Novels Told in Letters and Verse

These novels, told through poetic verse and letters, bring a wide range of characters to life, from a former Cuban slave who heals soldiers with medicinal plants to a young Sudanese refugee who arrives in Minnesota in the middle of winter. Sophisticated stories and perspectives are made accessible through these beautifully written novels that are sure to resonate with Englsih language learners and appeal to struggling and enthusiastic readers alike.

For more novels in verse, take a look at AdLit.org's recommended list!

Aleutian Sparrow

Illustrated by: Evon Zerbetz
Age Level: 12-14

The Aleuts were dramatically affected by both Japanese and the American forces during World War II. How they were relocated from their small island in the Pacific and relocated to the coast of Alaska is hauntingly told by Vera, a young Aleutian/Caucasian girl.

All the Broken Pieces

Age Level: 12-14

Product Description: Two years after being airlifted out of war-torn Vietnam, Matt Pin is haunted: by bombs that fell like dead crows, by the family — and the terrible secret — he left behind. Now, inside a caring adoptive home in the United States, a series of profound events force him to choose between silence and candor, blame and forgiveness, fear and freedom. By turns harrowing, dreamlike, sad, and triumphant, this searing debut novel, written in lucid verse, reveals an unforgettable perspective on the lasting impact of war and the healing power of love.

Call Me Maria

Age Level: 9-12

Product Description: Maria is a girl caught between two worlds: Puerto Rico, where she was born, and New York, where she now lives in a basement apartment in the barrio. While her mother remains on the island, Maria lives with her father, the super of their building. As she struggles to lose her island accent, Maria does her best to find her place within the unfamiliar culture of the barrio. Finally, with Spanglish ringing in her ears, she finds the poet within herself.

Cinnamon Girl: letters found inside a cereal box

Age Level: 14-16

"Yolanda's grasp on reality crumbles along with the World Trade Center after her beloved Uncle DJ is injured on September 11. Still coping with a tragic incident from her past in Iowa, Yolanda's fear after this new calamity is palpable through the poetry used as the vehicle to tell her story.

CrashBoomLove

Age Level: 16-18

Mexican-American poet Herrera wrote one of the first novels in verse for the teen audience. Sixteen-year old Cesar is the son of migrant workers, and he shares his coming-of-age experiences.

Downtown Boy

Age Level: 12-14

"In 1950s California, 10-year-old Juanito is tired of moving with his migrant-worker parents and staying in relatives' homes in San Francisco's Mission District. He aches for his often-absent father. Finally, Papi returns, and home becomes San Diego, where Juanito settles into a deeper sense of place and faces family secrets and hardship." — Booklist

Extra Credit

Illustrated by: David Elliot
Age Level: 9-12
"A forced pen-pal exchange turns into an opportunity for real communication between Illinois sixth-grader Abby Carson and Sadeed Bayat, the best English-language student in his Afghan village. When Abby's first letter arrives in Bahar-Lan, 11-year-old Sadeed is asked by the elders to compose his sister Amira's reply; it isn't proper for a boy and girl to correspond with one another. But soon Sadeed can't resist telling Abby that it is he who has been writing to her.

Home of the Brave

Age Level: 9-12

This novel, written in free verse, tells the story of Kek, an eleven-year-old boy from the Sudan who arrives as a refugee to Minnesota in the middle of winter. In moments both amusing and heartbreaking, it is possible to see through Kek's eyes what it is like for new immigrants who come to this country and to think about the scars that war leaves on its youngest victims. Teacher's Guide available.

Hurricane Dancers

Age Level: 12-14

"Young Quebrado's name means 'the broken one,' a child 'of two shattered worlds.' The son of a Taíno Indian mother and a Spanish father, he is taken in 1510 from his village on the island that is present-day Cuba and enslaved on a pirate's ship, where a brutal conquistador, responsible for thousands of deaths throughout the Americas, is held captive for ransom. When a hurricane destroys the boat, Quebrado is pulled from the water by a fisherman, Naridó, whose village welcomes him, but escape from the past proves nearly impossible." — Gillian Engberg, Booklist

Inside Out and Back Again

Age Level: 9-12

Shortly before the fall of Saigon in 1975, Hà's family flees war-torn Vietnam. When they arrive in Alabama more than 3 months later as refugees, they struggle to adapt to a new life. Yet slowly Hà and her family begin to find their way, making friends in unexpected places and helping each other survive. Based on the childhood experiences of the author, this compelling novel won the 2011 National Book Award for Young People's Literature.

