Writing a Verse Novel: An Interview with Laura Shovan (Part II)

Welcome to Part II of my interview with Laura Shovan, author of The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary. Yesterday, this interview focused on the differences between prose and verse novels and getting started. Today, we’re going to focus more on poetic tools and techniques.

What are some of your favorite poetic tools?

Studying and learning from other poets. I love using Kay Ryan’s poems as a model. Her language is so economical, smart, and funny.

How do you know how to split up the lines of your free verse?

I spend a lot of my revision time on line breaks. Reading a poem aloud helps.

I’ve heard verse novelists talk about revising the “shape” of their poems. And I didn’t understand it until I started writing in verse. How do you revise the shape of your poems? Or, how do you decide to use an actual shape poem?

This is related to your previous question. When I’m revising, I’ll often try a poem out with long lines, then short lines. I’ll see what it looks like in tercets, then unrhymed quatrains. It’s trial and error until I find a balance between form and words that feels right for the poem.

Do you feel like verse novels have a little bit more leeway with plot structures?

I feel like novels written in poems don’t have to fill every space on the page with information. When the reader finishes a poem and turns the page to read the next one, I trust that she is going to make connections between the two texts. I love this dynamic! There are discoveries hidden or suggested in the poems for the reader to find and carry forward as the story moves along.

How do you handle dialogue in a verse novel? What are some of the favorite ways you’ve seen in other verse novels?

Three common options are: Use quotation marks as you would in prose. Italicize dialogue spoken by another character (who is not the speaker of the poem). Create a right-hand column of verse text for words spoken by the other character.

Transitioning between scenes or periods of time or setting is tricky in a verse novel. What are some ways you’ve done this?

This is where the title of a poem is your friend. Let’s say there is information you have to communicate, such as a new setting or a jump in time, but putting it in the text of the poem weighs the verse down. Put that information in the title. For instance, title the poem, “At Grandma’s House” or “Vacation is Over” and go on from there.

This is a great technique for poetry in general. Titles can do so many things! Create tension, set a tone, or communicate an important piece of information.

When I first started writing verse, someone told me to make use of “the white space.” Can you talk about what that means and how you do it?

That’s a complicated question. My guess is that the person who told you this wanted you to think about the page differently – not as something to be filled up with words, but as a visual, as well as a literary experience.

When I write for children, I’m aware that one function of white space on the page is to chunk information. “Chunking” is used in the elementary school classroom to break up information, so that it’s less overwhelming for students (especially those who have visual or language based learning differences). The stanzas of the poem work in much the same way, breaking up phrases and images with white space, so a young reader can absorb the poem a piece at a time. I think this is one reason why poetry is popular with emerging readers.

In your book, you had many different characters and each had their own voice. I was so impressed by that. How is voice different in verse than in prose? How do you nail it?

Thank you, Amanda. Personally, I find it easier to create a spare voice in a poem. In prose, my middle grade characters are very chatty and tend to over-share, at least in early drafts.

In your book, you used several different kinds of poems. What makes you decide what kind of poem to use? Do you use a certain style for only certain times?

The form of the poem is intentional. My favorite example of this in THE LAST FIFTH GRADE is the three sonnets. All three poems happen when one of the characters is feeling boxed in by the expectations of his or her peers. The strict rules of a sonnet reflect the constraint that the characters are feeling in those moments.

What is the importance of poetry in a child’s life?

In addition to the chunking mentioned above, I’ve seen how positively children respond to poetry’s playfulness with language. When we read and write poetry together, we’re showing children that they can be intentional with language. Poetry asks us to slow down and think carefully about what we say. The words we choose to use matter, not only in writing, but in how we speak to others as well.

Poetry is also a safe place to express hurt, grief, and love. I wrote about the importance of poetry in children’s emotional lives for the Baltimore Sun this spring. You can find the op-ed here: http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/opinion/oped/bs-ed-pocket-poem-20160421-story.html


Thank you so much to Laura Shovan for answering all my questions. If you want to win a copy of The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary then comment with a line from your favorite poem to enter the drawing. And be sure to comment on yesterday’s post to be entered twice!

7 thoughts on “Writing a Verse Novel: An Interview with Laura Shovan (Part II)”

  1. I love this whole interview! Favorite line from a poem:

    “Not marble nor the gilded monuments of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme.”

    From Sonnet 55 by William Shakespeare. When I was an active member of the Wellesley Shakespeare Society this was my sonnet family. I think sonnet 55 draws on the immense power of language and legacy through words.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank YOU Amanda Rawson Hill. Figuring just how to write a verse novel is something I’ve been plugging away at. It’s challenging and fun for a poet at the same time. This interview gets at specifics that I haven’t seen in other articles. Thank you so much! I’m saving this to re-read when I get stuck or think “I just can’t do this!”


  3. Thanks for the interview, Amanda. Laura’s book was great and that’s coming from someone who doesn’t normally read verse novels.

    One of my favorites from the Lord of the Rings:

    “The Road goes ever on and on,
    Down from the door where it began.”
    (from The Fellowship of the Ring, “The Road Goes Ever On and On”)


  4. Laura, I heart you. Thanks Amanda for having Laura over. I would have to say the one line for me will forever be: The fog comes/on little cat feet. WOW. Pacing and character and mood in seven words. Sandburg was a master.


  5. Wonderful interview Amanda. Learning about verse has opened my eyes to a whole new reading experience. I’m so excited to read and SEE The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary.

    I’m going to be the weird one and list a line from Shel Silverstein’s Poem LADIES FIRST. Not necessarily because it’s my favorite, but that it stuck with me since childhood.

    As he tried to decide who’d be first in the pan-
    From back of the line, in that shrill voice of hers,
    Pamela Purse yelled, “Ladies first.”


  6. What a fantastic interview! But I must admit, my brain is hurting a bit. I have so much to learn.

    John Donne’s Ecstasy

    Where, like a pillow on a bed
    A pregnant bank swell’d up to rest
    The violet’s reclining head,
    Sat we two, one another’s best.


  7. Ooh, ooh, I already have a copy of this wonderful book, so don’t include me in the drawing, but I loved reading the interview, and I’ll share the beginning of a favorite poem. From Billy Collins’ The Revenant:

    I am the dog you put to sleep,
    as you like to call the needle of oblivion,
    come back to tell you this simple thing:
    I never liked you – not one bit.


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