Every once in a while, I read a book and — the moment I’ve finish the last page — I know the novel’s perfect poem. That’s what happened with my good friend Kathy MacMillan’s YA fantasy SWORD AND VERSE.


From left: Kathy, Janet, Ava, and Laura

Kathy and I, along with debut authors Ava Jae and Janet Sumner Johnson, did a mini book-tour together in March, covering several bookstores and libraries in Maryland and Virginia. For fun, each one of us brought a talisman to events — a small object that represented something about our books.

My object was a little plushie hamster. It is named for Refried Beans, the hamster that belongs to one of the characters in THE LAST FIFTH GRADE. Kathy talisman was a clay bird made by her son. She used the bird to explain an important setting in her novel.

SWORD AND VERSE is the story of Raisa, who was forced into slavery as a child and taken to the kingdom of Qilara. Qilarite religious traditions dictate that only those in power may read and write. There is one exception: a slave girl, who is trained in the complicated Qilarite language alongside the crown prince so that she may one day be tutor to his heir. As a teen, Raisa is selected to replace Prince Mati’s tutor, who has been executed for treason. Raisa finds herself falling in love with Mati, but she also begins to wonder whether her new role as Tutor in Training gives her the power to help other slaves.

Birds are part of a crucial setting in the novel. Raisa and Mati learn to read and write in a walled courtyard. There are special birds in the courtyard whose tail feathers are used as writing quills. Raisa notes that the birds are caged as babies, but their cages are gradually removed. By the time the birds are adults, their training is so ingrained that no cage is necessary. The birds don’t realize that they are free.

SWORD AND VERSE published in January. Here is the blurb from Goodreads:

Raisa was only a child when she was kidnapped and enslaved in Qilara. Forced to serve in the palace of the King, she’s endured hunger, abuse, and the harrowing fear of discovery. Everyone knows that Raisa is Arnath, but not that she is a Learned One, a part of an Arnath group educated in higher order symbols. In Qilara, this language is so fiercely protected that only the King, the Prince, and Tutors are allowed to know it. So when the current Tutor-in-training is executed for sharing the guarded language with slaves and Raisa is chosen to replace her, Raisa knows that, although she may have a privileged position among slaves, any slipup could mean death.

That would be challenging enough, but training alongside Prince Mati could be her real undoing. And when a romance blossoms between them, she’s suddenly filled with a dangerous hope for something she never before thought possible: more. Then she’s approached by the Resistance—an underground army of slaves—to help liberate the Arnath people. Joining the Resistance could mean freeing her people…but she’d also be aiding in the war against her beloved, an honorable man she knows wants to help the slaves.

Working against the one she loves—and a palace full of deadly political renegades—has some heady consequences. As Raisa struggles with what’s right, she unwittingly uncovers a secret that the Qilarites have long since buried…one that, unlocked, could bring the current world order to its knees.

And Raisa is the one holding the key.

kathy macmillan

Recommended for eighth grade and up.

Who will like it?

  • Readers who love epic fantasy novels.
  • Fans of libraries, reading, and writing.
  • Die-hard romantics.

What will readers learn about?

  • How a person who is accustomed to being controlled by others can begin making his or her own decisions.
  • The ways that language and power intersect to define a culture.
  • The effects of living in a controlled society.

With all I’ve said about caged birds, I hope you have figured out which poem I’m pairing with SWORD AND VERSE.

Caged Bird
By Maya  Angelou

A free bird leaps

on the back of the wind

and floats downstream

till the current ends

and dips his wing

in the orange sun rays

and dares to claim the sky.


But a bird that stalks

down his narrow cage

can seldom see through

his bars of rage

his wings are clipped and

his feet are tied

so he opens his throat to sing.


The caged bird sings

with a fearful trill

of things unknown

but longed for still

and his tune is heard

on the distant hill

for the caged bird

sings of freedom.

Read the rest of the poem at the Poetry Foundation.

What else is on Laura’s Bookshelf?

GENESIS GIRL, by Jennifer Bardsley (4/13/16)

TREASURE AT LURE LAKE, by Shari Schwarz (3/31/16)

THE LAST GREAT ADVENTURE OF THE PB&J SOCIETY, by Janet Sumner Johnson (3/25/16)

THE GIRL FROM EVERYWHERE, by Heidi Heilig (3/10/16)

THE DISTANCE FROM A TO Z, by Natalie Blitt (1/19/16)

COUNTING THYME, by Melanie Conklin (12/31/15)

FENWAY AND HATTIE, by Victoria J. Coe (12/24/15)


PAPER WISHES, by Lois Sepahban (11/19/15)

THE GIRL WHO FELL, by S. M. Parker (11/5/15)

SYMPTOMS OF BEING HUMAN, by Jeff Garvin (10/29/15)

SHALLOW GRAVES, by Kali Wallace (10/1/15)

MY SEVENTH GRADE LIFE IN TIGHTS, by Brooks Benjamin (7/22/15)

3 responses to “Laura’s Bookshelf: Sword and Verse”

  1. Linda Baie says:

    Sword and Verse sounds like a book for our time, to use it for teaching about “caging” birds in various ways.The connection to Angelou’s poem is apt, Laura. I just finished reading Unbroken, am connecting to it, too. Thanks for sharing another book to savor!

  2. […] else is on Laura’s Bookshelf? SWORD AND VERSE, by Kathy MacMillan […]

  3. […] A few weeks ago I went to a friend’s book launch. I’ve blogged about YA author Kathy MacMillan before, when her debut novel SWORD AND VERSE published. (Read my post about SWORD AND VERSE here.) […]

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Laura Shovan

Laura Shovan is the author of the award-winning middle grade novel, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary. Her second book, Takedown, is a Junior Library Guild and PJ Our Way selection. Look for A Place at the Table, co-written with Saadia Faruqi, in 2020. Laura is a poet-in-the-schools Maryland.

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