Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Historical Verse Novels...A (Surprisingly?) Great Idea

I'm excited to be hosting Verseday this week!  I've decided to highlight an upcoming verse release I'm really looking forward to, Hideous Love: The Story of the Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein by Stephanie Hemphill, by exploring the idea of historical novels in verse.  You might think historical fiction and verse wouldn't mesh well--verse relies on spare, minimalist writing, while historical works often require lots of detail--but quite a few authors have made brought these two genres together very well!  I'm eager to read Hideous Love, which is about real-life nineteenth-century novelist Mary Shelley, a fascinating female writer in a time when most successful authors were male.  I've read a few non-verse novels about Mary Shelley already, and she had a tumultuous and intriguing life that involved a lot of other important literary figures.  Hopefully you're excited for this book too, but since it won't be out till October, I'm featuring a few of my favorite historical verse novels below!

Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse won the Newbery Medal and is probably one of the most famous historical verse novels, as well as one of the most famous verse novels overall.  One reason verse works so well here is that the book is set in a time of need--the Great Depression--and in a parched and hungry place--the Dust Bowl--and the spare writing reflects the setting very well.  Hesse also dates each poem, which makes them feel almost like photographs, moments caught in time.  This masterfully echoes the Dust Bowl and Depression-era photography that is such a part of American cultural history.  Some of these famous photos are also included in the book.

Hideous Love is actually not Stephanie Hemphill's first historical novel in verse--she also wrote Wicked Girls, about the Salem Witch Trials.  In this book, Hemphill uses the verse form really effectively to capture the voice of young women in the seventeenth century.  Their speech might feel stilted or unwieldy in typical prose form, but in verse, it works.

In the Author's Note at the end of May B., author Caroline Starr Rose mentions her love for Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books--and May B. feels a little bit like Laura Ingalls, in verse form!  The spare verse works very well to evoke the vast, stark Kansas landscape and the loneliness of life on a prairie homestead in the 1800s.  In addition, the main character May B. suffers from dyslexia, a learning disorder which wasn't understood in the 1800s, and the verse effectively captures her sometimes frustrating relationship with language and words.

I hope you found a book here to grab your interest!  There are MANY more historical verse novels--a few which come to mind are Thanhha Lai's Inside Out and Back Again, set during the Vietnam war; Helen Frost's The Braid, set in Scotland during the Highland Clearances; and Stephanie Hemphill's Sisters of Glass, about a family of Venetian glassmakers on the island of Murano.  And many of these books are quick reads, so if you're skeptical about the idea of historical novels in verse..give it a try, you must might be pleasantly surprised!


  1. Purple Daze is an interesting one that is set during the Vietnam War in the USA. Great Post!

  2. Oh, yes, that one is on my to-read list as well!