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Blending genres: novels in verse for adolescents.


The past two decades have seen an incredible surge in the number of works written expressly for the adolescent, ranging from nonfiction to fiction and poetry and beyond. Teachers and librarians have more choices than ever with which to line their bookshelves, and YAs who have trouble connecting with the classic cannon of literature that is still a large component of most high school classes can now find literature that is about contemporary adolescents and the issues they face. More recently, a new genre in adolescent literature has emerged--poetry novels. This genre includes book-length stories told in verse by either a single narrator or a chorus of voices. These works span a range that includes historical fiction, contemporary fiction, and mystery. Poetry novels are particularly adept at dealing with sensitive and controversial issues because of the intimate relationship the reader has with the narrator(s). Reading a poetry, novel is much like dipping into a stranger's diary. As the story unfolds, the reader becomes more and more involved in the intimate details revealed through the language of poetry. Characters develop through a series of interactions between the reader and the poems, and in the case of multiple narrators, each becomes a distinct voice in the story as the authors develop subplots and character traits through consistent individualized style.

Poetry novels are particularly appealing to adolescent readers who frequently turn to poetry as a way to express themselves and their emotions. Popular music is replete with lyrics that adolescents adopt as anthems for their lives. Poetry novels allow these same adolescents to experience a book-length story through the familiar form of verse. Poetry novels gained a wider audience after Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust (Scholastic, 1997), the story of a young girl's poignant life during the Texas dust bowl, won the Newbery Medal along with almost every other award for outstanding YA literature. Authors such as Mel Glenn and Virginia Euwer Wolff had published in the same genre prior to Hesse's award, but since then, the genre has expanded to new authors and multiple works by established authors.


Mel Glenn has authored 11 books for YAs, including collections of poetry and novels, and he is one of the pioneers in writing poetry novels. His body of work is some of the best the genre has to offer and represents one author's evolution through voice and form in poetry. A native of Brooklyn, New York, Glenn spent 31 years teaching English at Lincoln High School, his alma mater. His five current poetry novels are all set in fictional Tower High School, a place Glenn knows well. Each of these books deals with a variety of contemporary social issues such as teen pregnancy, violence, and racism, issues to which today's YAs can readily relate.

The plot of Glenn's first poetry novel, Who Killed Mr. Chippendale? (Lodestar/Dutton, 1996), centers around the shooting of an English teacher during his early morning run around the track. We are introduced to the killer in the very beginning of the story, but he speaks from an anonymous red-hooded sweatshirt. After Chippendale's murder, the mystery of whodunit unfolds through the voices of his present and past students, the principal, the guidance counselor whose relationship with Chippendale is gradually revealed, the police detective, and the red-hooded sweatshirt. Who Killed Mr. Chippendale? was nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award of the Mystery Writers of America, recognizing Glenn's innovative blending of mystery and poetry.

Glenn's second poetry novel, The Taking of Room 114 (Lodestar/Dutton, 1997), places readers inside a senior history class where the students have been taken hostage by their armed teacher who has apparently "snapped." This time, Glenn manipulates time by profiling Room 114's students through five poems each, letting readers hear their voices develop over four years of high school, and once more on the morning of the standoff, June 16th. Structurally, Glenn plays with the words on the page, using repetition, lists, concrete images, and two-person dialogues, Interspersed between the students' histories are the notes that Mr. Weidermeyer passes under his door to those on the outside. Bookending the story are the comments and conversations of the administration, the police, the parents, the news media, and the spectators who are following the drama as it unfolds over several tense hours. Glenn's student vignettes take us through the trials and tribulations, the hopes and the dreams that face contemporary adolescents. He also allows us to empathize with the humanness of teachers who are sometimes seen by their students as only another fixture in the classroom, lacking their own histories and pain.

Jump Ball (Lodestar/Dutton, 1997) is subtitled "A Basketball Season in Poems," and the reader is able to follow the Tower High Tigers from their pre-season tryouts all the way to their state playoffs. Glenn's novel, however, is not a simple story about basketball. He indicates that we are reading two different plot lines by peppering the basketball season with intercession poems set off by gray ovals, hinting at a winter storm and a terrible accident. The plots move through rime at different paces, the intercession poems indicating the passage of only a few hours as the basketball season extends through the winter months. At the end of the book, these two plots collide, and readers are taken by surprise as much as the members of the basketball team for whom they have cheered.

