2022 Notable Books: NCTE's 21 Best Poetry and Verse Novels for Kids

The NCTE Excellence in Children’s Poetry Award Committee has recognized 21 exceptional books of poetry and nine novels in verse in their annual list. Read and evaluated by each member of the committee, these books published in 2021 are notable for their use of language, poetic devices, and their application to children ages three to 13.

Interior art from Dear Treefrog by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Diana Sudyka (Clarion).
Interior art from Dear Treefrog by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Diana Sudyka (Clarion).


In 1977, the NCTE Excellence in Children’s Poetry Award Committee was created to recognize the work of outstanding poets who write for children. Since then, in addition to naming an outstanding poet every two years, the committee now selects annual notable lists of poetry and novels in verse. This year, members of the committee are pleased to recognize 21 exceptional books of poetry and nine novels in verse as 2022 Notable Books. Each of the books was published in 2021.

Read and evaluated by each member of the committee, these books are notable for their use of language, poetic devices, and their application to children ages three to 13. The form or structure of the poems was evaluated to ensure that the mood and subject matter was accurately represented. This year’s selections include a range of formats, including poetic nonfiction, anthologies, biographies, and bilingual texts. Poets include familiar names and debut authors. For a list of past lists and other notable poetry resources, visit the NCTE website.


Notable Poetry

Carry On: Poetry by Young Immigrants. illus. by Rogé. tr. from French by Susan Ouriou. Owlkids. ISBN 9781771474160.
Gr 3-8 –This collection of poems captures the voices, stories, and feelings of newcomers who have immigrated to Canada from countries around the world—including Ukraine, South Korea, Colombia, Moldova, Armenia, and Iran. The poems reflect the powerful emotions, worries, and wonderings that migrant poets experience as they move between worlds, both old and new. The poems are accompanied by Rogé’s beautifully detailed portraits of each immigrant author. As one young poet writes: “Iran is far from me/ I contemplate it only/ On a map of the world/ At heart, I’m nearby/ Only a hand’s width away/ From my native land.”

Dakos, Kalli. They Only See the Outside. illus. by Jimothy Oliver. Magination. ISBN 9781433835193.
K-Gr 6 –This wonderful collection of poetry contains poems on homework, chronic illness, the death of a friend, bullying, lying, shyness, and other significant issues. For example, “I speak English./ Pedro speaks Spanish./ But when we/ giggle,/ we/ giggle/ THE SAME!” The pen-and-ink illustrations complement the silly and serious worries that children feel, emphasizing the struggles kids experience internally. These poems could be shared individually for a poetry break or as conversation starters to discuss tough topics that are not-so-obvious on the outside.

Damluji, Mona. Together. illus. by Innosanto Nagara. Seven Stories. ISBN 9781644210840.
K-Gr 8 –“One star shines as distant light/ And when stars shine together,/ they make our galaxy.” Thus begins this gorgeous and inspiring title that promotes community and social justice. All ages will enjoy this board book because of the rhythm, rhyme, and repeating lines. Bold, colorful illustrations depict real people and events, as well as a hide-and-seek frog. With themes of playing together, rising together, loving together, and speaking up together, this volume will inspire children to act in unity.

Golio, Gary. Sonny Rollins Plays the Bridge. illus. by James Ransome. Penguin/Nancy Paulsen. ISBN 9781984813664.
K-Gr 5 –A poetry picture book that tells the true story of icon Sonny Rollins, a critical figure in the Golden Age of Jazz who found his inspiration when practicing atop the Williamsburg Bridge in New York City. Golio’s lyrical narrative feels like a jazz performance, while Ransome’s vivid illustrations bring late 1950s New York City to life. The book’s back matter provides further details about the subject. “Sonny’s breath/ borne through horn/ in harmony with ALL around him/ above the sky/ deep and blue/ spread out/ like a/ smile/ over Earth.”

Grimes, Nikki. Legacy: Women Poets of the Harlem Renaissance. illus. by various. Bloomsbury. ISBN 9781681199443.
Gr 5 Up –Grimes collects the voices of Black women poets writing 100 years ago—many of whom are unknown to a wider audience—and responds with her own skillful poems using the Golden Shovel form. This powerful, decidedly feminist collection does not shy away from the often brutal truths of Black women’s experience, but also brings to light everyday appreciations of nature, community, and the strength at women’s core. As if this literary richness were not enough, this volume features artwork of Black women illustrators working today. Resources include detailed biographies of the poets and the artists.

