Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Inside Out and Back Again is a stunning novel-in-verse from debut novelist Thanhha Lai. Ten-year old Ha’s father has been missing in action for nine years when her family must flee Saigon, leaving behind everything she knows. Heartbreakingly, she knows she might never see her father again or find out what happened to him.  The family must  voyage by ship and it is dangerous and miserable.  There is not enough food, water, space, or bathroom facilities. In fact, the family barely makes it onboard the packed ship! Eventually, the refugees are rescued by an American ship, which tows them to a refugee camp in Guam. The family must decide where to go from Guam and Ha’s mother chooses America.  In order to go to America, they must be sponsored by an American family. When a “cowboy” (in Ha’s eyes) rescues them, they move to Alabama.

Alabama is not home and is nothing like Saigon.  On her first day of school, Ha has her hair pulled by her American classmates, who want to make sure she is real.  She and her brothers are bullied, and none of them are able to explain how smart they are and what they learned back in Vietnam.  As immigrants, they are looked down on and often ignored.  Lai’s spare verse evokes such emotion that I found myself with tears in my eyes on many pages.  This book is a must-have for any teacher dealing with bullying in their classroom/school.  Lai’s story is based on her own childhood (read more here) and I can imagine some amazing conversations that will be started by this book.

Inside Out and Back Again is a stunning, lyrical debut from author  Thanhha Lai.  While it seems like it is being marketed to MG readers, I want to stress that this is a book ripe for high school classrooms, too.  The close look at bullying and being an outsider should be required reading for all children.  Lai’s poetry ensures that the story wil grab even the most reluctant reader.  And her humor and sensitivity will have readers coming back for more.

Highly recommended for all readers!

*ARC courtesy of the publisher

The Braid by Helen Frost

I was a huge fan of Helen Frost’s Diamond Willow (and reviewed it here).  I picked up The Braid because the main characters were the ancestor’s of Willow in Diamond Willow and I wanted to know more about them.

Sarah and Jeannie are teenage sisters in Scotland.  Extremely close, they are separated the night of the Highland Clearance of 1850.  Jeannie leave for Cape Breton, Nova Scotia with her mother, father, and younger siblings.  Sarah hides in order to stay behind with their grandmother.  Before they separate, the girls braid a few strands of their hair together, joining them even across the vast ocean.  While this is historical fiction, it deals with many issues that today’s teens are familiar with- teen pregnancy, parental approval, poverty, life, and death.

The story is great, but the real magic is in the poetry.  This is a verse novel, but it isn’t just any old verse.  The story is told in narrative poems alternating between the two girls’ viewpoints, with shorter poems between them connecting the two.  At the end of the book, Frost has an epilogue where she explains the poetic forms.  The poems are essentially individual strands in a poetry braid.  I don’t want to give it away entirely, but the revelation stunned me.  I immediately went back and reread the book!

I can’t want to share this with my new high school students.  While the story is accessible for middle school readers, I think the intricacy of the poems will be fun to share with my high school students.  This is a perfect example of a book that has more than one layer: readers can enjoy the story and also dig deeper for more.  It’s also a great example of a book that begs to be reread!  Highly recommended.

Shakespeare Bats Cleanup by Ronald Koertge

Kevin is a baseball player.  He loves baseball, loves his team, and it is a huge part of his life. So when a case of mono results in a baseball ban for a few weeks he isn’t sure what to do.  His father, a writer, gives him a collection of poems and Kevin uses it as a mentor text as he tries his hand at poetry.  At first, it’s just a way to stay busy when he is bedridden, but then he begins to enjoy it.  Kevin writes about the recent death of his mother, his love of baseball, and his thoughts about girls.

I really enjoyed this book.  Verse novels are a big hit with my students this year but it seems that a lot of verse novels are more girl-friendly than boy-friendly.  Many of my boys search out quick reads, especially those related to sports. Shakespeare Bats Cleanup looks like it is perfect for those boys.

*Copy purchased by me

Tween Book Buying Guide for the Holidays- Verse Novels

My students love verse novels.  Whether they are dormant readers or voracious ones, my students pick them up and sing their praises.  It’s one of the easiest ways to get my students to read some of their least favorite genres.  If it’s a verse novel, they will read it!

Sonya Sones writes fantastic verse novels, and One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies is one of the most popular among my girls. I’ve already had a few run out and buy their own copies of her other novels after reading this first.

Another popular author in my classes is Wendy Mass, and her Heaven Looks a Lot Like the Mall is never on the shelf anymore. Many of my girls read this novel first and then fall in love with Mass, moving on to her numerous other (non-verse) novels. I refer to Heaven Looks a Lot Like the Mall as a “gateway book”.

Historical fiction can sometimes be a tough sell for 6th graders. Thank goodness for Jen Bryant and her The Trial. Set in NJ, this verse novel follows the story of the Lindbergh baby trial and my readers usually set off to research even more about Lindbergh after reading this novel.

The Holocaust and WWII are two topics with no end of novels written about them. However, they can be heavy and overwhelming topics for some of my students. For those who are interested in the time period but don’t want the burden of a long, prose novel there is T4 a novel. Paula, a deaf 13-year-old, learns about Hitler’s T4 program, which states that doctors euthanize the mentally ill and the disabled. Because her deafness means she is a target, Paula is forced into hiding. This is a portion of history that most social studies books do not touch on and it always hits home with my students.

Brushing Mom’s Hair (a Cybils nominee this year) also focuses on a tough topic- breast cancer. Ann’s mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer. Her recovery from surgery and her chemo treatments are by Ann, her youngest daughter. It’s a heartbreaking book but my students love it.

One of my most successful read alouds last year was Diamond Willow. This novel is an exciting mix of survival adventure and tween girl’s discovery of family roots and secrets. Willow loves her dogs and when an accident means one of them might have to be put down, she is determined to make sure that doesn’t happen.

What great verse novels do you and your students love?