By Edd Tello
I admit that there was a time I did not know what a novel in verse was. It wasn’t until late 2019 while reviewing author Lexi Bruce’s book, More Than Anger from West 44 Books, that I first heard about this type of storytelling. Later, I would end up writing two verse novels, Only Pieces and No Place for Fairy Tales, for the same publisher.
A novel in verse is a story told through the format of poetry instead of prose. Before National Poetry Month ends, I’ve put together a list of six books in which the main characters struggle with issues based on their sexual orientation, sexual identity, race, religion, or cultural beliefs. These verse novels are written honestly and authentically, and they have impacted me in a certain way.
- To Be Maya by Claudia Recinos Seldeen (West 44 Books, 2022)
To Be Maya snapped me out of my reading slump this month! Maya is caught between two worlds: home and school. At home, where she was raised by her Guatemalan single mother who remains tied to her traditions. At school, where Josh Williams, a lacrosse player, suddenly expresses interest in Maya. Although she’s excited to finally go on a date with him, her mother refuses to give in. Will Maya be able to confront the truth about her feelings with her mom before Josh decides to turn the page?
To Be Maya is a novel that can be read in one sitting, not only because of its length, but also because it is loaded with powerful and impressive lines; a journey of traditions, identity, and cultural racism.
- The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (Quill Tree Books, 2018)
With her changing body, her complicated family, and her feelings for a boy in her bio class, Xiomara feels she has a lot to say. But if her devoutly Catholic mother has taught her anything, it’s that her thoughts on her are best kept to herself. When Xiomara joins the school’s slam poetry club, she realizes this is the only place where she feels safe. How can she attend the poetry club without her mom finding out? And, most of all, how can she stay quiet when performing her poems is the only way to be heard?
A poignant and intense story about an Afro-Latina girl struggling with religion, cultural beliefs, and abuse.
- When We Make It by Elisabet Velasquez (Dial Books, 2021)
If you enjoyed reading The Poet X, I highly recommend adding this book to your list. Set in 1990, this powerful story follows Sarai, a first-generation Puerto Rican, who questions the world around her; what makes someone Boricua, and why the newspaper tells only one side of the story of people on the streets. When We Make It tackles themes of street life, family trauma, religion, and poverty, but it is also a beautiful story about embracing culture and being proud of who we are.
- They Call Me Güero: A Border Kid’s Poems by David Bowles (Kokila, 2021)
This book felt like a golpecito to the chest. Twelve-year-old Güero is a bilingual border kid. On Saturdays, he crosses the bridge to Mexico with his dad. On weekdays, he navigates seventh grade with his Bookworm Squad, “Los Bobbys.” Through moving verses, Güero faces new experiences that are humorous and celebrates his identity. But despite being a middle-grade novel, the author explores themes of immigration, racism, bullying, and prejudice, including his nickname Güero, a term in Spanish to refer to boys with pale skin.
- The Moon Within by Aida Salazar (Scholastic, 2019)
One of my favorite middle-grade verse novels. The Moon Within follows Celi Rivera, an eleven-year-old girl who begins to question her changing body, her new interest in a boy, and her best friend’s exploration of what it means to be genderfluid. But above all, the insistence of Mima, her mother, for Celi to have a moon ceremony when she gets her first period. (“She doesn’t know that the moon // is a dancer to me, not a period.”) And as her mother’s excitement over this ancestral Mexica ritual grows, soon Celi will have to decide whether or not to tell her or keep this to herself. Through startling verses and meaningful lines, Aida Salazar explores themes of friendship, family, gender identity, and culture authentically.
- Only Pieces by Edd Tello (West 44 Books, 2022)
And to conclude this list, my debut novel, Only Pieces!
In this YA novel, we follow Edgar Jimenez, who is conflicted about telling his dad that he identifies as gay since his sexuality clashes with the machismo that is part of his Mexican American culture. And as if that were not enough, Edgar develops an unexpected relationship with a football player from school. Kirkus Reviews called my book “An appealing coming-of-age story that will engage reluctant readers,” and said I infused “some lovely imagery and Mexican folklore into this overall pleasing offering.”
Writing Only Pieces in verse was a difficult decision. First, I wasn’t very familiar with this poetry form and didn’t know how it would go. Second, I wasn’t sure if the story would adapt to being told lyrically. However, having a protagonist who comes out not only as gay but as a poet too in a culture where there is stigma attached to both made the story make sense.
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Edd Tello is the author of the young adult books Only Pieces (2022) and No Place for Fairy Tales (2023) from West 44 Books. Both titles are Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selections. Edd holds a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Seville. Edd will be presenting a panel at the 2023 American Library Association Conference & Exhibition this year.
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