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8+ Beautiful, Contemporary Novels Written in Verse That Make Poetry Accessible

Before you write off all poetry, check these stories out.

Three narrative poetry books. (Image: Quill Tree Books, Knopf, and  Night Rain Press.)

Outside of listening to music, poetry is a difficult medium to approach for many people. (It’s me; I’m many people.) Schools try to prepare us to appreciate poetry, but unless you latch on early and know the references, you can feel very lost. Public projects like Our Poetica (on YouTube) aim to help those interested in poetry by reading short excerpts twice a week. I’ve found the most success in exploring this genre of storytelling through narrative poetry, and for World Poetry Day, I want to help you on the same journey.

LiteraryDevices.Net defines narrative poetry as “A narrative poem which tells a story. It has a full storyline with all the elements of a traditional story. These elements include characters, plot, conflict and resolution, setting, and action. Although a narrative poem does not need a rhyming patter, it is a metered poem with clear objectives to reach a specific audience. These poems have been borrowed from oral poetic narratives from different cultures. Narrative poems include old epics, lays and ballads.”

So, instead of single poems with few lines or verses sharing an idea or emotion, narrative poetry tells a whole story in verse. Often, the structure is looser, too, so it feels familiar, like lyrical prose writing. Here are eight compelling works of narrative poetry writing from the last few years.

Solo by Kwame Alexander with Mary Rand Hess

Solo by Mary Rand Hess with Kwame Alexander. Image: Blink.

The son of an infamous washed-up rockstar struggling with addiction, Blade’s having trouble being seen as his own person by the parents of his girlfriend, Chapel. Except for having money, Blade sees his single father as a hindrance, and that fact is made more apparent after his father drunkenly crashes Blade’s high school graduation speech. The fallout results in a family secret coming to light that could forever change Blade and his father.

This 2019 novel is the second team-up by duo Hess and Alexander. Alexander has many acclaimed books in verse, including Booked and Crossover. In addition to the musical elements of the story, Solo is often cross-listed as YA and Middle Grade, which might make it even more approachable.

Red Riding Hood’s Real Life by Lana Hechtman Ayers

Red Riding Hood's Real Life: a novel in verse by Lana Hechtman Ayers. Image: Night Rain Press.
(Night Rain Press)

Ayers’ 2017 novel takes on several folklore tales and sets them in a modern setting to explore girlhood, marriage, infidelity, and more—mainly through the character of Red Riding Hood. This intimate (sometimes erotic) story can be very accessible because many of us are already familiar with this cast of characters and have experienced their adaptations over the years, like Shrek, Hoodwinked, and Fable.

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. Image: Quill Tree
(Quill Tree Books)

Afro-Latina Xiomara Batista lives under her mother’s strict religious rules in their Harlem home and chronicles her feelings about growing up in her leather notebook. This cathartic release turns into an opportunity to participate in a slam poetry competition. When I listened to the audiobook (narrated by the author), I thought the book was just a great story told by a talented voice actress. It wasn’t until I bought a physical copy of this 2018 National Book Award winner (and one of my favorite YA novels) that I realized that I had read poetry. That’s on me, but it is also a testament to how approachable Acevedo’s subject matter and language are.

If you already read The Poet X, try Clap When You Land but pick up the audiobook. This novel had mixed reviews, and it seems to stem from the fact that Acevedo initially wrote it from one character’s perspective instead of two. This issue is much less apparent in audiobook form.

The Long Take, or A Way to Lose More Slowly by Robin Robertson

The Long Take, or A Way to Lose More Slowly by Robin Robertson. Image: Knopf.

Often just referred to as The Long Take, Scottish poet Robin Robertson shares the life of a WW2 veteran returning to civilian life. The 2018 noir novel follows the Canadian veteran as he treks through three major American cities (New York, San Francisco, and Los Angelos) and touches the lives of other veterans struggling at home after the war with issues of displacement, poverty, racism, and more.

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds. Image: Atheneum Books.
(Atheneum Books)

I really debated whether or not to include this 2019 book, considering it’s so famous and this list was already 50% YA, but I’m doing it for the one person reading this who doesn’t know about Jason Reynolds’ Long Way Down. After learning of his brother’s (Shawn) death due to gang crime, 15-year-old Will knows that he cannot go to the police but must avenge his brother. Starting on the seventh floor, Will takes an elevator down and is met on each floor by a person connected to his brother or those ravaged by gun violence. Will must decide if he will stand up for his brother or continue this cycle of violence.

Abacus of Loss by Sholeh Wolpé

Abacus of Loss: A Memoir in Verse by Sholeh Wolpé. Image: University of Arkansas Press.

In her 2022 memoir, the Iranian-American poet and playwright uses the concept of one of the earliest counting devices (an abacus) to recount her time abroad. In addition to traveling as an artist, Wolpé grew up in Tehran (Iran) and spent her teenage years in Trinidad and Britain before stopping in America. Though she’s tallying her—and our—collective losses (personally, culturally, and globally), Wolpé also expresses deep thankfulness for what we still have left.

Me (Moth) by Amber McBride

Me (Moth) by Amber McBride. Image: Feiwel & Friends.
(Feiwel & Friends)

After many immediate family members die in an accident, Moth’s aunt takes her in. While grieving in her new home, Moth meets a boy dealing with mental health issues, named Sani. Sani searches for his roots in hopes that he can understand his current issues with depression. Together, they take a road trip searching for their past and ancestors’ ghosts. McBride’s debut novel earned a spot as a finalist for the 2021 National Book Award in Young People’s Literature.

(image: Quill Tree Books, Knopf, and Night Rain Press)

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(she/her) Award-winning digital artist and blogger with experience and an educational background in graphic design, art history, and museum studies. A resident of the yeeHaw land, she spends most of her time watching movies, playing video games, and reading.