The Verse Novels of Kathryn Apel
“Why can’t we all just be friends?” (Too Many Friends)
Australia is a leader in verse novels for young readers and Kathryn Apel is one of our major writers in the field. Kathryn’s engaging and affirming verse novels, Bully on the Bus (2014), On Track (2015), Too Many Friends (2017) and its companion book What Snail Knows (March 2022) are published by UQP, a great advocate of verse novels and poetry.
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Kathryn.
Thank-you for having me, Joy – and for these questions, that have really made me think. (And highlighted some things with my writing that I wasn’t actually conscious of.)
What first drew you into writing verse novels?
I read Sherryl Clark’s Sixth Grade Style Queen (NOT!) – and loved it. But what really inspired me was sharing the story with a class of Year 6/7 students. Initially I read a little from the book to introduce the story. When they were engaged, I shared portions of the text amongst class groups, and had them rehearse, to present it sequentially to the class, and thus progress our ‘whole class read’.
The class as a whole was engaged with the text – but most noticeable was a group of reluctant reader boys, who were like a dog with a bone, wanting to go further and further along – kept asking if we were going to be reading more of that book! The white space and layout of words on the page cut the clutter. They experienced success and were keen to pursue it. What a wonderful gift to give a reluctant reader!
From that experience, I sought to write a verse novel that boys especially would engage with, because our school had a high proportion of disconnected boys. I started pondering ideas for a sporty ‘verse novel about training’.
[I also love Sixth Grade Style Queen (NOT!)]
How does it differ from your work with poetry, and how and where have you used literary and poetic features, such as alliteration and onomatopoeia in your verse novels?
Verse novels involve getting to know your characters – and being true to their voice and actions. Yet conveying that through wordplay on the page. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to write a novel – but I can write poems, bite-sized achievable portions that work together to tell a narrative.
With my children’s verse novels, I write free verse, sometimes hiding shapes in my poetry – and playing with poetic devices and alignment, to enhance the reading experience. (I think a verse novel is a treasure hunt in book form. You never know what little gems you are going to find.)
Standalone poetry on the other hand is about one poem. And the joy/creativity/challenge of that one poem. It is amazing how much you can pack into a poem. Often times I like to set myself challenges, within form. Other times I just like to play – and see where the poem takes me. Writing standalone poems is so refreshing! Sometimes a joy, and other times a stress release. So often they boost my creativity – because they unwind the snarls in my head.
I tell kids that alliteration is the easiest poetry technique to bring to their writing – and it truly can be used across so many genres – even down to the humble shopping list!
Roxie doesn’t like
She’s like a wind-up toy
coiled too tight,
fit to bust!
From the poem Roxanne (Too Many Friends)
How important is the use of dialogue in your verse novels?
Dialogue is important in any work, because it plants the reader firmly in the story. There is a portion of dialogue in Bully on the Bus that I deliberated long and hard. I didn’t want to weaponise words that kids could then use against their peers – but including the bully’s words puts the reader into Leroy’s shoes. Makes them squirm. And feel his pain. As awful as the words are, they are what makes the story powerful. They illustrate the age-old maxim; Show … Don’t tell. But for sure, I interrogated them when I was writing them – and discussed them with my editor.
Dialogue can also propel the story along. The beauty of the verse novel is that alignment means you can cut the clutter of attribution – and yet the reader can still navigate the dialogue, as per the example from Too Many Friends, below. (Of course, voice is also helpful here. And too, the fact that the conversation is relatable to nearly every classroom in Australia. Such is the healing power of the school icepack!)
You mention stories, books and words in your novels. Why is that?
I guess you just got an inside glimpse inside my classroom – and my home. Because nearly everything I did in the classroom was built around a book. And though my boys were active farm kids with wide open space to explore and endless projects to make, they still loved getting lost in a pile of books. That is the value of literacy, where we can enter other worlds through the pages of a book, pursue our own knowledge and interests – and are consequently equipped to become lifelong learners.
In your verse novels you position the written text carefully on the page. With permission we will reproduce a page of your choice, and could you explain its layout?
The way I approach writing verse novels is this; the words are almost a tangible illustration on the page – and they carry the reader through the story, not just in their meaning, but also in their layout. Whitespace and alignment clue readers up on how to read – and often sets the pace of the read. It can set you into a rhythm of running … and force stiltedness like puffed breathlessness.
