The best middle grade novels in verse with emotional themes

Why am I passionate about this?

I love the way verse novels eliminate unnecessary background and scene-setting. They cut straight to the heart of conflict and emotions. We instantly feel what the characters feel. The lyrical flow of words, figurative language, and freedom to arrange the poems in different ways on the pages taps into a different creativity for an author. Each poem stands alone, telling its own story. While writing Wishes, Dares, and How to Stand Up to a Bully, eleven-year-old Jack insisted I tell the story his way. Raw, unflinching, unfiltered. I am in love with this form and plan to write more novels in this format. The book is a 2021 NCTE notable verse novel.


I wrote...

Wishes, Dares, and How to Stand Up to a Bully

By Darlene Beck Jacobson,

Book cover of Wishes, Dares, and How to Stand Up to a Bully

What is my book about?

Eleven-year-old Jack misses his Dad who is MIA in Vietnam. The last thing Jack wants to do is spend summer with his grandparents. Mom believes it will be good for them all – Jack, his sister Katy, Mom, Gran and Pops – to be together while they wait for word about Dad. Jack expects the worst summer of his life. The first summer without Dad, friends, his room, and all the things that remind him of Dad. When Jack meets a girl named Jill - a girl with a brother who makes trouble for both of them – things they believe are turned upside down. Welcome to a summer of fishing, camping, bullies, and a fish who grants wishes. A fish that could be the answer to Jack’s problem.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Canyon's Edge

Darlene Beck Jacobson Why did I love this book?

I am recommending this survival story because it cuts to the heart of the emotions involved with losing a parent. Nora and her dad explore a canyon and become separated by a flood. Nora must learn to survive alone as she searches for her dad in the desert landscape fraught with life-threatening dangers. A fast-paced page-turner.

By Dusti Bowling,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Canyon's Edge as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 8, 9, 10, and 11.

What is this book about?

One year since she lost her mother to a random shooting, Nora and her father are exploring a slot canyon deep in the Arizona desert. They like to stay far away from other people now, or at least Nora's father does. Nora has been working with a therapist to try to heal, and she longs to have a normal life again, to be "just an ordinary girl" like she was when her mother was still alive.

But when she and her father reach the bottom of the canyon, a flash flood rips past them, sweeping away Nora's father and all…


Book cover of Becoming Joe Dimaggio

Darlene Beck Jacobson Why did I love this book?

This book not only features baseball as a metaphor for what unites us and brings us together, but also celebrates the relationship of a boy and his grandfather who bond over their hero Joe Dimaggio. Set in the 1930’s, it is a beautiful, and heartfelt verse novel for anyone who loves baseball and historical fiction.

By Maria Testa, Scott Hunt,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Becoming Joe Dimaggio as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 10, 11, 12, and 13.

What is this book about?

"With ineffable tenderness and absolute clarity, Testa tells a tale in blank verse. . . . Powerfully moving as it braids together baseball, family, and the Italian-American experience." — Booklist (starred review)

It's 1936, and the Yankees have just hired a star center fielder whose name sounds like music. What could be a better time for Papa-Angelo's grandson to be born? Christened after the legendary ballplayer, young Joseph Paul learns much at his Italian grandfather's knee — about holding your breath in front of the radio during a 3-2 count with the bases loaded and having the audacity to dream…


Book cover of Closer to Nowhere

Darlene Beck Jacobson Why did I love this book?

Closer to Nowhere explores family dynamics and ‘tween feelings in an honest and realistic way. Two cousins – as opposite as left and right – seem to constantly be at odds. When they take time to actually communicate with each other, they realize they have more in common than they thought. Told in alternating POVs, the reader shares Cal and Hannah’s struggles as they tell them. Told with honesty and compassion.

By Ellen Hopkins,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Closer to Nowhere as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 10, 11, 12, and 13.

What is this book about?

#1 New York Times bestselling author Ellen Hopkins's poignant middle grade novel in verse about coming to terms with indelible truths of family and belonging--now in paperback!

For the most part, Hannah's life is just how she wants it. She has two supportive parents, she's popular at school, and she's been killing it at gymnastics. But when her cousin Cal moves in with her family, everything changes. Cal tells half-truths and tall tales, pranks Hannah constantly, and seems to be the reason her parents are fighting more and more. Nothing is how it used to be. She knows that Cal…


Book cover of Red, White, and Whole

Darlene Beck Jacobson Why did I love this book?

