8 Young Adult Novels in Verse that Brought Me Back to Life in 2020

Whether you're shopping for a young person or just looking to soothe your own soul, these poetic works provide

Photo by Mohamed Nohasi

I have picked up the same book five times this year to read the first 30 pages. I always stop at 30. In between attempts, I have ordered more books to add to my already bulging bookcase. The bookcase, one of the few things I have left from my mother, has taunted me all year—“there are no parties, no flights to catch. You work right here. What are you waiting for? Read something.” So I tried. Every other week, I picked up a book and prayed to fall in love with words the way I used to before the virus came, hoping to do what I’ve always done—to outrun my anxiety by diving into sentences and plots on pages. Yet, I, like many other voracious readers, haven’t been able to concentrate on anything but the virus, our inept administration, and hoping that it will all be over soon. Unable to carry the complexity of sentences along with the weight of 2020, I turned to young adult novels written in verse. These books—full of dreams, young love, heartbreak, and growth—reminded of what has been and what can be.

and in short 
I caught my breath
and used the white space around
Black words
to learn to feel again.

This year has taken more from us than it deserved. Here are eight YA novels in verse to hold our grief of 2020 and fuel our dreams of what comes next. May they be our guide for breathing, dreaming, and loving as deeply as possible as we close out this year.

Long Way Down

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

This ain’t the year for sugarcoating the truth. Jason Reynolds’s 2017 novel, Long Way Down, gives it to us in heart-wrenching verse that demands we pay attention—not only to the story, but also to our own truth. Readers spend the novel on an elevator ride full of grief, memories, love, and possibility with the protagonist, Will. A story that addresses the complexities of family, loyalty, and violence, Long Way Down is a meditation in duty and love in its rawest forms. Often, Reynolds’ truth is a gut-punch (especially in this year): “People always love people more when they are dead.” A book of promises, regrets, and “I love yous” that reads like a part-diary, part-family reunion, Long Way Down stares you down and dares you to deal with your loss, isolation, and grief of 2020. 

Every Body Looking by Candice Iloh

Every Body Looking by Candice Iloh 

“I’m just happy we’re both here / alive,” Candice Iloh writes in the first pages of Every Body Looking, and we’ve never felt more seen in 2020. A coming-of-age tale of Ada, a Nigerian-American college freshman and aspiring dancer, Every Body Looking is a stunning debut from the brilliant Iloh. Like so many great coming-of-age novels, Iloh peppers Ada’s college experience with glimpses of her past complicated by family division, race, gender, sexuality, and faith. With verse that explores the joy and struggle of living in the in-betweenness of growing up, Iloh presents us with a familiar discomfort—the pain/pleasure of becoming our best selves. In some ways, Iloh’s Ada is all of us this year—longing for understanding, thirsting for freedom, and needing love more than we would like to admit. 

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

I don’t remember where I was when I heard about Covid-19, when I learned that life would never be the same. Nine months later, I am still trying to reconcile with this new normal of grief and isolation. In her highly-lauded sophomore release, Clap When You Land, Elizabeth Acevedo tells us we’re never prepared for these moments,“When you learn news like this, there is only /       falling.” In many ways, we’ve been falling since March. Clap When You Land won’t break your fall, but Acevedo’s poetry will hold your hand, reminding you you’re not alone. In this gripping story about the messiness of family, death, and love, Acevedo chronicles the lives of two sisters, Yahaira and Camino, as they grieve and connect following the tragic death of their father. Acevedo’s verse reads like a dope NYC cipher—brilliant, unorthodox, and beautiful; it is the fire we need to keep us warm this winter. Like her previous bestseller, The Poet X, this novel honors the nuances and beauty of Dominican-American culture, slaps with its authenticity and richness; and makes you long for the beat to drop (and never stop). 