Hannah-Jones, Nikole & Renee Watson. The 1619 Project: Born on the Water. illus. by Nikkolas Smith. Penguin/Kokila. ISBN 9780593307359.
Gr 3-6 –As the authors explain, this powerful collection of poems shows “that Black Americans have their own proud origin story… that bridges the gap between Africa and the United States of America.” This legacy is bookended by a story of a girl who receives a school assignment to explore her origins. Smith applies a broad range of Central West African details and patterned motifs to provide “a visual representation of the infectious joy, heartbreaking struggles, and triumphant legacy” of this history. Ultimately, the book creates a new patriotism: “I draw the stars and I draw the stripes/ of the flag of the country that my ancestors built…/ that I will help build, too.”

Harrison, David. L. The Dirt Book: Poems About Animals that Live Beneath Our Feet. Holiday House. ISBN 9780823438617.
Gr 2-4 –Filled with facts about dirt, and all it contains, this book is a celebration of the natural world below ground. The illustrations open vertically, engaging readers in a look down into the depths of the soil beneath our feet, uncovering the curiosities therein. The topics of the poems range from the tiniest of creatures, such as “Trapdoor Spider: The Waiting Game,” to larger animals, such as “Gopher Tortoise: The Inn Keeper.” The vertical format, combined with the colorful and detailed illustrations, complement the text and carry the eye from top to bottom through the page. Perfect as joyful read-alouds, these poems will inspire and inform the youngest of readers about the wonders of dirt.

Heard, Georgia. My Thoughts Are Clouds: Poems for Mindfulness. illus. by Isabel Roxas. Roaring Brook. ISBN 9781250244680.
K-Gr 5 –This poetry anthology contains meditative poems that incorporate breathing techniques to quiet children’s minds. “Breathe in./ Breathe out./ Breathe in kind./ Breathe out unkind./ Breathe in quiet./ Breathe out noise.” Heard begins with a note to readers that provides some background on mindfulness and the importance of being present. The text is organized beautifully with simple illustrations and different shades of blue that cause the black-and-white poems to stand out. This must-have book for libraries and teachers provides inventive poems with unique perspectives and formats.

Hood, Susan. The Last Straw: Kids vs. Plastics. illus. by Christiane Engel. HarperCollins. ISBN 9780062981394.
Gr 3-5 –This title fits into the hybrid genre of poetic nonfiction (https://bit.ly/3HUesTh), as every page combines poetry with expository writing to teach about a specific topic. Hood uses diverse poetry forms, such as odes, concrete poems, limericks, cumulative poems, elegies, and personas. Topics include microplastics, plastic bags and straws, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and other environmental issues. Most topics also celebrate specific ways children have advocated for the environment and raise awareness of how people can help. The book provides excellent resources in the back matter that promote advocacy, including a time line, alternatives to plastic products, websites, and further reading.

Kulekjian, Jessica. Before We Stood Tall. illus. by Madeleine Kloepper. Kids Can. ISBN 9781525303241.
K-Gr 5 –Towering trees speak for themselves, taking readers back, step by step, to their infancy as a seed—reversing the usual life cycle narrative of seed growing into plant. These two changes of perspective turn a common topic fresh, and the carefully crafted language makes for stand-out nonfiction poetry: “we clothed ourselves in bark and crowned ourselves in leaves, waving eagerly at the sun.” Along the way, earth-tone watercolor illustrations enrich the poem, incorporating recent research on how trees communicate underground. Ample back matter demonstrates its solid grounding in scientific sources.

Larios, Julie. Delicious! Poems Celebrating Street Food Around the World. illus. by Julie Paschkis. S. & S./Beach Lane. ISBN 97815344533777.
PreS-3 –Joyful and exuberant, This book bursts with color and pattern. The two Julies dish up a fun and engaging focus on street foods from around the world in appetizing, bite-size packages. With illustrations that vividly depict key elements of each culture represented, the poems are brief, concrete, and rhyming, as readers travel from Beijing to Lima to Jaffa, Israel: “Orange juice/ in an orange cup/ from an orange cart/ with orange wheels–/ and a big, BIG pile/ of orange peels.”

Levy, Debbie. Photo Ark ABC: An Animal Alphabet in Poetry and Pictures. photos by Joel Sartore. National Geographic. ISBN 9781426372469.
Gr 1-5 –The diverse and playful poetry forms in this work oscillate with vibrant pictures to create fascination with each animal that is represented. The poems use bright colors, word shapes, fonts, and layouts that dance around each illustration to enhance meanings. The book is part of the Photo Ark Project, which aims to “document every species living in the world’s zoos and wildlife sanctuaries, inspire action through education, and help save wildlife by supporting on-the-ground conservation efforts.” The book provides wonderful online resources to use with children that expand opportunities for classroom explorations.