Glenn experiments with a variety of poetic forms in creating the realistic and believable Jump Ball characters. He writes rhythmic raps to showcase a trash-talking star player. His Coach Hoskins fires off staccato directives and commands in the locker room and on the court. The form of Glenn's poems also establishes relationships between characters. Glenn uses parallel poems and voices to distinguish similarities and differences between two characters, sometimes brothers, sometimes playets from diverse cultural backgrounds. He places poems by a father and son side by side to emphasize their contradictory views of the son's future.

Glenn's next poetry novel takes on a clash of two cultures that results in a murder. Although Foreign Exchange (Morrow, 1999) brings to mind students who travel and study overseas, this story brings urban students from Tower High to the rural New York community of Hudson Landing for a student exchange program. The prologue gives us both a sense of Hudson Landings' small-town setting, as well as the perceptions of the townspeople toward city kids, the" monsters" who have come bringing tragedy with them.

The first section of the book introduces us to Kristen and Kwame, the star-crossed teens who are the center of the story. We hear each of their voices, but we also get to know Kristen and her community through her classmates and neighbors. This section ends, as many of the subsequent sections do, with a column from the local newspaper. The headline reads: "Body Found in Lake."

The rest of the novel flashes back to the events leading up to the exchange--the infighting in the town, the stereotypes held by both groups, the anticipation of the students who will soon be meeting their exchange partners. Through their individual voices, Glenn once again gives us solid, multidimensional characters that represent not only urban and rural adolescents, but also teens from Hispanic, Asian, and Middle-Eastern cultures, among others. The central conflict, however, is black and white, as Kristen and Kwame ignore the town's social mores to be together. The resulting accusations against Kwame are no surprise to the reader, as Glenn has made us well aware of the underlying current of racism.

Glenn's most recent poetry novel, Split Image (Harper Collins, 2000), is a variation on the cultural conflict he presented in Foreign Exchange. In this book, we see two sides of Laura Li, a Chinese teenager who has grown up as an American trapped between cultures, between expectations, and between her competing identities. Through the voices of Laura, her parents, and her brother, the reader hears the story of their immigration to America from China and their adaptation to their life in a new country. Laura's father is absent, a shadow presence away on business. Her traditional mother limits Laura's future to tending to her disabled older brother and the household chores.

At Tower High, Laura works in the library. She is pretty and popular, liked by both students and teachers. She is a sensitive honor student who provides refuge in the library for students on the fringe of the school's social groups. Two young men with the same initials court Laura's affections and one of them sends her love letters interspersed throughout the story. However, as the story progresses, we see another Laura, one who smokes in the bathroom, sneaks out to go clubbing, and throws herself at strange men.

Glenn builds suspense by giving the reader glimpses into Laura's other life through Tyesha Hicks, a black girl whose initial attempts at friendship turn to distrust and anger. We can almost sense the tragedy that is just around the corner as we see Laura Li losing the battle to hold herself together.


Having spent 15 years in a high school English classroom myself, I was impressed by Glenn's ability to create such realistic and well-formed contemporary teenage characters, as well as his sensitivity in addressing the difficult issues students experienced in my own classrooms. After reading all his poetry novels, I wanted to know more about how he came to write in this genre and what influence his 31 years in the classroom had on his characters and plot. In an e-mail interview, Glenn was happy to let me in on the process he uses to create a poetry novel. What follows is an edited transcript of our June 2002 conversation:

MW: How did you evolve from writing books of poetry to writing poetry novels?

MG: It is a natural progression. The Class Dismissed series (four books) grew out of a desire to "capture" various students in poems, like a camera, really. The philosophical framework was the American classic, Spoon River Antholoogy, but instead of a graveyard in Illinois, I used a high school in Brooklyn. Then the poems began to weave themselves into stories; connections were made. I do believe I was one of the first authors to do this in the YA field. Later the form was tried by Hesse, Cormier, etc. I feel comfortable with this form. Somehow I "hear" it more insistently in my head than I hear prose.