The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta 

Dean Atta’s The Black Flamingo is just as exquisite as its namesake. As far as 2020 young adult novels go, there are no pages more graceful and unapologetically queer than Atta’s novel from across the pond. I’ve been raving about it since I first put it down. Widely celebrated British poet, Atta offers a “queer and here” portrait of Michael, a young Jamaican-Greek Cypriot gay protagonist living in Britain. I dare you to try finishing this book without wanting to blast Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé’s “Feeling Myself.” Atta’s poetry of Michael’s triumph makes us all feel more alive. In a year plagued with hate, trauma, and doubt, The Black Flamingo is a prescription of self-love, pride, and joy. In “What It’s Like to Be a Black Drag Artist,” Atta writes, “it’s reviving your history. It’s surviving / the present. It’s devising the future.” Most of us will never be a Black drag artist like Michael, but perhaps we could channel just a bit of his fierceness as we enter a new year. 

Enchanted Air

Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings by Margarita Engle

If we can’t travel right now, reading Margarita Engle’s Enchanted Air might be the next best thing. In Engle’s breathtaking memoir of growing up as the daughter of a white American father and Cuban mother during the Cold War, the whimsical and truthful meet to create a magical retelling of a childhood full of dreams, heartbreak, and the search for belonging between two worlds. The tropical air rises to your face when Engle writes of the memories and dreams of Cuba, a place where “ordinary people do impossible things.” Her story is a first-class ticket to traveling backwards to our memories and forward to our next adventure. Despite the pain of war, family separation, and confusion that plague Engle’s childhood narrative, she leaves us with a declaration of hope: “All I know about the future is that it will be beautiful.” I think we could all use a little hope for a beautiful future these days. 

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

“Somewhere in my brain / each laugh, tear and lullaby / becomes memory,” Jacqueline Woodson writes in Brown Girl Dreaming, a lyrical novel in which she gifts readers her memories and so much more. Published in 2015, the biographical novel chronicles Woodson’s adolescent years. At its core, Brown Girl Dreaming is an invitation. Woodson takes us home to meet her people, to show up the place, events, and family that molded her into who she is today. Through her poems, Woodson illuminates the impact of race, class, and geography on her growth and dreaming as a young Black girl. When we arrive to the end of her beautiful verse, we’re family and dreamers alike. In this novel of both homegoing and looking forward, I sought the answers to my own making. Reading good books while the world is on fire does that; they make you wonder how you started just as you think you might be ending. 

A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman

A Time To Dance by Padma Venkatraman

Most days, I don’t want to get out of bed (much less dance) but that changed when I picked up Padma Venkatraman’s A Time to Dance, a book that makes readers want to twirl, spin, and shimmy across dance floors (or at least across our living rooms for now). Released in 2016, A Time to Dance is a mesmerizing lyrical tale of rebirth, love, and hope in the life of Veda, a classically-trained Bharatanatyam dancer struggling to rebound following a tragic accident. Set in India, Venkatraman’s verse beautifully weaves themes of spirituality, friendship, and perseverance to gift us some hope in a year with much too little of it. Venkatraman reminds us there are three kinds of love, “A healthy love of one’s physical self / compassion for others, / and an experience of God.” As we close out 2020, Venkatraman’s reminder makes the case for giving ourselves (and those around us) a bit more grace.

Tofu Quilt: Russell, Ching: 9781620143544: Amazon.com: Books

Tofu Quilt by Ching Yeung Russell

There is nothing we can’t do and Russell Tofu Quilt doesn’t let us forget it. In this short memoir of her youth in Hong Kong, Ching Yeung Russell tells the story of finding her passion despite the odds stacked against her as a girl in a male-dominant society. She masterfully pairs snapshots of daily life with childlike reflections on dreaming, reading, and writing herself into existence. Make no mistake—this isn’t a young girl’s feminist manifesto. Instead what Russell offers is an inspiring self-portrait of a girl who said yes—to daring to do the impossible, to saying yes to her dreams and purpose.  For young Russell, “books are [her] world, / [her] best companion.” Reading Tofu Quilt is like watching your best friend fall in love for the first time; you can’t help but smile and hope for the same. 

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