Luby, Brittany. Mii maanda ezhi-gkendmaanh/This Is How I Know. illus. by Joshua Mangeshig Pawis-Steckley. tr. by Alvin Ted Corbiere & Alan Corbiere. Groundwood. ISBN 9781773063263.
PreS-Gr 1 –Evocative artwork and lyrical descriptions highlight this story of a girl and her grandmother as they explore their natural world throughout the year. The text pairs Anishinaabemowin with English in the style of a patterned poem, with the girl asking “How do I know?” and answering herself with details from each season. In summer, “insects billow black from the trees,/ and the sun slips into an orange dream.” Winter as the time “When I whistle to Blue Jay,/ too-wheedle too-wheedle,/ and lay seeds for red-capped Woodpecker.” A lovely bilingual text that offers both specific cultural representation and the broader experience of seeing signs of spring.

Luyken, Corinna. The Tree in Me. Dial. ISBN 9780593112595.
Gr 1 Up –A tribute to our interconnectedness with nature and one another, this poetic picture book is meditative and joyful. “The tree in me/ is part apple,/ part orange-pear-almond-plum/ (part yummm),/ part shade,/and part sun.” So begins a sparse and symbolic story layered with tender emotion and gratitude to the wonder of nature. Both lyrical and heartwarming in its message, The Tree in Me offers plenty about our outside world to marvel at with each page turn. Color-popping illustrations showcase childhood through lovely moments and images as the words drive home: “The tree in me/ is strong./ It bends,” a clear message of inner strength.

Pappa, Rodoula. Beautiful Day! Petite Poems for All Seasons. illus. by Seng Soun Ratanavanh. Cameron Kids. ISBN 9781951836146.
K-Gr 4 –Small, joyful odes to the seasons come alive as a child observes and reflects through words and illustrations on images and objects—from snowfall to waves, kites to strawberries, and fireflies to grasshoppers. “Beautiful day! Teach me, too, how to fly, mother swallow.” Capturing moments in time, these mini, haiku-inspired poems highlight a sense of magic and wonder in the world. “Starting to rain – colorful umbrellas – listen! – are singing!” Both atmospheric and childlike, this is a visual delight.

Ramos, NoNieqa. Your Mama. illus. by Jacqueline Alcántara. HaperCollins/Versify. ISBN 9781328631886.
PreS-Gr 3 –“Your Mama so sweet,/ she could be a bakery,/ all frosting, powdered sugar, and pastries.” So begins this playful, positive riff on the classic “yo’ mama” joke to celebrate Latinx mothers. Each joyful stanza of rhythmic verse begins, thanks to Alcántara, with a colorful “Your Mama” statement writ large within a banner. The rest of each page pictures a mother and daughter doing ordinary things in loud and liberated ways—baking cakes, going to Parent Night at school, visiting the library, singing in the car, marching in a parade. This lyrical ode features seamless code-switching among multiple languages as it weaves a dense, warm fabric of fast-paced rhythm and rhyme.

Rosen, Michael. Honey for You, Honey for Me. illus. by Chris Riddell. Candlewick. ISBN 9781536212730.
PreS-Gr 2 –Mother Goose has arrived in the 21st century, and she fits right in! Thi s fresh rendition of popular and lesser-known nursery and schoolyard rhymes is updated with illustrations and graphic design elements that will attract new generations of readers. The large format, common for a book of nursery rhymes, feels more expansive for the use of white space; giant, colorful type; and diverse representation. The selections are distinctly British, but the inclusion of familiar favorites like “Diddle Diddle Dumpling” and “Miss Mary Mack” will draw American readers in. “Who wants breakfast?/ Who wants tea?/ Who wants everything/ just like me?/ Honey for breakfast,/ Honey for tea,/ Honey for you,/ honey for me,” and all of us!

Sidman, Joyce. Dear Treefrog. illus. By Diana Sudyka. Clarion. ISBN 9780358064763.
PreS-Gr 3 –With echoes of Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody” poem in the background, we follow the story of a child navigating new environments with the help of an amphibian friend. “To Find You/ I must be/ a little different/ from my everyday self,” the narrator says, concluding that she is “a little less lonely.” The treefrog provides the child opportunities to appreciate its shy nature and her own introverted identity as she gains confidence and builds new relationships. A sentence or two of informational text accompanies each poem, and brief, but purposeful, back matter adds substance. Sudyka’s gouache watercolor illustrations highlight the bond between the frog, “a sailor/ on the rigging/ gold eyes sparkling” and the narrator who promises, “I will be/ your first mate.”

