Book Reviews: #CYBILS2023 Poetry Novel In Verse Finalists

Can a middle-grade verse novel about table tennis bring adults to tears?

Yes. [Did you notice we said “adults” – plural.]

If you are looking for fresh, captivating, thought-provoking, laugh-out-loud books, look no further than this year’s list of Poetry Novel in Verse finalists.

While the books themselves are labeled for “middle grade” and “young adult” audiences, it is pretty clear from the judges’ comments that adults will love them, too.


No Matter the DistanceWinner
Cindy Baldwin
Quill Tree Books
Nominated by: KtStar

Sarah @ Can We Read? [Substack Newsletter] – The fact that this story is the first time an author with CF [cystic fibrosis] has penned a story about a character with CF [cystic fibrosis] isn’t the only — or even the best — notable thing about it: it’s that Baldwin wrote such a beautiful, moving, and surprisingly gripping novel, in verse. This is one to hand to your 8-12yos who are up for reading about animal rescue, friendship, and figuring out who you are as you go — you know, making it up along the way, like all of us.

Gary @ What’s Not Wrong – As a cystic fibrosis patient herself, Baldwin knows the emotional and medical complexities that accompany a youngster’s hospital visits and in-home health care. Readers who have experienced extensive medical treatments or hospitalizations will relate to how Baldwin authentically captures the details of those episodes.

Baldwin’s verse effectively uses enjambment and page space to give her poems a variety of different textures. She uses language that is slightly more elevated than what might be expected in a sixth-grader’s voice, but this works because Penny is more insightful and sensitive than most others her age.

No Matter the Distance is a solid choice for independent reading, lit circles, or whole-class study for middle grades and beyond.


All the Fighting Parts
Hannah V. Sawyerr
Harry N Abrams
Nominated by: Sam Richardson

Gary @ What’s Not Wrong – Through her artistic choices, Sawyerr shapes All the Fighting Parts into a book that is literary, important, and riveting. [She] gives her characters distinctive, authentic voices and uses various poetic moves to create tension at dramatic moments in the narrative and add layers of meaning to certain poems in ways that would not be possible in prose fiction.

All the Fighting Parts is a great recommendation for readers who value Black voices, strong young female perspectives, fighting against injustice, and verse novels that are actually poetic.

Call Me Adnan
Reem Faruqi
Nominated by: Joanne R. Fritz

Alexis @ Goodreads – Reem had my emotions all over the place in this story, and I loved every minute of it. A great story for middle grade readers to explore some of the darker parts of life, but also that there is a light in the darkness.

Deborah @ Goodreads – I did not expect a middle school, novel in verse, about Table Tennis, make me cry. This is one of the best I have read this year. Touching, poignant, heart-breaking, laugh out loud, all the way through. Including concrete poetry within the story enhanced the specific sections it was incorporated into. And learning all about Table Tennis, the terminology and how it is truly a game of analysis? loved it! Makes we want to learn more about table tennis!

The NextGen Librarian @ Goodreads – A must-read MG novel in verse. Well dang. If this book didn’t make me sob the last half! I was not expecting the plot of the story so I fell headfirst into the same feelings the family had. It was told beautifully and definitely brings to light an issue we don’t talk enough about. Read the Author’s Note at the end to learn more about this topic and get resources. 5⭐️ CW: death of a child, drowning, grief, hospitalization

Enter the Body
Joy McCullough
Dutton Books for Young Readers
Nominated by: Gary Anderson

Deborah @ Goodreads – I restarted and listened to the audiobook. I enjoyed the book a lot more listening to it. The narration was spot on. There were times I laughed out loud. The story reminded me of Six the Musical except it was all about the tortured, tragic ends to Juliet, Ophelia, Lavinia and Cordelia. Definitely one to listen to. It was like listening to four teens having a conversation with the occasional interruption from the off stage narrator.

Gina @ Goodreads – I really liked some of the poems, I liked the imagery of the Shakespeare girls gathering together and discussing their feelings and actions, and I liked having a critical eye turned onto a part of Shakespeare that the general public would never even think to consider. It was also just nice to hear from the girls after all even if it wasn’t “canon”.

I think this is a great book to read alongside Shakespeare at any age, and would be a great addition to classroom libraries! It’s a little harsh in some subject matter, but then again, it’s based on the Shakespeare plays where the same exact things happen, so there’s no reason to shun this version of it just because the girls own it.

Gary @ What’s Not Wrong – Anyone who doubts that young adult literature is indeed literature need look no further than Joy McCullough’s achievements in Enter the Body.

The NextGen Librarian @ Goodreads – What an interesting and intriguing idea for a YA novel in verse. I think you need to be familiar with Shakespeare before diving into this one, as it really goes into the nuances of each character’s story that helps if you’ve read the play already. Otherwise I fear your focus will be on the story instead of the women their about. This would make an amazing play! CW: death, blood, violence, cheating, slut shaming, murder

Charles Waters and Traci Sorell
Nominated by: Katey H

The NextGen Librarian @ Goodreads – How powerful. This MG novel-in-verse brings to light a topic that has been discussed for literal decades, without much change. Systemic racism is still very prevalent in the U.S. and this book showed all perspectives that we hear about on the news, knowing that not everything is black and white. But I believe that at the core this novel will show kids what an impact they can have when they stand up and use their voices, both individually and collectively. This title would be great to read in classes to open the conversation up. CW: racism, racial slurs, unemployment, microaggressions

Linda @ Goodreads – Traci Sorell and Charles Waters’ book collaboration packs many issues into one school year, one eighth-grade honors English classroom, and a teacher who wishes to challenge her students. The a free-verse format that allows readers to read each character’s thoughts, show the students’ clearly honest opinions. Subtly, through a phrase or word, readers can catch that change is happening. It will be a terrific book to read with a group or to read aloud to a class. I imagine terrific discussions where learning happens!