I recommend this book for the honest and thoughtful way it portrays a life divided between two cultures. Reha, the protagonist, must navigate between her traditional Indian/American home life and the American school life she faces every day, all while dealing with her mother’s illness. The free-verse format explores this dichotomy in a sensitive and caring way. Scary emotions well done, and carefully handled. Red, White, and Whole was named a 2022 Newbery Honor Book.

By Rajani LaRocca,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked Red, White, and Whole as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 9, 10, 11, and 12.

What is this book about?

Newbery Honor Book! A heartbreakingly hopeful novel in verse about an Indian American girl whose life is turned upside down when her mother is diagnosed with leukemia.

* Walter Award Winner * New England Book Award Winner * An NCTE Notable Verse Novel * Golden Kite Award Winner * Goodreads Choice Nominee * A Washington Post Best Children's Book of the Year * An SLJ Best Book of the Year * A BookPage Best Book of the Year * An NYPL Best Book of the Year * A Mighty Girl's Best Book of the Year * An ILA Notable Book…


Book cover of Before the Ever After

Darlene Beck Jacobson Why did I love this book?

This book lets young readers know that not every ending is neatly tied up in a bow. It helps readers understand that pro sports can cause serious injury to players and affect the lives of their families. Even if you aren’t a football fan, you can relate to the conflicting emotions of the main character ZJ as he comes to terms with the changes he sees in his football-hero father after numerous concussions. A thought-provoking subject that is sure to spark conversations.

By Jacqueline Woodson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Before the Ever After as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 10, 11, 12, and 13.

What is this book about?

WINNER OF THE NAACP IMAGE AWARD

WINNER OF THE CORETTA SCOTT KING AUTHOR AWARD

National Book Award winner Jacqueline Woodson's stirring novel-in-verse explores how a family moves forward when their glory days have passed and the cost of professional sports on Black bodies.

For as long as ZJ can remember, his dad has been everyone's hero. As a charming, talented pro football star, he's as beloved to the neighborhood kids he plays with as he is to his millions of adoring sports fans. But lately life at ZJ's house is anything but charming. His dad is having trouble remembering things…


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Hotel Oscar Mike Echo

By Linda MacKillop,

Book cover of Hotel Oscar Mike Echo

Linda MacKillop Author Of Hotel Oscar Mike Echo

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

For decades I have volunteered in different capacities, helping the hurting and those living on the margins by tutoring and teaching literacy to the formally incarcerated or homeless, teaching parenting in a maximum-security jail, and teaching ESL to resettled immigrants. Because my own suburban father fell into homelessness at the end of his life due to depression, job losses, divorce, and more, I feel tremendous compassion for anyone in this situation. And as the mother of four grown sons, we filled our home with books—especially books that taught compassion so our sons would grow into men with big hearts towards others. I believe we succeeded.

Linda's book list on hard family circumstances for middle-grade readers

What is my book about?

Home isn’t always what we dream it will be.

Eleven-year-old Sierra just wants a normal life. After her military mother returns from the war overseas, the two hop from home to homelessness while Sierra tries to help her mom through the throes of PTSD.

When they end up at a shelter for women and children, Sierra is even more aware of what her life is not. The kind couple who run the shelter, Mr. and Mrs. Goodwin, attempt to show her parental love as she faces the uncertainties of her mom’s emotional health and the challenges of being the brand-new poor kid in middle school. The longer she stays at the shelter, the more Sierra realizes she may have to face an impossible choice as she redefines home.

Hotel Oscar Mike Echo

By Linda MacKillop,

What is this book about?

Home isn’t always what we dream it will be. 

Eleven-year-old Sierra just wants a normal life. After her military mother returns from the war overseas, the two hop from home to homelessness while Sierra tries to help her mom through the throes of PTSD.  

When they end up at a shelter for women and children, Sierra is even more aware of what her life is not. The kind couple who run the shelter, Mr. and Mrs. Goodwin, attempt to show her parental love as she faces the uncertainties of her mom’s emotional health and the challenges of being the brand-new…


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