Book List

Best Middle-Grade Books in Verse of 2019

A poignant, sincere, empathetic glimpse at family border separation.


Argueta tells the story of 10-year-old Jimena Pérez, who unexpectedly journeys from her home in El Salvador to the U.S.

Told in a sequence of short poems first in Spanish and consequently in English, this poignant story introduces Jimena’s home through her senses: “Me gusta / el color de las zanahorias…. / Pero más me gusta / el olor de los marañones”; “I like the color / of the carrots…. / But what I like most / is the smell of the cashew fruit.” When young boys from a neighborhood gang threaten Jimena’s schoolmate, Jimena’s parents, fearing for their own daughter, decide that Jimena and her mother will join family living in Texas. After exiting El Salvador and later Guatemala, Jimena and her mother climb atop a train—La Bestia, known for its ruthlessness and peril—and later trek by foot. Authorities find Jimena and her mama and pull them from each other. “I feel alone. / Other kids are crying. / We’re little birds / alone and sad / in a metal cage.” The harrowing tale ends in a detention cell for children, yet in this realistic hell, Jimena manages to find some small hope. It leaves Jimena scared and uncertain, and it won’t be a stretch for readers to understand that the questions they have about Jimena apply to far too many real-life children like her.

A poignant, sincere, empathetic glimpse at family border separation. (Verse fiction. 8-14)

Pub Date: Nov. 30, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-55885-889-3

Page Count: 96

Publisher: Piñata Books/Arté Público

Review Posted Online: Sept. 15, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2019

Powerful storytelling of a not-so-distant past.



An autobiographical account in verse of a teen pioneering school desegregation in the South.

Jo Ann Allen lives up on a hill with the other black residents of Clinton, Tennessee. They travel to Knoxville to attend the black schools, but in 1956, two years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, a judge in Knoxville tells Clinton officials that they must integrate immediately. Jo Ann is one of 12 black students who enroll in the all-white Clinton High School. With co-author Levy, she tells her story of that year in poems grouped by her relationship to her town (“Mine, Theirs and Ours”; “Fear,” etc.). Most of the white people who support the black students do so only out of civic duty to obey the law. Still, there are moments of hope, as when her white classmates elect her vice president of their homeroom; it seems she might make friends. But then hatred and violence overtake the town of Clinton, necessitating federal law enforcement to keep the peace. Readers will empathize with Jo Ann’s honest incredulity: “Mouths spewing insults. / (Do these mouths sing hymns on Sunday? / Do they say ‘I love you’?)” One timely poem remembers a local election in which “every single / white supremacist/ segregationist / candidate / lost.” Such gems relevant to today’s politics, along with the narrator’s strong inner voice, make this offering stand out.

Powerful storytelling of a not-so-distant past. (epilogue, authors’ notes, photos, timeline, sources, bibliography, further reading) (Verse memoir. 9-14)

Pub Date: Jan. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-68119-852-1

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2018

A deeply moving, beautifully written portrayal of an evil that cannot be allowed to be forgotten.



Moishe Moskowitz’s painful experiences in the Holocaust are expressed in brief, gut-wrenching poems.

Moishe knows fear; he must avoid the Polish boys who will beat him for being Jewish. When the Nazis come in 1939, the danger grows exponentially, but they “could not have imagined such evil” would engulf them. Moishe views the Nazis as prowling, voracious wolves, and that metaphor is used throughout the poems. Changes come quickly: yellow stars, disappearances, and forced labor. They are driven from their home and pushed into a ghetto, followed by liquidation, murders, and deportation to the concentration camps. His family is torn from him, as “the Nazis peel us like onions,” his mother and sister, father, brother. He endures unending deprivation and starvation. Kindness is rare and punishable by death, but a Christian friend hides the family in the early days, a political prisoner gives him a bit of extra food, and, near the end, a group of Czech women throw warm, fresh bread into the cattle cars. Gray-toned thumbnail sketches can only hint at the devastating emotions. Moishe’s daughter provides the story, as told to her by her father, and entrusts Smith to pen poems that strike at the heart of each moment, each fear, each horror and make it personal for readers even as time erases witnesses.

A deeply moving, beautifully written portrayal of an evil that cannot be allowed to be forgotten. (author’s note) (Historical verse fiction. 10-adult)

Pub Date: Aug. 13, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-16572-5

Page Count: 160

Publisher: Christy Ottaviano/Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: April 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2019

An authentically middle school voice and diverse Latinx cast make this book a standout


A worthy successor to Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret set in present-day Oakland.

Eleven-year-old Celi, mixed black–Puerto Rican–Mexican, dreads the imminent arrival of her period, less because of the menstruation itself and more because her mother insists that Celi have a “moon ceremony,” in which the members of her mother’s “women’s circle” will mark the transition from childhood to womanhood. Meanwhile, her best friend is going through a different transition—from girl to xochihuah, “neither / female nor male but both.” While Celi is initially shocked by the adjustment, she loves Mar, as her best friend now prefers to be known, no less. But when other kids, including her crush, Iván, say cruel things about Mar, Celi is torn between the possibility of a first kiss and loyalty to her friend. Salazar’s verse novel is sensitive and fresh, featuring modern interpretations of pre-Columbian coming-of-age traditions that arise organically from the characters. Mar’s heritage is Mexican, and Iván is mixed, black and Mexican; Celi and Mar’s participation in a Puerto Rican performance group and their mothers’ shared, deeply felt Xicana identity allow Salazar to naturally explore cultural nuances not often seen in middle-grade fiction. Genderfluid Mar takes both that name and the masculine pronoun midway through the book, and Celi’s narration adjusts accordingly even if some of their peers’ attitudes do not.

An authentically middle school voice and diverse Latinx cast make this book a standout . (Verse fiction. 8-12)

Pub Date: Feb. 26, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-338-28337-2

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Levine/Scholastic

Review Posted Online: Oct. 15, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2018

Poetic, immersive, hopeful.


A story about war and displacement, resilience and adjustment.

Warga portrays with extraordinary talent the transformation of a family’s life before and after the war began in Syria. Living in a tourist town on the Syrian coastline, Jude experiences the inequalities in her society firsthand. With the unfolding of the Arab Spring, her older brother, Issa, wants to join protests against the Syrian regime. The parents are in favor of staying out of it, but with news of a new baby and nearby towns turning into battlegrounds, Jude and her mother travel to join her uncle, a medical doctor, and his family in the American Midwest. Her free-verse narration cuts straight to the bone: “Back home, / food was / rice / lamb / fish / hummus / pita bread / olives / feta cheese / za’atar with olive oil. / Here, / that food is / Middle Eastern Food. / Baguettes are French food. / Spaghetti is Italian food. / Pizza is both American and Italian, / depending on which restaurant you go to.” Jude, who has always loved American movies, shares her observations—often with humor—as she soaks everything in and learns this new culture. Only when she starts feeling comfortable with having two homes, one in Syria and one in the U.S., does a terrible incident make her confront the difficult realities of being Muslim and Arab in the U.S.

Poetic, immersive, hopeful. (Historical verse fiction. 11-adult)

Pub Date: May 28, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-06-274780-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: March 3, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2019

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