Blending genres: novels in verse for adolescents.

Author:Winship, Michele


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...

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