For example, in the poem, Toby: Running Away, Toby has just clashed with Shaun, on the walk home from school. He starts running as an angry escape, and you get that urgency of the run with minimal line breaks between faster, faster, faster / left, right, left, right. The next words tend to run together with little pause so that you, the reader, don’t pause until you draw / ragged / breaths … and then settle into the steady, slower rhythm of the run, with a different arrangement of the left / right / left / right away from …
Off-setting his world in the final stanza – even the line break, to put in on its own line – emphasises the fact that things most definitely are not right in Toby’s world. Just Shaun’s. (Or in Toby’s perception of Shaun’s world.)
I do love having these discussions during workshops – and hearing reader insights, as to why they think I’ve done something, or what it means to them. And it is always something wondrous, hearing them read – and stumble in places, where I stumble in my head, because that’s the effect I want to create. Sometimes their interpretations pick up on things that I’ve never considered. Yet their observations are true, to the story and the form. It is amazing the depth and details these discussions prompt.
Jo Hunt designs the covers for your verse novels. Does she also illustrate all of the internals?
Jo Hunt has designed more than my verse novel covers. She also designed the covers for my picture books, ‘Up and Down on a Rainy Day’, illustrated by Janet Turner, and ‘The Bird in the Herd’, illustrated by Renée Treml. I love Jo’s work! And yes, she has also done internal artwork for my first three verse novels. My upcoming younger reader verse novel, ‘What Snail Knows’ (released March 2022) has been illustrated by Mandy Foot (there are, of course, snails!) – with design by Jo Hunt. I am incredibly fortunate to work with so many talented creators!
How have you refined the process as you have continued to write in this form?
Oh my goodness. This is a tricky question to answer – because it’s been something of a convoluted, journey of rule-breakers and backstories, and I just don’t think I can wrangle it into a short and coherent response. Here goes …
I am not typically a planner. In fact, I often just open a blank page and start writing, and from there, identify the character’s voice … and story. It can make the writing process a little fraught, if I’m three quarters through the draft, and still wondering HOW it is all going to come together for a resolution. And there is nothing quite like the relief of that moment when it all drops into place.
This is how I started writing what was, I thought, my first verse novel – On Track. (That ‘verse novel about training’.) But then Bully on the Bus happened along. Drafted as a chapter book, then later crafted into a verse novel – and sneaking out before On Track. On Track was hard to write. Partly because I was learning the process, and had previously written picture books, that were all well-under 600 words. But mostly because I was writing personal experiences out of the story. Letting the characters take over and create their story. I often say, when writing verse novels it feels like I’m on the dissecting table, with flesh and muscle pared away – just bare bones of story around a pulsing heart. There’s nowhere to hide from that vulnerability.
Bully on the Bus was such an exciting process – realising that the chapter book I’d written was really the verse novel I’d been trying to write. It was like an epiphany – and so rewarding, to uncover the verse, and then develop the heart and story more. Once I’d finished Bully on the Bus I was better equipped to go back and finally finish On Track …
My most recent children’s verse novels have been much quicker to write. Both Too Many Friends, and its companion title, What Snail Knows went from idea to submission in under six months. (By contrast, it took 7 years to write and publish On Track.)
In between Too Many Friends and What Snail Knows, I have written a historical non-fiction verse novel based on an Antarctic expedition. This was a passion-project, and very different style to my children’s verse novels. It involved a lot of research … and an incredible amount of craft! But it was all plotted out for me, in the expedition diaries. So I knew how things were going to unfold. The challenge was in remaining true to facts and form.
How does your publisher, UQP, help you hone your verse novels?
It’s reassuring to have that relationship and trust in an editorial team. To know that I don’t have to submit a perfect manuscript – that together we can work on plot points and develop the story to its full potential. On Track had the hugest rewrite during the editorial process – and it is so much better for that second brother’s perspective. I’d be lying if I said I like scrambling my brains during the editorial process – sometimes it feels like I’m going to explode out of my skin, with everything so tangled that I will never get it back into a semblance of order. But somehow, deep breaths, it always come together, and I for sure appreciate the polish and the depth that brings to my writing!
There is also that trust that comes from working through numerous manuscripts – and knowing that they ‘get’ my style, and know how much thought has gone into word choice and placement. Sometimes I need to break and bend rules to create a character’s voice. But once they know it is intentional – and consistent – then we’re good. (Or sometimes what I’m doing isn’t working – and I need to rethink and recraft, so that it does!)
It is always good to be have little things questioned! Because I’d hate to have an error slip into a book!