Letters from Rifka

Age Level: 9-12
Product Description: Rifka knows nothing about America when she flees from Russia with her family in 1919. But she dreams she will at last be safe from the Russian soldiers and their harsh treatment of the Jews in the new country. Throughout her journey, Rifka carries with her a cherished volume of poetry by Alexander Pushkin. In it, she records her observations and experiences in the form of letters to her beloved cousin she has left behind. Strong-hearted and determined, Rifka must endure a great deal; but even if she does make it to America, she's not sure America will have her.

Serafina's Promise

Age Level: 9-12

11-year-old Serafina lives in the rural mountains of Haiti, helping her mother and grandmother with chores and hauling water up to the house each day. Secretly, however, Serafina wishes to go to school and become a doctor. Yet when the rains wash away their house and the 2010 earthquake strikes in Port-au-Prince, where her father works, the possibility of attending school seem even more tenuous — but Serafina isn't ready to give her dreams up yet. Ann Burg's lyrical, award-winning story is told in free verse with Haitian proverbs and French and Creole phrases woven throughout.

Something about America

Age Level: 12-14

Product Description: The thirteen-year-old from Kosova thinks of herself as a typical American schoolgirl. But for her parents, moving to Maine was just a sad necessity, a way to escape from war and find medical care for a daughter scarred up to her chin. But then a hateful event changes everything — forcing residents old and new to reexamine what it means to be an American.

The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette's Journey to Cuba

Age Level: 12-14

Meet Fredrika Bremer, a Swedish suffragette who traveled the world and visited Cuba in 1851. Where other visitors might have been most interested in basking in the luxury of plantation owners, Fredrika sets out to learn about the slaves, free blacks, and poor whites, documenting her experiences in letters and diaries. Margarita Engle has transformed those writings into an intriguing novel written in verse with special attention paid to Cecilia, Fredika's bright young translator, as well as the overlapping struggles to end slavery and expand women's rights. Pura Belpré Honor Award.

The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba's Greatest Abolitionist

Age Level: 12-14

Opposing slavery in Cuba in the nineteenth century was dangerous. The most daring abolitionists were poets who veiled their work in metaphor. Of these, the boldest was Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, nicknamed Tula. In passionate, accessible free verse, Engle evokes the voice of this book-loving feminist and abolitionist who bravely resisted an arranged marriage at the age of fourteen and was ultimately courageous enough to fight against injustice. Historical notes, excerpts, and source notes round out this exceptional tribute.

The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom

Age Level: 14-16

Winner of the Pura Belpré Award and a Newbery Honor Book, The Surrender Tree tells the haunting story of Rosa, a freed Cuban slave at the time of Cuba's third War of Independence from Spain. Rather than enjoy her freedom, she hides in the forest in order to tend the wounded with wild plants. Written in verse, Rosa's vivid description of the healing plants and tragedies of war will mesmerize readers long after they turn the final page. Bilingual edition available.

The Wild Book

Age Level: 9-12

Product Description: Fefa struggles with words. She has word blindness, or dyslexia, and the doctor says she will never read or write. Every time she tries, the letters jumble and spill off the page, leaping and hopping away like bullfrogs. But her mother has an idea. She gives Fefa a blank book filled with clean white pages. "Think of it as a garden," she says. Soon Fefa starts to sprinkle words across the pages of her wild book. She lets her words sprout like seedlings, shaky at first, then growing stronger and surer with each new day.

Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba

Illustrated by: Raúl Colón
Age Level: 12-14

Product Description: Daniel has escaped Nazi Germany with nothing but a desperate dream that he might one day find his parents again. But that golden land called New York has turned away his ship full of refugees, and Daniel finds himself in Cuba. As the tropical island begins to work its magic on him, the young refugee befriends a local girl with some painful secrets of her own. Yet even in Cuba, the Nazi darkness is never far away.

Under the Mesquite

Age Level: 12-14

The oldest of eight siblings in her Mexican American family, Lupita is a talented actress and gifted writer. As she wonders what world she belongs in — across the border, taking her dying mother's place, or building a life of her own — she tells her story in verse, offering intimate access to the daily lives and conversation of family and friends and an outpouring of her innermost thoughts as she tries to find and establish her own identity. 2012 Pura Belpré Award Winner.

Who Will Tell My Brother?

Age Level: 14-16

Product Description: Determined to sway high school officials to remove disparaging Indian mascots, Evan assumes a struggle that spirals him onto a soul-searching journey and exposes him to a barrage of bullying and escalating violence. Marlene Carvell's free-verse novel is a timely look at a true story of a mixed-race teen caught up in an exploration of his past, his culture, and his identity.