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Crossover by Kwame Alexander, 237 pp, RL: 4

I am embarrassed to admit that I had The Crossover by Kwame Alexander sitting on my bookshelf for almost a year before it won the Newbery Award this year. I read the blurb about basketball phenom Josh Bell and his twin brother Jordan and couldn't get excited, even though I LOVE verse novels and am continually amazed by them. It's just that I have zero interest in sports and sports stories. Of course, I should have known that The Crossover would be so much more than a basketball story. And, as breathtaking and unforgettable as The Crossover is, had I read it before February 2, 2015, I do not think I could have predicted that it would win the (well deserved) Newbery Award. Of course, that's not really saying much since the ALA awards are rarely predictable. 

So, what makes The Crossover so much more than a basketball story? First, let me note that one thing that Alexander does in The Crossover that I have not experienced in the handful of verse novels I have read, is write in a way that reads more like a traditional poem than the typical verses employed which, short of thought provoking line breaks, can read more like vignettes. When narrator Josh is on the court, his verses sing and Alexander's style makes you hear the poetry flow in your head as you read. I was enthusiastically describing The Crossover to two fifth grade boys and ended up playing a sample of the audio book, which hooked them immediately. Observing this, I purchased the audio book, which is read by Corey Allen, on the spot and added it to my school library's collection. Unfortunately, not having any knowledge of the sport, I can only trust other reviewers, like Cornelius Eady and his superb review for the New York Times, when he says that Alexander "takes great delight in borrowing the energy of rap and hip-hop to translate the game's heat, speed and joy of motion to the page." And, while, as Eady notes, basketball is the "red-hot engine" of the novel and the glue connecting the brothers to the "source of the wisdom their father passes down," The Crossover is as much, if not more about family.

Josh and JB are the sons of Chuck Bell, a former European-league basketball player who chose to leave the game rather than have knee surgery and chance to play for the Lakers, and a middle school assistant principal. A stay at home father and personal coach, the boys are especially close to their father, but their mother is a powerful force in their family as well. The Crossover is divided into sections - quarters, like the game itself - and has Josh's twelve vocabulary words and Chuck's 10 Rules of Basketball serving as titles for poems that add rhythm in the book. Although they are twins, the brothers have their differences, inside and out. Josh, who has been nicknamed "Filthy McNasty" by his dad, after a Horace Silver song, is an inch taller and has dreadlocks while JB prefers a shaved head. "Five Reasons I Have Locks," and "Ode to my Hair" pay tribute to Josh's hair, while "ca-lam-i-ty" recounts how Josh loses his hair (a snip that was supposed to take one lock and instead took five) when he loses a bet to JB. This is the start of a rift between brothers that feels like a Greek myth at times.

As Josh grows angry and he and JB grow apart, their game falters and bad choices are made but a strong family bond is the glue that keeps the Bells from falling apart.  Mrs. Bell works to keep Chuck away from salty foods because he refuses to have his hypertension treated and the brothers do their best to conform to her rules, with an increasing awareness of the dangers posed to their father. What makes The Crossover so highly readable, especially for a non-sports-fan, is the story of this family. Eady writes that The Crossover is "most boldly and certainly a book about tenderness. It's the trigger that causes a rift between the brothers, and what will ultimately heal them. More important, readers should observe the careful way that Alexander build the small moments between the brothers; between the brothers and their father; between father and mother." And in noting this, Eady points out what is so miraculous about a truly good verse novel - the small moments that the author organizes and arranges, connecting poems, building to emotionally charged moments, creating a crisp, clear picture with deft, swift brushstrokes.

Kwame Alexander also created Book in a Day which is a:

one-day, intensive writing/publishing workshop where students not only become authors, but they take on the responsibility of publishing their book. Three-to-four weeks after the workshop (depending on the quantity of books printed), copies of the student book are delivered and a launch is held to showcase the book.

The mission of BID is to: 

use poetry and literature, and an innovative student run publication program to foster engaged reading and writing skills that inspire a sense of authorship/ownership in children and young adults, which has proven to lead to greater academic confidence and achievement. Through curriculum and coaching, BID develops the literacy capacity of schools, libraries and other organizations, and leads the effort to encourage students to appreciate the power of language and literature.

Wow! I hope we can get a visit from Kwame at my school someday!

Source: Review Copy


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