More about specific verse novels by Kathryn …
At the end of Bully on the Bus you comment that it was originally a chapter book. Why and how did you change it to a verse novel?
Can I direct readers to a post I wrote about this, on Dee White’s blog?
How do you surprise the reader in Bully on the Bus?
How do I? I’m going to guess it is with Leroy’s wolfish response to the bully’s niggling? When he gets so engrossed in the book that he becomes the wolf?
Incidentally, my mum really did tame the bullies on our bus with a box of comics that she’d change out at the book exchange every time things got a bit rough on our bus. Her solution involved all the kids on the bus reading. It’s a little different in Bully on the Bus.
You depict sibling relationships across your verse novels. How have you featured this in On Track?
I initially wrote On Track from Toby, the younger brother’s perspective. It took me 7 years from draft to published book. And yet, in the space of a month, after some excellent feedback and questions from my editor, I started to share big brother Shaun’s perspective … and wrote 5000 words in the space of a month. (The entire book is 17,000 words.) Neither of us expected the book to grow that much!
Now Toby and Shaun share the narrative. And they come from two very different perspectives. Shaun is a straight A’s student who excels at anything he attempts. Toby tries hard … but consistently gets C’s … Each brother calculates his worth on the experiences and achievements of his brother – and yet neither one is happy. The book explores sibling relationships/rivalry, learning difficulties and sporting achievements – but it is ultimately about being comfortable in your own skin; being the best YOU can be!
An author visits the school in On Track. How have you used this and her poem-writing task to enhance the characterisation?
Shaun finds school frustratingly easy – especially when he isn’t extended in the classroom. Jazzy the visiting author gives him new challenges to try – and unwittingly provides an outlet for his emotions, as he comes to terms with both his own challenges, and his brother’s – and the ongoing frustration of school (pages 71/88/272/276).
Whilst there are four acrostic poems, they are so much more than just lines starting with a letter from a word. Like all poetry, acrostics enables us to push boundaries.
In Too Many Friends Tahnee feels she has too many friends. How/when can someone have too many friends?
This story was inspired by a conversation with a friend. Her daughter was wearing herself out, trying to be a good friend to all her friends – so much so that she rarely had a chance to enjoy her friends. She commented that it was almost as if she had too many friends. I wrote a story-note on my phone at the end of that conversation; ‘a story about a girl with too many friends’. And this is the book that came from that. Tahnee’s story.
Can we have too many friends? There can never be too much kindness! But I do think we also need to look after ourselves, as we navigate friendships and personalities.
How is your upcoming What Snail Knows a companion novel to Too Many Friends?
Too Many Friends and What Snail Knows have both been written with a teacher’s hand and heart. As much as I love the characters in Too Many Friends, who smoosh together a whole lot kids I have taught over the years, I hadn’t planned on writing a companion story.
What Snail Knows came about from a conversation in my first post-lockdown get-together with a kidlit friend in 2020. We’d been chatting mum-stuff, and kids helping at home, when I shared about one unit I’d taught (loved!) inspired by the question, ‘How Can I Help?’.
‘You should write that book,’ my friend said.
Six weeks later I was pondering possible verse novels, and saw its potential. I started to gather a class of characters … then realised I already had them – in Too Many Friends. But this wasn’t Tahnee’s story. There is a little girl in TMF inspired by a girl I taught in my first class. Readers might remember her; the quiet one who is always there, but always … alone. Lucy. And her pet, Snail. This is their story. You can read more about Lucy and Snail here; https://www.uqp.com.au/books/what-snail-knows.
How have you incorporated learning difficulties in your verse novels?
I hope I’ve done it naturally. With heart. And hope. That it’s just a part of the story. I hadn’t realised learning difficulties were going to play a part when I started writing my ‘verse novel about training’– but life happened as I was writing it – and this new layer worked its way into the book, giving it heart and depth, and character development, both on the sporting field, and emotionally.
Why have you created your adult characters: loving parents; wise, kind teachers, as generally being so positive? [I love that you have btw.]
Oh my. I guess that would be because they are the parents/teachers I continually aspired to be. And the parents of kids I’ve encountered in the classroom. And yet … They make mistakes. They’re flawed.
Bully was born out of the mistakes I made as a mother – in that even though we were talking about the bully on my sons’ bus, giving them strategies to deal with her, I hadn’t realised how scared they were … It’s why I felt it was important to write Leroy’s story – to give young children a voice and a story that opens those conversations and taps into these deep fears. Leroy’s mother misses the cues. Toby and Shaun’s parents miss clues too, in On Track. And without giving too much away, Lucy’s Dad’s mistakes play a big part in What Snail Knows.