Smith Jr., Charles R. Hoop Kings 2: New Royalty. Candlewick. ISBN 9781536210354.
Gr 2-6 –A follow-up to Hoop Kings and Hoop Queens, this is an inspiring collection of poems about some of the NBA’s greatest superstars. Smith Jr. has created spoken-word style poems that are begging to be read aloud (“Buckle your seat belts/ cleared for takeoff,/ Blake Griffin on the runway/ ready for liftoff”), while photographs of the NBA superstars complement the text. Poetry notes from Smith Jr. help readers better understand the inspiration behind each of his action-packed poems.

Waters, Fiona, ed. Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright! An Animal Poem for Each Day of the Year. illus. by Britta Teckentrup. Nosy Crow. ISBN 9781536217186.
K-Gr 5 –This vast anthology of animal poetry offers readers one poem for every day of the year. A blend of classic and modern-day poetry drawn from poets around the world, the verses range in focus (“Polar Cub,” “Winter,” “Fireflies in the Garden”) and format. The impressive work celebrates the diversity of the animal kingdom, from smallest insect to largest mammal. Teckentrup’s detailed illustrations of animals in their natural habitats will delight animal lovers, with their muted and natural tones. Readers will return to the poems in this volume over and over again, every day of the year.

Wong, Janet. Good Luck Gold & More. Yuzu/Pomelo. ISBN 9781937057763.
Gr 4 Up –In the engaging foreword to this new edition, Wong notes the new content added to accompany each entry. Annotations marked “the story behind the story” or “the story after the story,” provide context as well as questions for readers to prompt thoughts, conversations, and poems of their own. In “After the Parade,” the speaker describes the leftover bits of red paper as “firecracker ghosts/ prowling around,/ searching for souls/ lost with the year,/ trying to calm/ their dragon fear.” On the facing page, Wong expounds on what writers do and concludes, “Not everything that a poet notices or says needs to be beautiful. But sometimes we’ll look at litter and think of dragons.”


Notable Verse Novels

Caprara, Rebecca. Worst-Case Collin. Charlesbridge. ISBN 9781623541453.
Gr 5-8 –Collin is grieving the loss of his mother and learns to swim to help him process and cope. In addition, he keeps a notebook where he writes steps to survive future worst-case scenarios—avalanches, riptides, starvation, or piranhas. With the help of two friends, Collin addresses his grief, a school bully, and his father’s hoarding (“Back at home/ I examine/ the expanding, thriving/ Hoard.”). This verse novel features interesting visual poetic forms and vivid language and imagery, making it fun and fascinating. It also reminds readers that friends sometimes need help with very personal struggles.

Faruqi, Reem. Unsettled. HarperCollins. ISBN 9780063044708.
Gr 3-7 –This engaging narrative of a family’s move from Pakistan to the American South features beautifully drawn characters and themes that include fitting in, discovery, and the simultaneous reality of sibling bonds and rivalry. Faruqi creates a stirring story in free verse, often juxtaposing details of the family’s old and new lives; in “Baba’s Patience,” narrator Nurah contrasts their new push-button fireplace with her father’s traditions: “By the hungry orange licks,/ Baba mends kites,/ and waits for/ an invitation from the sky.” Nurah is a likable, relatable narrator whose story will draw readers into the book’s rich poetic language, structure, and dialogue.

Freeman, Megan E. Alone. S. & S./Aladdin. ISBN 9781534467569.
Gr 4-8 –A captivating and thrilling survival tale, told in narrative free verse. The book tells the story of 12-year-old Maddie, who is stranded when her small Colorado town is evacuated during a national emergency. Readers will immediately connect with and root for Maddie, a strong, resourceful, and resilient protagonist, as she seeks to survive in the face of isolation. Freeman’s free verse narrative is lyrical and captures the range of emotions that Maddie experiences throughout her fight for survival (“Speed-dial.Mom.Now// SPEEDDIALDADNOW// I/text/text/text/text/text/text/everyone.// Nothing.”). This is a middle grade adventure that will keep readers on the edge of their seats.

