Poetry is an art form close to my heart. I discovered poets like Shel Silverstein, Jack Prelutsky, and Bruce Lansky in early elementary school, and devoured children’s poetry collections. By the time I was ten, I was writing poetry of my own, my first real foray into creative writing. Poetry allowed me to express so many things that I was too shy to say, and in any way that I wanted to say it. While I don’t write poetry as much as I used to, I still love this artistic form.
April is National Poetry Month, so the non-fiction books are all about writing. The fiction section – in honor of National Poetry Month – are novels in verse (or mostly in verse).
Now, the usual disclaimer. I am a youth librarian, which means I’m most familiar with books written for young people. This means you’ll see a lot of YA and juvenile books on these lists. If you’re an adult looking for something good to read, don’t feel bad or embarrassed about reading youth books. Juvenile and YA books deal with themes and ideas that are applicable to all ages, even if the text isn’t as challenging as books written for adults. And there’s no age limit on good stories.
I also want to remind everyone that not every book will appeal to everyone. You may hate a book that I love, and that’s okay. Not liking a book doesn’t mean that the book is bad, it just means that you don’t like it. I’ll try to appeal to a wide range of interests, but I don’t expect for you to love or even be interested in everything on this list. There’s a reader for every book, and every book has a reader. I’d love to help readers and books find each other!
Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway
There are a plethora of books that offer writing advice, but the simply titled Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway is my favorite. Each chapter takes you through a different aspect of fiction writing, be it description, plotting, dialogue, characterization, or setting. Every chapter ends with a few short stories that exemplify that chapter’s subject, along with writing exercises to challenge and inspire you. Burroway’s writing style is engaging and she understands well the angst of writing and the fear of the blank page. This is far and away the most useful book on creative writing I’ve ever used. If you’ve ever wanted to take a creative writing class, but can’t seem to fit it into your schedule or your budget, this book is the next best thing.
Putting the Fact in Fantasy edited by Dan Koboldt
Putting the Science in Fiction edited by Dan Koboldt
Most fantasy and sci-fi writers haven’t actually led a cavalry charge against the wicked king or traveled through a wormhole to a new dimension. We might not even know how to ride a horse, or have an understanding of physics beyond Newton’s laws of motion. This is where the research begins. Putting the Fact in Fantasy and Putting the Science in Fiction are collections of essays written by experts to help you bring more accuracy and realism to fantastical worlds. Fact in Fantasy includes essays about history, language, culture, and other survival and adventuring tips (My favorite is “Historically accurate ways to die”). Among other topics, Science in Fiction discusses technology, medicine, robots, space, and the far future. While you’re not going to be an expert, each essay provides a starting point for research, usually with a list of resources that you can use for further research. All writers make mistakes. The goal isn’t to be perfect. It’s to be a little less wrong.
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott shares the painful secret to writing that every writer should know: that there is no secret to writing. There’s no magic spell or secret formula for churning out best seller after best seller. The only thing you can do is to sit down, day after day, and write authentically. With humor and personal anecdotes, Lamott tackles characterization, plot, dialogue, and “shitty first drafts.” She also explains how she deals with her own self-doubt, writer’s block, professional jealousy, and learning discipline – things most writers deal with. While this book is intended for novices, there are many gems even seasoned writers can take away from each fantastic and funny chapter. I often turn to my favorite chapter, “Shitty First Drafts” when I’m frustrated with my work. It always gives me a boost and gets my butt back in the chair, working on that writing habit.
The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms by Mark Strand
The Making of a Poem is more than an anthology. Each chapter is dedicated to a different poetic form, from ballads and sonnets to haiku and free verse. The chapters begin with an overview of the form, followed by a brief history, such as the sonnet’s Italian roots and its evolution to Shakespeare’s work. Poems in each chapter feature both “classic” poems, as well as works from contemporary, 20th century poets. Finally, chapters close on an analysis of one of the poems in the chapter, alongside a brief biography of its author. The information and analyses are interesting without being overwhelming, making this great introduction to poetic techniques.
How to Tell a Story: The Essential Guide to Storytelling from The Moth by Meg Bowles, Catherine Burns, Jenifer Hixson, Sarah Autin Jenness, and Kate Tellers
From astronauts to grandmothers, comedians and that guy sitting next you, everyone has a story. Perhaps no one understands this better than the directors of The Moth, a non-profit ground dedicated to the art of storytelling. You may be familiar with The Moth Radio Hour, in which participants tell true, personal stories of their lives. Some famous Moth storytellers include Neil Gaiman and Elizabeth Gilbert, but people from all walks of life are invited to share their stories on the Moth stage. How to Tell a Story is a guide to help you find stories from your own life, and learn to tell them with aplomb. Those of us who aren’t as keen on public storytelling will still find How to Tell a Story loaded with helpful advice for speaking with confidence, alongside strategies for toasts, eulogies, business presentations and even job interviews. The book is also interspersed with stories from The Moth storytelling programs, including stories from comedian Mike Birbiglia and actor and writer Hasan Minhaj.