Reality is, we all make mistakes. But love covers a multitude of sins.
As a teacher yourself, how have you used any of your verse novels in the classroom?
I haven’t used my books in my classes, as a teacher. Not as published books. That just seemed to cross an ethical line in the Code of Conduct; self-promotion. Though I have included kids I have taught in my writing journey, over the years, sharing insights about the process of writing, editing, critiquing, etc and how that relates to their classroom practises.
Teaching peers have used my books with their classes – and I’m very happy to share resources with them.
And of course, I do use my books during school visits and poetry workshops – talking bullying, sibling rivalry, poetry techniques, STEM and creativity. Needless to say, that is a joy!
I will always be a teacher at heart – and because of this there are drop-down tabs for all my books on my website (under the Books tab) with links to resources and materials specific to each title. Some of these have been prepared by other professionals who have graciously allowed me to share them. (There are also resources under the Kids’ Stuff tab relevant for classroom use, but I’ve linked them separately for kids to find and use at home, too.)
What response from a child reader about one of your verse novels has been important for you?
One school I visited there was a boy who was very engaged by ‘Bully on the Bus’. He was a highly active student, who found it difficult to stay still, and frequently interjected during the session, though his contributions were always on topic. When I asked the class why Leroy might not have wanted to tell his parents, the boy’s hand shot up; “I know why Leroy doesn’t want to tell anyone. Because she hurt his heart. And do you know how I know this? Because a bully hurt my heart, too.” (His comment was a solid hit to my heart.)
After the session, the librarian drew him aside and asked if he would like to visit her at the library and read ‘Bully on the Bus’ as a reward. He would. That little lad barely made it past 9:30am in the classroom – spent most of his day, every day, in administration with the principal and various support staff. The fact that he had been the full hour in our session – and that he had been so engaged – was a notable achievement. And it warmed my heart that reading ‘Bully on the Bus’ in its entirety with the librarian was going to be an ongoing reward for him.
[What a heart-rending story]
I read somewhere recently that one, or more, of your verse novels has gone into reprint. Congratulations. This shows the connection you make with children and the adults who share books with them. Could you please tell about the reprint/s?
Thank-you! Bully on the Bus has been reprinted the most. I hadn’t actually realised how many times until I was checking out the imprint page on my latest copy.(Five times.) Whilst I wrote the book for young children, to give them a voice, and a vehicle to talk with an adult about bullying, it is also used in middle and upper primary grades, as both a poetry and bullying poetry resource. There are so many excellent resources available to support the book – and I have of course included the links to them on my website, because anything that supports teachers is a good thing, in my book!
Is there a sense of camaraderie or community between verse novelists?
Yes, there is! And there is a growing community now, both within Australia, and internationally. And that’s exciting!
How have you worked with the incredible Belle Alderman on the Australian Verse Novels Project for the National Centre for Australian Children’s Literature and what is the purpose of this resource?
For a number of years I had been contemplating making a list of Australian kidlit verse novels on my website. Often Australian titles get overlooked in international lists – yet Australia has such a rich history in this area. Turns out I wasn’t the only one thinking along these lines. Belle, Sally Murphy and I were having a conversation on Twitter (Belle is such a wonderful advocate) and we realised we shared a common goal. We came up with a plan/format, and over an extended period, together, with Ruth Nitsche, who also volunteers at the Centre, we read, wrote annotated notes, collated resources and so much more … to compile this list, that makes Australian verse novels easily accessible for both readers in general, and for educators and librarians. It’s a list that we will endeavour to update periodically into the future, so that all Australia’s CYA verse novels will be readily identifiable in the one place. I’m so honoured to have had this opportunity to work with the NCACL on this resource, and am excited for the readers who are going to discover new books as a result of this work.
Verse Novel bibliography at NCACL
Kathryn Apel’s verse novels at UQP
I have always had a verse novel category at PaperbarkWords blog and have promoted this form of books over the years due its importance.
Thanks very much for answering these questions with such wisdom and enthusiasm, Kathryn, and particularly for your important and joyous body of work.
Thank-you so much for sharing your blog space with me, Joy, and for these wonderful questions, that have really made me delve into my writing process. It has been a joy to revisit my older verse novels – and share a little insight (and excitement) about my upcoming book.
(Kathryn also writes picture books and introduces them here on the blog, alongside some other picture books by Queensland creators.)