History in Verse
Read historical novels in verse to deepen empathy and inspire wonder.
The first quarter of each year is replete with reminders of historical events, movements, and individual trailblazers. We are exposed to an assortment of wonderful informational resources, and this period gives us an opportunity to reflect, to expand, and to grow in empathy and wonder.
And while diving into informational resources is a worthy and rewarding experience, I find that my greatest reflection, expansion, and growth in empathy and wonder are often the result of immersing myself in historical fiction.
Historical fiction allows us to identify with literary characters through whose eyes we see the world in another place and time. It gives us an insider’s view. It raises our awareness to what life was, so that we can increase our understanding of what life is and build our vision of what life can be.
Novels in verse provide a particularly immersive experience, offering a historical perspective told through the beauty of poetry. Poetry clothes its themes in concise, lyrical language and rich imagery. What better way to journey into the past?
Novels in verse have grown in popularity in recent years. Standouts include Jaqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, Thanhhà Lai’s Inside Out and Back Again, and multiple works by Kwame Alexander, including his latest bestseller, The Door of No Return.
If you’d like to experience a gripping, concept-driven journey into history, in addition to the aforementioned titles, I suggest five books to add to your 2023 TBR pile. Some are recent publications, and some tried and true. However, they all offer immersive experiences, relatable characters, and springboards for learning about history while growing in empathy and wonder.
In 1860, just a year before the start of the Civil War and sixty years after Congress passed an act making it illegal for Americans to engage in slave trade, over a hundred enslaved people were captured and brought to Mobile, Alabama aboard a ship called Clotilda. This moving narrative, co-written by poets Irene Latham and Charles Waters and published in 2022, tells the story of the ship’s survivors, who after the Civil War, created a community called African Town. This book is recommended for ages 12 and up.
Written in verse that is sometimes soothing, sometimes haunting, and consistently compelling, Mariko Nagai’s 2019 story of 12-year-old Natsu’s experiences living near the Soviet border in 1945 presents a fresh perspective in World War II literature. When their father is recruited into the Japanese army, Natsu must find a way to keep herself alive and to save her younger sister. This book is recommended for ages 10 and up.
It’s the late 19th Century on the Kansas prairie. May is sent to help
a prairie family 15 miles from her home. A blizzard hits, and suddenly May finds herself completely alone and struggling to survive. Caroline Starr Rose tells May’s story in riveting, accessible verse. Published in 2012, this book addresses not only challenges of the past, but also pervasive struggles with reading ability and self-doubt that are relatable for many young readers. This book is recommended for ages 8 and up.
Jen Bryant’s telling of the trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, published in 2009, is a unique view of the trial that gripped the nation in 1932. Hauptmann is on trial for the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s baby son. Through the voice of 12-year-old Katie Leigh Flynn, Bryant reveals details of the trial while capturing multiple facets of human behavior and emotion. Recommended for ages 10 and up, this book can serve as a springboard for learning about the early 20th Century
Author Karen Hesse won a Newbery Medal for this captivating narrative. With meticulous precision, Hesse explores the life of 14-year-old Billie Jo, who endures the trials of dust-bowl Oklahoma. Originally published in 1997, this book stands the test of time as a true classic in middle-grade literature and a pioneering model in the genre of novel in verse. This book is recommended for ages 10 and up.
This list is brief and achievable, but it is in no way complete. I encourage you to continue exploring the power of poetry to encourage empathy and connection. History in verse is a beautiful way to learn and grow in the new year.
Susan Koehler is a veteran educator, a lifetime literary enthusiast, and the author of several books for kids and teachers. DAHLIA IN BLOOM, her first novel for young readers, was a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2019, and NOBODY KILLS UNCLE BUSTER AND GETS AWAY WITH IT, a fast-paced contemporary mystery, was the Florida Writers Association 2022 Children's Book of the Year.