Shark Girl by Kelly Bingham
Jane Arroway’s life was normal: homework, chores, friends, the occasional trip to the beach. But during an otherwise normal day at the beach, Jane is attacked by a shark. Jane survives the attack, but her right arm is amputated just above the elbow. Her story is broadcast on nation-wide news, and Jane knows that she’s going to be “shark girl” forever. Jane doesn’t want to be famous, and she certainly doesn’t want to be told that she’s “so strong” or “inspirational.” What she wants are all the things she’s lost: her artistic talent, cooking for her family, and not being stared at when she goes to the grocery store. Jane grieves for the things she’s lost and all the ways her life has changed. Gradually, Jane adapts to her new life, and starts planning a future that she thought she’d lost. Come for the shark attack, stay for the character growth.
The Things She’s Seen by Ambelin and Ezekiel Kwaymullina
Alternative Title: Catching, Teller, Crow
Beth Teller is dead, but she’s not going anywhere. Instead, she’s sticking close to her dad, an Australian detective. He’s the only one who can see or hear Beth, or so she thinks. His grief has made him withdraw from the rest of his family, and Beth’s determined to stay at his side. When he’s sent to a remote town to investigate a mysterious fire, Beth tags along, wanting to help her dad solve the case. Their only witness is a girl who goes by Catching…who can see and talk to Beth. Enigmatic Catching speaks in cryptic verse, talking about “Snatchers” and stolen colors. Beth and her father must decode Catching’s story as they investigate, and reveal hidden truths about this quaint Australian town. The novel, starring Aboriginal girls and written by two Aboriginal authors, reflects on grief, friendship, and the effects of colonialism in Australia.
Red, White, and Whole by Rajani LaRocca
It’s 1983, and Reha wants the same things that all middle-schoolers want: to wear fashionable clothes to birthday parties instead of the dresses her mother makes her, to go to the school dance, to watch MTV and wear lip gloss. What she wants, most of all, is to fit in. But as the only Indian-American in her school, fitting in seems about as out of her grasp as the stars she’s named for. She often feels like she has two lives, and is frustrated by her immigrant parents trying to replace her American values and habits with their Indian ones. When Reha’s mother becomes seriously ill, both of her lives come together to support Reha and her family. The poetry shines with metaphors, and the layered, evolving relationship Reha has with her parents feels authentic and relatable.
D-39: A Robodog’s Journey by Irene Latham
This isn’t your typical “a girl and her dog” story. The girl lives in a war-torn dystopia, and the dog is a robot. Twelve-year-old Klynt lives with her father on their farm in the midst of a civil war. With schools closed due to the war, Klynt has only her father and six-year-old neighbor Jopa for company. Then D-39 arrives on the farm. D-39 is a robot dog, or “robo” for short, and the only kind of dog left in the Worselands. It’s thought that all real dogs were eradicated after the onset of BrkX plague, carried by dogs, but Klynt knows better. Her mother left years ago to start the K-9 Corridor that helps bring real dogs to safety. Though no one has heard from her mother in years, Klynt believes that she’s still running the K-9 Corridor in the Wilds. Klynt has D-39 for company, bringing her companionship and joy during a time of fear. After the war reaches her home and bombardment destroys the farm, Klynt and Jopa are separated from their families. Klynt, Jopa, and D-39 set out on a treacherous journey to the Wilds to find their families, and a new home. I debated about including this book for this month’s list, as it’s written in prose poetry rather than traditional verse. But it’s a compelling and atmospheric adventure story, with a bit of whimsy, that will keep you turning pages.
The Snow Fell Three Graves Deep by Allan Wolf
The Donner Party was perhaps the most infamous group of pioneers to travel to California. Snowbound and trapped in the Sierra Nevada mountains, the surviving members of the group resorted to cannibalism to keep themselves alive. While it’s certainly a fascinating – and horrifying – part of their story, it was not the only trouble they faced. The Snow Fell Three Graves Deep gives voice to these misguided pioneers, whose decisions led to disaster. The book is narrated by Hunger, which stalked the Donner’s wagons long before they reached the Sierras. Members of the Donner Party also tell their own stories in evocative verse: Young Patty Reed; George Donner’s wife, Tamzene; the Miwok Guides who tried to lead the Donners through the mountains; even the oxen, pulling their heavy loads. The book is historical fiction, with an incredible amount of research behind each word. The real-life people the book is based on are portrayed with respect and sympathy, and invite us to re-think our judgements of the Donner Party. Author’s notes in the back give select biographies of some of the real-life characters, notes about the decisions and creative liberties he took in writing the book, much more information on the real Donner Party, and resources for those hungry to learn more. Pun intended.