narrated by Kwame Alexander himself and includes musical performances by Randy Preston that reflect Blade’s moods and poetry throughout the story.
— Lisa Krok