I have never been in love with novels in verse.
What has made fiction important to me, both reading and writing it, is the way the author can move inside a character, experiencing and revealing the world through that other person’s senses and consciousness. As a reader, inhabiting another human being in that way enlarges my own life, both when I encounter a thought, a feeling, a perception I have never had myself and when I discover my own deepest and most private experience in some stranger.
Verse novels, I have been known to opine, rarely accomplish fiction’s most important task, inhabiting their characters fully. So for years I had no desire to write a novel in verse myself and as a teacher in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA Program in Writing for Children and Young Adults I discouraged my students from working in what I was convinced was a limited and limiting form. “Too often,” I lectured, “poetry novels are neither poetry nor novels.”
Then came the day when I found myself wanting to write another young novella. I had written several, but I was growing frustrated with the short sentences I was necessarily confined to when writing for developing readers and with the limits of language as well. And that was when I had an astonishing idea. What if I wrote my next novel in verse? I wouldn’t limit my vocabulary. I wouldn’t even worry about sentence length. The appealing white space would draw young readers in. The short lines would allow them to tackle the story in manageable gulps. I could write a story that would attract and satisfy a wide range of readers and still have all the stylistic freedom I longed for.
I went to the library and came home with an armful of novels in verse. Some I read and dismissed. Nothing about them made me want to attempt the form. And then I hit one, then two, then more that were different. These verse novels might not be inhabiting character quite in the way I’ve come to expect of fiction. But they did something else. By the end of each verse/chapter they left me with an emotional twist, a tap on the psyche that said “Yes, this is it. This is what it feels like to be human.” Exactly the way a good poem does.
And I was hooked.
“That,” I said to myself, “I can do. And even more important, that’s worth doing!”
How did I move into a medium I’d never attempted before after nearly forty years of writing prose novels? I simply began writing as though the story I had in front of me were a picture book–a form I love–but a long, long picture book. I played with rhythm and sound and language precisely as I do when I’m writing picture books, dipping into my characters gently as I went. At first I was unsure, stumbling, but gradually I grew confident.
And by the time I’d finished the umpteenth draft, I’d had the most fun I’ve ever had writing a novel!
The result, LITTLE DOG, LOST, a verse novel, will come out with Atheneum on May 1st.
And guess what. I’m in love! I’m so in love that I intend to write another of those dreadful verse novels very soon.
It just goes to show that opinions, perhaps especially long-held and sharply voiced opinions, need to come with wings attached so they can fly away when the time is right.
Marion Dane Bauer is the author of many books for young readers, including the Newbery Honor book ON MY HONOR and the New York Times bestseller MY MOTHER IS MINE. Her other titles include A MAMA FOR OWEN, IF YOU WERE BORN A KITTEN, GRANDMOTHER’S SONG, and THANK YOU FOR ME! She has recently retired from the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults, where she was the first Faculty Chair. She lives in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, and can be reached at MarionDaneBauer.com,where you can find a curriculum guide for LITTLE DOG, LOST.