Children’s Books

Children’s books: Kwame Alexander novel scores for middle-schoolers

CorrespondentJune 28, 2014 

Kwame Alexander’s middle-grade novel, “The Crossover” (HMH, ages 9-12), merges poetry, basketball, action and a lot of heart. It’s earned five-star reviews and has been recommended by every children’s poet of note.

The crossover is a basketball move in which a player dribbles with one hand and unexpectedly changes hands and sometimes directions. Like the crossover, the poetic forms, characters’ emotions and tones of the book often make sudden switches. These work well because all these shifts ring true.

The first poem, for example, blends hip-hop, trash talk and elements of a shape poem. The capitalization, italics and vibrant verbs add to the feeling of being on a basketball court mid-game as protagonist Josh describes himself “MOVING & GROOVING,/ POPping and ROCKING… CrissCROSSING.” Several poems later, humor emerges as Josh, impatient with his brother, “slaps … him/across his bald head/with my jockstrap.” And soon follows a brief poem, its form urging reads to pause and think as it begins, “In this game of life/your family is the court/and the ball is your heart.”

In terms of plot, the crossover is a move that has brought professional fame to the Chuck “Da Man” Bell, fictional father of 13-year-old twins Josh and Jordan Bell. Now retired, he coaches his two talented sons. Josh’s mother is a principal who counterbalances the father’s exuberance by reinforcing the importance of studying and trying to rein in her husband. The narrator, Josh, admires and envies his ball-handler brother, JB. Their friendly sibling rivalry over support of Duke and UNC players changes dramatically when, according to word-loving Josh, a “pulchritudinous” female whom he dubs “Miss Sweet Tea” wins JB’s heart. That change seems minor when compared to the sudden, surprising slam dunk ending.

Speech, emotions and actions show these boys as totally comfortable in their own skin. Alexander wanted to reinforce the idea that “anyone can read a book about two black boys and never for a second question that this is a universal story that could happen to any two boys.”

He’s been asked several times if he is intentionally avoiding the subjects of prejudice and poverty that appear in many books with African-American heroes.

“My answer is no. I am a 6-foot-4-inch black guy who grew up in a house with an amazing mother and father where I was taught the history of African-Americans and understood who I was culturally. But it was never something that I had to wear on my sleeve. I knew it, I was proud of it, and I walked through life like that. These boys are comfortable in who they are. Period!”

Sometimes authenticity can be hard on a writer. The ending that may send readers running for Kleenex, “wrote itself into the book. When it showed up on the page, I didn’t want it to happen, but there was just no way not to do it. I cried when I wrote it and I still do when I read it.”

Learn more at ignitingwriting.com.

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