Book Reviews

Celebrate Poetry Month With Diverse Middle Grade Books in Verse

Let’s see, Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson received:

  • 2015 John Newbery Medal Honor
  • 2015 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work – Youth/Teens
  • 2014 National Book Award Winner, Young People’s Literature
  • 2015 Coretta Scott King Book Award

I am sure I am missing a few but after picking up the ARC at 2014’s BEA, I knew I had something special in my hands. After reading it last year, I realized that as a child I missed out on poetry and novels in verse. Aside from the likes of Shel Silverstein, Jack Prelutsky and Dr. Seuss, I can’t remember any books recommended to me without using nonsensical verse. Meaningful, diverse and “meatier” poetry as a child just didn’t cross my path.

Maybe that is why I shied away from it as a teen and young adult. Even now, I don’t find myself reading, enjoying or sometimes even understanding poetry and I find that terribly sad.

It’s National Poetry Month in April and I wanted to find other books like Brown Girl Dreaming to read, recommend and share. After searching, scouring the shelves and asking co-workers and kids, I came up with these middle grade reads (some maybe more suitable for YA) and trust me…there are tons more out there. The only problem I’ve had this month is fighting over the books with my daughters to share them. They are equally excited and engaged. (Titles link to Goodreads for full synopsis)

middle grade poetry

How I Discovered Poetry – Marilyn Nelson, illustrated by Hadley Hooper (2014) 112 p. Ages 11 and up. Grades 6 and up.

Marilyn Nelson tells her personal memoir as a child from age 4-14 during the 1950s while constantly moving around the states as a military family. As she navigates the changes of racism, Civil Rights, segregation, integration and on the cusp of the feminist movement, so does her voice in these 50 unrhymed sonnets using iambic pentameter (10 syllables per line). The reader will take away such positive resilience from Nelson and her family during this tumultuous time.

Inside Out & Back Again – Thanhha Lai (2011) 272 p. Ages 10 and up. Grades 4 and up.

This Newbery Honor Book and winner of the National Book Award is inspired by real events that happened to the author. Hà and her family flee Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon and immigrate to Alabama. You can only imagine her experience, the culture shock and fear, but to read it in verse from a child’s mind is something else.

Serafina’s Promise – Ann E. Burg (2013) 304 p. Ages 10 and up. Grades 4 and up.

Eleven year-old Serafina desperately wants to become a doctor but school costs a lot of money in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Plus she must do all the chores, take care of her mother and find food every day. The relationship with her father is touching and the uplifting optimism she practices will make any reader look at life differently.

“Happy thoughts

soothe aches better

than willow bark and clover.

So while I walk,

I think about tomorrow,

my favorite day.”


Mountain Dog – Margarita Engle (2013) 224 p. Ages 10 and up. Grades 4 and up.

The juxtaposition of cruelty (Tony’s mom is sent to prison for raising Pitbulls to dogfight) and unconditional love (from his uncle’s rescue dog) is powerful. And the illustrations are beautiful.

The Red Pencil – Andrea Davis Pinkney , illustrated by Shane Evans (2014) 336 p. Ages 10 and up. Grades 5 and up.

Hoping to pry this one out of my daughter’s hands in the near future! She says it’s excellent, too.

Amira’s Sudanese village is attacked by the Janjaweed and after the horrifying experience she must find the courage and strength to travel by foot to a refugee camp where the gift of a red pencil changes her life.

Words With Wings – Nikki Grimes (2013) 96 p. Ages 9 and up. Grades 3 and up.

Gabby’s imagination helps her deal with her parent’s volatile arguments and separation. Beautiful and touching. Definitely struck a nerve.

Odette’s Secrets -Maryann Macdonald (2013) 240 p. Ages 10 and up. Grades 4 and up.

One on my list that I hope comes in soon at the library.

Inspired by the life of the real Odette Meyers. She is a young Jewish girl living in Paris but sent to the country when Nazis invade. Her father is sent to war and her mother joins the Resistance. Sounds like The Nightingale from a child’s perspective.

Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War (2013) 160 p. – Helen Frost Ages 10 and up. Grades 4 and up.

This book! 12 year-olds Anikwa and James are trying to sustain their friendship and youthful exploration as boys in Kekionga and Fort Wayne Indiana Territory during 1812. Will their friendship survive as more traders and settlers (like James) invade the tribal region? So much to talk about, digest and dissect with this gorgeously written book. And the poems are written two ways: in the shape of diamonds for Anikwa, symbolizing traditional native art and like an American flag for James.


The Crossover – Kwame Alexander (2014) 237 p. Ages 10 and up. Grades 4 and up.

The 2015 Newbery Medal Winner and the 2015 Coretta Scott King Honor Award Winner! My twelve year-old loved this as did I. So unique and refreshing coming from the voice of a 12 year-old boy whose world centers around basketball, rapping, his twin brother and father who shapes his world. Grab tissues!

Looking For Me – Betsy Rosenthal (2012) 176 p. Ages 10 and up. Grades 5 and up. 

I haven’t read this one yet but it sounds fascinating.

Edith is growing up in 1930s Depression-era Baltimore trying to navigate childhood. It isn’t easy when she is one of twelve children. She has to take care of the younger ones, work at the father’s diner and go to school.

Dreaming In Indian: Contemporary Native American Voices – Edited by Lisa Charleyboy & Mary Beth Letherdale (2014) 128 p. Ages 13 and up. Grades 7 and up. 

More suited for older audiences, (topics cover poverty, abuse, sex, suicide, drugs, racism, death, bullying) this collection of photos, artwork, poetry, essays and stories blew my mind, opened my eyes to the stereotypes portrayed in media and broke my heart into a million pieces. Even though no topic is avoided, the tone is positive and emphasizes success stories. Highly recommend! I’ll leave you with this quote from the end of the book:

“There is a lot of pressure on youth right now, everyone is telling you what you should be doing. Telling your own stories is empowering because self-expression is freedom – a way to find your own voice. And it’s a beautiful moment when you realize the world wants to hear from you. Follow that little seed of interest, and forget about all the ‘shoulds’.”

~Danis Goulet (Cree/Métis) Filmaker

*As always, please use the age/grade guidelines as suggestions. I used Novelist which sources School Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, Booklist (ALA) and Kirkus in their reviews. If not sure if these are suitable for the young person in your life, read it first. 

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