The rise of the YA novel in verse

The US realised earlier than us that poetry can tackle very difficult subjects without preaching because every word has to count. Claire Hennessy assesses a vibrant genre

YA fiction is making waves. Or rather, it has made waves for a long time, but they’re splashing up larger now, interrupting conversations about “real books”. Last year’s Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book of the Year was Louise O’Neill’s Asking For It, a YA novel turned crossover (“crossover” being the term we use to reassure adults that it’s all right they’re reading a book aimed at teenagers) that continues to raise awareness of consent. Earlier this year, the prestigious Costa Award went to Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree, a YA novel about an aspiring natural scientist in Victorian England. More and more when people talk about YA, the bewildered faces are replaced with nods of understanding. Young Adult, of course, of course. We’ve heard of that!

The boundaries of YA are ever expanding, and writers like O’Neill, Hardinge, Jenny Downham, Julia Bell, Eliza Wass and Deirdre Sullivan – to name but a few – remind us that there is literary writing here too, not just commercial tales of sexy vampires or sexy dystopias or sexy magicians with obligatory love triangles (though those exist too, in the same way adult readers have Nora Roberts and John Grisham and countless others).

Trends seen several years ago in the United States, home of YA as a category (and, for that matter, the “teenager” as category), like the expansion of the upper end of YA, have crossed the Atlantic. And there’s now another dimension of American YA that seems likely to make that journey soon.

Sarah Crossan’s One, a novel in free verse about conjoined teenage twins who begin school after years of being educated at home, won the 26th CBI (Children’s Books Ireland) Book of the Year Award – readers of a certain age will remember these in their incarnation as the Bistos – and Children’s Choice Award. The ink was barely dry on that press release when One won the second YA Book Prize, organised by The Bookseller magazine and specifically designed to recognise YA authors living in Ireland or the UK. It’s also been shortlisted for the Carnegie and a variety of other prizes, including the CLPE children’s poetry award.


And poetry is how Crossan views her book, although it began life as a prose novel. She is one of only a handful of writers on this side of the Atlantic to have been published – and published successfully, repeatedly – as a verse novelist. Her debut, The Weight of Water, is a collection of poems depicting a young Polish girl’s move to England and overcoming bullying; her novel, Apple and Rain, features both “teacher-appropriate” poetry and honest verse that comes from her narrator’s heart as she struggles with a difficult family situation. Crossan is a fierce and passionate advocate for poetry in schools and in young people’s lives, but she is something of an anomaly on this side of the Atlantic.

While writers like Sonya Sones (What My Mother Doesn’t Know) and Sharon Creech (Love That Dog) and Virginia Euwer Wolff (Make Lemonade) have published novels in verse here in the past, the overall impression both here and in Britain is that poetry is either for very young children or for adults. And certainly teenagers who enjoy poetry can easily access work to relate to, whether it’s the Sylvia Plath or Emily Dickinson in their English textbook or original material posted on Tumblr.

But it is curiously absent from the bookshops, even in this expanding world of YA. This is absolutely not the case in American bookstores, where Ellen Hopkins regularly tops the New York Times bestseller list. Hopkins, like many writers of YA verse novels, uses the sparseness of the form to explore some very difficult subjects in sensitive ways – Crank, among others of hers, explores drug addiction; Traffick, as one might guess, looks at teens caught up in sex trafficking; Impulse is narrated by teens following various suicide attempts. There is nothing too dark for Hopkins, and while the verse is sometimes a little too simple, this is in many ways part of the appeal of these novels: by being careful and precise, rather than showy, with language, the poetry on the page becomes less of a puzzle to solve (as it is often presented in the English curriculum) and becomes more accessible to reluctant readers.

Sometimes the line between simple and simplistic is in the eye of the beholder, but verse titles are often recognised most favourably by critics: Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, a memoir of her childhood as an African-American in the 1960s, racked up a variety of awards including the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, a Newbery Honor, and a Coretta Scott King Award. The American readership seems to have realised earlier than we have that poetry can be a way of tackling the very difficult subjects without giving into the temptation to preach. When every single word counts, the tendency to state the moral of the story – and then state it again just in case the reader didn’t quite understand – becomes much more obvious to both author and editor, and they can pull back in time.

Some of the most astonishing YA books I’ve encountered over the last number of years have been told in verse. Poisoned Apples: Poems For You, My Pretty, is a collection of fairytale retellings interspersed by real-life teenage girls struggling with body image and other societal pressures. The author, Christine Heppermann, has just released her second collection, Ask Me How I Got Here, which depicts the aftermath of a teenage girl’s abortion in an all-female Catholic school. Your Own, Sylvia by Stephanie Hemphill, describes itself as a “verse portrait of Sylvia Plath” and rather intelligently eschews any attempts at mimicking the poet, instead offering up insights from a whole variety of figures in her life. Samantha Schutz’s I Don’t Want To Be Crazy is a memoir in verse, depicting the author’s experience of OCD in her first year of college. These and many more are smart, insightful, lyrical, haunting books that so rarely make it to UK and Irish bookshelves – we don’t yet have a sense of the possibilities of YA in verse.

The tide is turning, though. YA fiction has shown us what it can do. I like to think of YA poetry on this side of the Atlantic – more than ably led by Crossan – as rolling up its sleeves and going, “Right. It’s our turn next. Let’s do it.”

Claire Hennessy is a writer, editor and creative writing facilitator based in Dublin. Her new YA novel, Nothing Tastes As Good is published by Hot Key Books