Friday, July 24, 2015

Beyond Prose: Novels in Verse, with author A.L. Sonnichsen

There are so many ways for us to tell our stories.

1st Person, 3rd Person, past tense, present tense. Pictures, or words, or a combination. Graphic novels, split perspectives, unreliable narrators. One of the most important decisions we make when taking on a new project is not just what the story is, or who the characters are within it, but how we tell the story.

And one of the most powerful, challenging, intriguing (and currently hot) ways to tell a middle grade story is through verse. A novel written is verse doesn't follow the rules of paragraph and sentence flows with the freedom of poetry, and it can make for a totally unique and intense reading experience.

I'll never forget the first middle grade novel I read: Love That Dog, by Sharon Creech - a timeless masterpiece that still circulates constantly in my library, fourteen years later. I was blown away by how Creech fired my imagination (and broke my heart) with her spare, spot-on verse. It wasn't just a different way to tell a story, or a new (to me) way, or even a better way...for that story, with that voice, it was the best way. It was perfect, and it gave the story of Jack and his dog Sky a lift and a poignancy and a power that it wouldn't have had if it had been written in straight, paragraph-chained prose.

Middle grade novels in verse are also super hot right now. Last year's Newbery Medal winner, The Crossover, and the National Book Award winner, Brown Girl Dreaming, were both written in verse. Other recent notable novels in verse are Inside Out and Back Again (also a National Book Award winner), May B., Out of the Dust (okay, it was 1997, but it won the Newbery!), and Serafina's Promise.

The best news? Kids love novels in verse, especially reluctant readers. The pages aren't intimidatingly full of winding sentences, endless paragraphs, or monolithic block of texts. The story is told in approachable, bite-sized nibbles of delicious, potent verse. Kids look at that open page with its inviting white space and freeform, eye-catching text and they say, "Hey, I can read that!" And then they do.

If you haven't read middle grade novels in verse or haven't considered verse for your next (or current) WIP, you're really missing out on a stellar way to tell or read a story.

One of 2015's most beautiful middle grade debuts was also a noteworthy (complete with starred reviews!) addition to the pantheon of middle grade novels in verse, Red Butterfly by A.L. Sonnichsen.
Here's the official blurb:
"A young orphaned girl in modern-day China discovers the meaning of family in this inspiring story told in verse, in the tradition of Inside Out and Back Again and Sold.
Kara never met her birth mother. Abandoned as an infant, she was taken in by an American woman living in China. Now eleven, Kara spends most of her time in their apartment, wondering why she and Mama cannot leave the city of Tianjin and go live with Daddy in Montana. Mama tells Kara to be content with what she has…but what if Kara secretly wants more?
Told in lyrical, moving verse, Red Butterfly is the story of a girl learning to trust her own voice, discovering that love and family are limitless, and finding the wings she needs to reach new heights

Ms. Sonnichsen was gracious enough to answer some questions about her writing, her beautiful book, and novels in verse.
MGM: Your debut novel, Red Butterfly, is written in verse. What made you decide that this would be the best way to tell this story?
I wrote the first draft in prose, but knew I had to make some major changes, so planned to rewrite it. It was around the same time that I read OUT OF THE DUST by Karen Hesse. I had a feeling that my main character, Kara, would love to speak the same way as Billie Jo, so when I tackled the rewrite, I tried verse. It worked perfectly!

MGM: What do you think are some of biggest challenges to writing in verse, and what are its greatest advantages or opportunities as a storytelling method?
All good writers try to be efficient in their use of language, but verse bumps up the challenge. That's probably the hardest part--staying brief, but still making sense! My favorite part about writing in verse, as opposed to prose, is that you can skip things and nobody notices. It's like crossing a river on stepping stones rather than a bridge. I can focus on one tiny detail, write a poem about it, and discover that it's important to the forward momentum.

MGM: What are some of your very favorite MG novels in verse?
I have quite a few! I already mentioned OUT OF THE DUST, by Karen Hesse, but there's also HOME OF THE BRAVE by Katherine Applegate, MAY B. by Caroline Starr Rose, and INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN by Thanhha Lai. I highly recommend all of them!

MGM: What advice would you give to someone who was thinking about (or trying to) writing a novel in verse?
First, read lots of novels in verse. Then, when you're comfortable, experiment! See if it fits your protagonist's voice. I don't think it works for every protagonist, but some really do speak more clearly in verse. You won't know unless you try!

MGM: Can you share a bit about your inspiration for Red Butterfly, and how it connects to your own life?
There have been so many inspirations for this book, but they're all linked to the eight years I spent in China while my husband was teaching at an international school. I got to volunteer for an organization that worked with the local orphanage, and I ended up bringing home a baby from that orphanage. We fostered her for six and a half years before we were able to adopt her. Because of that experience, I have lots of friends with adoption stories. One friend asked for my advice for his mom, who was fostering two girls, and that was the seed of inspiration for the first draft of Red Butterfly. In trying to figure out how that scenerio would work out fictionally, I used another friend's adoption journey as a precedent. I saw how the orphanage officials had dealt with her situation and reasoned that they might do something similar in Kara's story.

MGM: What was your road to publication like? Any words of wisdom for someone struggling with that process right now?
I came very close to giving up on Red Butterfly. I had an agent for a unsold previous book, but she didn't connect with Red Butterfly, so I had to find new representation. That was a tough period in my writing journey. When the rejections started piling up in my search for a new agent, I seriously considered shelving the book without giving it a proper chance. Thankfully I had writing friends who came to the rescue and encouraged me at just the right moments. I've been blessed with a wonderful new agent who found the perfect home for my book at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. People have told me not to give up, because when you're closest to giving up, you're also closest to reaching your goal. That was true in my case! The darkest point in my writing journey was right before dawn. Some days in this business are just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other. Keep moving forward, focus on improving your craft. You'll get there.

MGM: What's up next for you? Do you have plans for any more books?
I have few pots simmering at the moment. They're not big secrets, but they're all sitting on editors' desks waiting to see if they're good enough to be brought to life. I'll tell you briefly about two of them. One is another verse novel about a boy in 1920's Canton who runs away from home to join a Chinese opera troupe. The other is a novel in prose about two kids who time travel. They've both been a lot of fun to work on so far!

Thank you for the interview, Dan!


  1. I'm starting to get drawn into reading novels in verse. The Red Butterfly sounds like an appealing story. I loved The Crossover.

  2. Love this story by Amy Sonnichsen. It is written in delicate language that touches your soul and carries you along. I look forward to her next work.

  3. Love this story by Amy Sonnichsen. It is written in delicate language that touches your soul and carries you along. I look forward to her next work.

  4. Great interview! I really love Red Butterfly. So moving! Out of the Dust was my first novel in verse, too. And it was so perfect.