Young adult books and poetry go together like bacon and grilled cheese, a combination that’s consistently delicious. There are entire YA reads written in verse, like Ellen Hopkins’ Crank series or Cordelia Jensen’s recent novel Skyscraping, giving us wonderfully unique, moving reading experiences.
But not all YA poetry books are simply told in verse. Some feature poetry as part of the story, starring protagonists that are poets or characters that bond over poems. With the paperback release of Meg Wolitzer’s Belzhar just around the corner, we’ve rounded up some great poetry-powered YA reads.
When Reason Breaks, by Cindy L. Rodriguez
An emotional read that discusses mental illness and suicide, When Reason Breaks focuses on two teenagers wrestling with identity: Emily, a seemingly typical smart girl who’s battling depression in secret, and Elizabeth, a Goth girl fighting with anger issues. The two seemingly mismatched girls connect over the poetry of Emily Dickinson, and with her words, try to find a way to move on. It’s a gripping, diverse contemporary novel that’ll have you looking up Dickinson poems as you’re reading along.
Nobody’s Secret, by Michaela MacColl
You can’t spotlight When Reason Breaks and not mention Nobody’s Secret. I think you get sent to book jail for that. A fun piece of YA historical fiction, Nobody’s Secret features Emily Dickinson as the protagonist. Young Emily falls in love with a mysterious boy who won’t give her his name…then turns up dead in her family’s pond. Emily turns detective, trying to unearth the mystery of the boy before he gets buried in an unmarked grave. She refers to the boy as Nobody, making the novel one awesome reference to Dickinson’s celebrated poem, I’m Nobody, Who Are You?
Belzhar, by Meg Wolitzer
Jam Gallahue’s boyfriend, a foreign exchange student from the UK named Reeve, dies just over a month into their relationship, and she’s so broken over it that she gets sent to The Wooden Barn, a Vermont boarding school, to recover. It’s her, that she’s introduced to the words of Sylvia Plath, in a special topics English class that focuses on the work of one writer each session. Through poetry and journaling, Jam finds her way to Belzhar, a mystical portal to a time when things were much better. YA contemporary with a dash of magical realism? Yes, please.
Paper Towns, by John Green
Feels timely, what with the movie out, right? Walt Whitman plays a big role in John Green’s road trip novel. In Paper Towns, we meet Quentin, a boy who’s been smitten with Margo, the girl next door, since forever. When they surprisingly connect for one wild night, and she vanishes the next day, he has to follow a series of odd clues to find his way to her. One of them happens to be a poem from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass collection, “Song of Myself.” It’s a quick reference, but an important one.
The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy, by Kate Hattemer
First of all, I will never get tired of this book’s title. Or this book. In Hattemer’s wonderful debut, a group of friends make moves to take down a reality show filming at their art school. Having read Ezra Pound in their English class, the gang pens a vigilante poem that gets dished out around the school, explaining why the show is so terrible…and then one of their own gets pulled into the show. It’s a fun, wonderfully literary read, where poetry is discussed frequently and Ezra Pound is quoted plenty. There’s corruption in the school, and it’s up to poetry to save it.