MW: Where do you start writing your poetry novels--with a character or a plot line or someplace else?

MG: This may sound weird, but often I start off with the ending. I knew first how jump Ball would end before I knew about its beginnings. I knew in a flash why history teacher Weidermeyer held his class hostage (see the opening Ben Jonson poem) and in Mr. Chippendale I knew the murderer would be caught and how. MW: Your characters are very multidimensional, even those that have minor roles. When you are planning a poetry novel, how do you determine who your characters will be and what their roles are in the novel?

MG: Usually, I start off with a character. He has to be clear in my mind. I start out with a main character who is often revealed by what OTHERS say about him/her. A prime example is Laura Li. But if the truth be told, the story line is everything. You want the reader to ask the age-old question, what happens next?

MW: You portray a wide array of cultures within your novels. What specific elements do you use in creating characters with diverse cultural backgrounds?

MG: I think it is important to remember that I taught in a very multicultural high school for 31 years. (At last count 54 countries represented.) It was hot a United Nations school, but a neighborhood school with a diverse population. I try to reflect that in my writing. But given cultural differences; I think many students regardless of their ethnicity, go through the same feelings of adolescence--joy, fear, hope, happiness, etc. For example, Laura Li in Split Image is hot the first teenager ever to have conflicts with her mother. Mr. Chippendale is hot the first teacher to have some students love him, some hate him. Kwame Richards is not the first student to be a victim of racism and stereotypes. I try to be careful about stereotypes, even make fun of stereotyping (see poem "Stereotype I and Il" in Foreign Exchange).

MW: Tower High School has been the setting of your poetry novels. If l were to spend a few days observing at Tower, what would I experience? What does Tower High look like, feel like, sound like to an outsider?

MG: It's funny, the setting is the one true constant in my books. If is absolutely no secret that Tower High School is Lincoln High School, the school I taught at for 31 years, and the school I went to as a kid. When I see a scene in my book that takes place in school, it is Lincoln I see, the halls, walls, classrooms and gym. What would it sound like? A strange combination of noise and quiet, the noise of high school as a social place, a place to chill, the rush to get to the next class; a place of quiet, where a kid can come up to me and ask, "Mr. Glenn, can I talk to you?" It is both public and private, the school, as the lives of students are public and private. Their stories are sad and happy, tragic and funny. But Lincoln is representative of schools across the country, I hope. The same dynamics of hopes and dreams, successes and failures happen every-where. High school is a rite of passage, with some stories being more dramatic than others, hot that the quieter stories aren't equally important. I would hope my best quality as a teacher and writer is the ability to listen and empathize. Give the tumult of high school life, most students are good and sweet, but as my books show, evil lies just below the surface.

MW: As a career English teacher, in what ways could you see your poetry novels being used in an English class?

MG: My books have been used in the classroom as a springboard for discussion, analysis for character, and even for theater productions (like reader's theater). I have seen productions of parts of my book and the individual monologues remind me very much of the audition scenes in "A Chorus Line." The poems have been used also for speech contests. I have used my early work in creative writing classes, when I want the kids to study character, i.e., what makes a character "tick."

MW: How have your students reacted to having an author as a teacher?

MG: Frankly, it's no big deal. We have a saying hem in New York: "That and a Metro Card gets you on the subway." It is a big deal when I go to various places across the country and speak and sign books, and one time I signed an arm even. I love doing that. I have been to places where the students have made signs, even whole "communities," of my books. They are curious to find out that I teach and work in New York, and have their own stereotypes of what that must be like. ("Mr. Glenn, do you need a hand gun to teach in New York?")

MW: How have your students reacted to your poetry novels?

MG: Sometimes I get, "Oh, Mr. Glenn, please put me in your next book." My answer is "You already are," because most of my books are amalgams of all the students I have taught. I could not be a writer if I weren't a teacher. All my books center around school life, for the most part. For example, the year Lincoln won the state championship in basketball I followed the team around, and out of that experience came Jump Ball.