Grehan, Meg. The Deepest Breath. Clarion. ISBN 9780358354758.
Gr 4-8 –Stevie is an 11-year-old girl who lives with “A squirming kind of/ Fear,” like being underwater, “Deep down/ Where it isn’t really blue/ But black/ Like bruises or ink or midnight.” She keeps a giant notebook where she collects the information she might need to deal with Bad Things happening on land or at sea, and her mom is the kind who thinks hard to give Stevie “real and true answers”—to almost every question, except “What is the fizzy feeling in my chest?” This novel deftly lands at the intersection of ordinary concerns of early adolescence, extraordinary anxiety, and a confusing attraction to a friend of the same gender. Stevie’s navigation of this intersection takes on poetic significance through a complex and extended ocean metaphor. She takes a deep dive into herself, coming—with the help of a sympathetic librarian!—to an understanding that renders the Bad Things into good ones.

Guidroz, Rukhsanna. Samira Surfs. illus. by Fahmida Azim. Penguin/Kokila. ISBN 9781984816191.
Gr 5-7 –Twelve-year-old Samira; her older brother, Khaled; and their parents are living as unwanted refugees near Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, after escaping persecution as Rohingya Muslims in Burma (now called Myanmar). Collectively, the poems explore themes of religious and ethnic persecution, the plight of refugees, poverty, child labor, and Samira’s empowerment through friendship and surfing. These themes resonate in the vibrant poetic elements of each poem: “I duck under the water/ and forget my worries./ The sea is my teacher,/ and today it is my friend,/ my joy.” The novel will undoubtedly introduce children to urgent historical, social, and geopolitical issues in a region of the world most Westerners know little about.

​​Hagan, Ellen. Reckless, Glorious, Girl. Bloomsbury. ISBN 9781547604609.
Gr 6-8 –In this poetic and tender coming-of-age story, Beatrice lets readers in on her dreams, big and small, through diarylike entries that highlight her struggles in leaving childhood behind. “…It’s the saying goodbye to the old me/ while I have no idea who the new me even is just yet.” This novel in verse is set right before middle school, as one girl is about to leave summer behind and begin seventh grade. Tweens will witness as she grapples with the question of whether she should change to fit in, or stay exactly who she is. Full of Southern charm, this is an intergenerational story with a perfect blend of friendship, family, and finding yourself. It aptly explores the emotions, crushes, insecurities, and the ups and downs that one girl encounters on the path to self-discovery.

LaRocca, Rajani. Red, White, and Whole. HarperCollins/Quill Tree. ISBN 9780063047426.
Gr 5-7 –Twelve-year-old Reha contends with being the only Hindu Indian girl with brown skin, dark eyes, and black hair, in her private middle school in 1980s Louisville, KY. The novel depicts how Reha navigates her culture, family connections in India, love of American popular culture, and intellectual student life. Ultimately, the novel contends with the trauma of her mother’s battle with leukemia, using poignant, poetic verse. “My mother’s name is Punam, and that means moon…/ Like our moon,/ she only shows us one face./ The strong one.”

Mills, Claudia. The Lost Language. Holiday House. ISBN 9780823450381.
Gr 4-8 –In this skillful and powerful novel, Lizard and Bumble work together to save a dying language, Guernésiais, by learning phrases and starting a language club at their school. When tension grows between the girls and a family tragedy occurs, the best friends move apart. The beautiful verse oscillates between poetry and prose, capturing each character exquisitely. Eventually, Bumble learns to find the right words to share her voice (“Should I say the rest?/ Is this the time to say it?// If not now,/ then when?”), helping her bloom into the person she is meant to be. Although heartbreaking, this novel is also hilarious and honest; readers will leave with heart and hope.

Fritz, Joanne Rossmassler. Everywhere Blue. Holiday House. ISBN 9780823448623.
Gr 4-8 –The story of a musical family torn apart by grief and loss is woven throughout this lyrical novel in verse. Strum, Maddie’s environmentalist older brother, disappears from his college campus, sending their parents on a quest to find him and bring him home. Maddie is left under the watch of her older sister, who is distracted and disinterested. The story reflects the impact of change—changes in families, growing up, and the impact of human choice on the environment. Music is a central element to both the plot and the verse, with musical metaphors abound, “November pulls me down,/ Like a diminuendo in music, gradually dying away,” “January is a staccato,/ disconnected and/ feeling detached,” communicating depth and emotion.


The NCTE Excellence in Children’s Poetry Committee Members: Ted Kesler (chairperson), Ryan Colwell, Deanna Day, Rebecca Kai Dotlich, Gabrielle Atwood Halko, Heidi Mordhorst, Mary-Kate Sableski 

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