A few years ago a colleague of mine presented me with a copy of The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, saying that she knew it would be up my street. She was right: I was so excited to see a novel in verse specifically aimed at teenagers, celebrating poetry and spoken word, and endorsed by one of my favourite YA authors, Angie Thomas. And what a novel it is. Tracing a year in the life of Dominican teenager Xiomara, who lives in Harlem, the poems that comprise the novel are her secret scribblings. Secret, until her English teacher convinces her to join a slam poetry group. Acevedo, writing in X’s voice, crafts emotional poems which perfectly tell the story of a teenage girl finding her voice and carving out space for herself in the world.
Since reading The Poet X in 2018, I have read all of Acevedo’s novels, and Dean Atta’s first novel in verse, The Black Flamingo, which tells the story of Michael. Michael grows up in London with his mother, feeling his way towards his sense of self, his gender and sexuality, through the poems that make up his narrative. When he goes to university, he discovers drag, and The Black Flamingo is born. Dean Atta has since followed up this hard-hitting and moving book with a second novel-in-verse, Only On The Weekends.
These YA novels use poetry to tackle complicated, real-life issues, and tell their stories through searing free-verse. The journal-entry poems of Acevedo’s protagonists’ bare their souls to you; you can’t help but root for them. Such a raw way of describing teenage experiences makes these books incredibly gripping, pacy, and relatable.
The recent rise in the numbers of novels-in-verse aimed at young people shows that YA authors such as Acevedo, Atta, Sarah Crossan, and Manjeet Mann have identified poetry as a powerful means of storytelling. Nikita Gill is the most recent to join this movement, having just released her first collection of YA poetry, These Are The Words. I hope that in reading these books, more young people will begin to see poetry as a form of literature which is for them, and which speaks to their experiences.
If you are a fan of YA novels-in-verse, or if your interest is piqued, you can now purchase a range of these impactful reads on our website, with 25% for PBS members.