MW: Your novels address issues of school violence, abuse, teen pregnancy, racism--all very controversial topics. What would you say to censors who consider your books unacceptable for their content?

MG: If my books are unacceptable, then real life with its horrors is equally unacceptable. There is more of horror on the evening news than in my books. And there is nothing in my books that isn't in the lifes of teenagers today. just because it's controversial doesn't mean it should be taken off the discussion table. Kids need honesty about such issues above ail. I see my job as a writer to reflect honest concerns. If someone reading my books can say, "Hey, that's me; I've felt like that," then I've done a good job. I hope my books show that everyone goes through similar problems, and there are people out there to listen. As I've said, I taught in the same high school I went to as a kid, and I often felt that there was no one to talk to. Kids do get lost. Books can entertain, enlighten and rescue.

MW: Are you planning to continue to write in this genre? If so, what might be coming in the future

MG: Yes, I am planning to write to continue in this genre. I just finished two books. One is Diner, making the rounds, about four teenagers who hang out in, what else, a diner. But now I JUST finished Last Stop: Coney Island, about a homeless girl who meets a middleclass boy. The book came about from a real letter I received a few years ago. It said, "Hello, my name is Nicky, I live in a car. I read your book in the library."


Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy by Sonya Sones (HarperCollins, 1999) is a work of poetry inspired by true events. In Sones' first book, she tells a story of a young woman's nervous breakdown, narrated by her younger sister. Sones' oldest sister was hospitalized and diagnosed manic-depressive when Sones was almost 13. In order to cope with her fear, she kept a journal that inspired the poems in this novel.

Sones' narrator struggles with her feelings of helplessness and her own fear that she, too, could have the same kind of breakdown. The poems speak in the authentic voice of a young girl who has hidden her family secret behind a mask of normalcy, fearing rejection from her peers should they find out about her sister. She struggles with the shift in family dynamics and her own conflicting feelings about visiting a sister who is so different from the person with whom she had shared a room. An author's note at the end of the book supplies readers with contact information for various mental health resources.

The Brimstone Journals, by Ron Koertge (Candlewick, 2001), is a gripping drama, eerily paralleling the events of Columbine, Colorado, even though the manuscript was begun prior to that tragic event. The various members of Branston High School's class of '01 tell the story. Readers will recognize members of their own high school classes--the jock, the foreign-born student, the popular girl, the fat kid, and Boyd. Boyd is angry at the world, and he wants to do something about it. He is recruited by a white supremacist who uses him to plan a war of his own. Boyd keeps a hit list that grows by the day, and recruits more "foot soldiers" to carry out the plan. Koertge is able to build suspense using the perspective of different narrators as rime moves quickly toward the day the plan will be carried out.

In addition to the poetry narratives described above, there are several more that were hot reviewed for this article but are worth seeking out. As the genre expands, librarians may consider setting aside a separate place in the poetry section or cross-referencing with fiction to make these novels in verse more accessible to young readers, who are sure to find some piece of themselves between their pages.


(Thanks to C.J. Bott and Don Gallo for their list)

Corrigan, Eireann. You Remind Me of You. Scholastic. c2002.

Creech, Sharon. Love That Dog. HarperCollins. c2001.

Cormier, Robert. Frenchtown Summer. Delacotte. c1999.

Herrera, Juan Felipe. CrashBoomLove. University of New Mexico Press. c1999.

Hesse, Karen. Witness. Scholastic. c2001.

Johnson, Angela. Running Back to Ludie. Orchard. c2001

Nelson, Marilyn. Carver: A Life in Poems. Front Street. c2001.

Sones, Sonya. What My Mother Doesn't Know. Atheneum. c2001.

Turner, Ann. Learning to Swim: A Memoir. Scholastic. c2000.

Wolff:, Virginia Euwer. Make Lemonade. Henry Holt. c 1993.

Wolff, Virginia Euwer. True Believer. Atheneum. c2001.

Michele Winship,

Assistant Professor, Education Department,

Capital University, Columbus, OH
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Author:Winship, Michele
Date:Sep 1, 2002
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