Controversial Themes in YA Verse Novels

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Anyone who is a fan of novels in verse, especially those for young readers will quickly notice that there isn’t a lot of sunshine and flowers in these books. For some reason verse novels seem to be particularly well suited to sad, bleak, dark and edgy fare. Maybe there are simple reasons for this, but before I launch into any grand analysis I thought I would remind us all of some of the subject matter verse novels dare to lay bare.

War and Civil Violence

War has long been a favorite topic in literature but given that “mainstream” (ie. the white anglo western privileged kids that populate so much literature for children and teens) young people today (under 18 years old at least) seldom come face to face with real warfare, the topic of war is often combined with a non Amero-centric or Anglo-centric plot or cast. This is one of the reasons the below verse novels are real standouts of this form.

KarmaKARMA by Cathy Ostlere concerns an Indo-Canadian teen who returns to India with her father only to get caught up in sectarian violence after the assassination of Indira Gandhi.  It’s a surprisingly romantic book, given that the protagonist spends much of the book running for her life. But the combination of romance, fear, an unfamiliar and violent world and the loss that always accompanies war and violence gives this book the a bit of everything great about YA.

Three other well-known verse novels explore a similar theme, that of a young person displaced by war. While Thanhha Lai’s  INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN begins in Vietnam and spends several chapters on the departure to America, ALL THE BROKEN PIECES by Ann E Burg and  HOME OF THE BRAVE by Katherine Applegate take place mostly in the new environment, using flashback and memory to reveal the trauma the narrators left behind.

Rape and sexual abuse

Given the hyper-vigilant voyeurism of the press, and the polarized views of political discourse, it’s not surprising that this uncomfortable topic crops up frequently in YA literature (it is almost completely absent from middle grade books, for obvious though not entirely logical reasons). The below are a few of the better known examples of verse novels on this theme.

EXPOSED by Kimberley Marcus is a troubling novel dealing with friendship, family and date rape. Though this is not the strongest YA novel on this topic (SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson set the bar pretty high) it is probably the best known verse novel on the topic. PERFECT by Ellen Hopkins also touches on date rape, but this is only one issue in a book, like all Hopkins’s, that is overflowing with difficult themes.Because I am Furniture

BECAUSE I AM FURNITURE Thalia Chaltas  and GLIMPSE Carol Lynch Williams both tell harrowing tales of familial sexual abuse and neglect. I had problems with both the narrators but perhaps this is a function of their impossibly tragic lives.

SOLD by Patricia McCormick is a book to appreciate, like the books on war and civil violence, not only because it reveals a non-western culture, but also because it depicts a level of sexual exploitation unimaginable to many readers in the developed world. It’s eye opening in a way that few YA books achieve.

Suicide and Self Harm

NothingThere are many ways young people try to harm themselves, and many reasons too. The below books offer a glimpse into some of these stories of cutting, eating disorders, and of course, suicide. Rather than explore suicide from the point of view of the survivors (those stories are categorized below under “death”) these verse novels are more about suicidal ideation and it’s many devastating consequences on a teenagers psyche.

The first three books THE DEATH OF JAYSON PORTER by Jaime Adoff, FORGET ME NOT by Carolee Dean and IMPULSE by Ellen Hopkins concern the lead up to and aftermath of suicide attempts. NOTHING  by Robin Friedman and FISHTAILING by Wendy Phillips concern bulimia (for an interesting change the bulimic is a boy) and cutting.


While Lisa Schroeder is the uncontested queen of the aftermath-of-death-verse-novel with her books I HEART YOU, YOU HAUNT ME and CHASING BROOKLYN (among others), the theme of a young person dealing with the death of a parent or lover is particularly prevalent in verse novels. ONE OF THOSE HIDEOUS BOOKS WHERE THE MOTHER DIES by Sonya Sones, LOCOMOTION by Jacqueline Woodson and JINX by Margaret Wild are other examples.

Mental Illness

Mental illness, particularly depression forms part of almost any dark themed YA book. However, a few deal directly with the more clinical aspects of diagnosed mental illness. Two examples are STOP PRETENDING by Sonya Sones and the auto-biographical I DON’T WANT TO BE CRAZY by Samantha Schutz.


Where Lisa Schroeder rules the death narratives, Ellen Hopkins surely has set the standard for not just verse novels but any YA novel exploring drug addiction with her masterful series CRANK,GLASS and FALLOUT.Fallout (Crank, #3)

Enough said. If you haven’t already, log off right now and read these books.

Teen sex and pregnancy

Personally I am frequently disappointed with YA books dealing with teen sex and pregnancy. Sadly YA verse novels seem to be no exception. ONE NIGHT by Margaret Wild  and THE BEST AND HARDEST THING by Pat Brisson, though written well enough, take a pretty narrow view of the choices a teen girl has with regards to pregnancy and so far, I haven’t been able to find any that offer what I consider to be more sensible but also more realistic alternatives. See my blog post on for more on this.

Love and LeftoversAs far as teen sex goes, while this is often an edgy issue, it doesn’t necessarily need to be dark. A BAD BOY CAN BE GOOD FOR GIRL by Tanya Lee Stone is fairly light fare, though infuriatingly one sided and I feel a little unfair to the boy. On the other hand LOVE AND LEFTOVERS by Sarah Tregay gives and honest and positive portrayal of a teen girl’s …there’s really no other way of saying this…horniness without making her out to be slut. Yes! Teens have sex! Sometimes they even enjoy it! Sometimes nothing bad happens! Glory be!

I’ll stop now.

Maybe verse novels for teens are a way of introducing edgier subject matter without being overwhelming. The lower word count, bite size scenes and white space on the page all might serve to make heavier subject matter more digestible to teen readers both enthusiastic and reluctant. At any rate, as readers and publishers seem to be eating these books up I don’t see this trend ending anytime soon.

11 thoughts on “Controversial Themes in YA Verse Novels

  1. Love & Leftovers is one of my favorite books dealing with teen girl sexuality in a non-judge-y, frank and positive way. (I also thought it handled the issue of parental mental illness in a very nuanced way–so many books rely on stereotypes that frustrate me.) And I think the verse format enhanced that quite a bit… I’ve reread it several times and it continues to impress me.

    • Agreed. I loved how hot to trot she was all the time. I enjoyed the book too, though it was a bit lightweight in comparison to other verse novels both from the point of view of plot and the complexity of the verse. But maybe that’s a good thing. Verse novels don’t all need to be one note, heavy inscrutable tomes. I’d love to see some Stephanie Perkins-ish verse novels for example, or some kick butt genre stuff.

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