Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

Kwame Alexander is a poet who is not afraid to experiment. His choice of fiction verse mirrors the rhythm of the sport basketball and music. Now, I'm no musician. Nor am I poet. But I did see quite a bit going on in this terrific story that layers the complexity of family relationships with the beat of a bouncing basketball. From the beginning chapter you have a concrete poem using gerunds to reflect the movement of the sport and its fast pace. When I Googled "gerunds" and "poetry" I saw quite a few hits that said to avoid it when writing poems. Most argue that gerunds are passive; however, Alexander shows that it has a musical quality that reflects the action of basketball. His sentences don't come across passive. They move. Nor do they stick with one literary format. No worries. You don't get chapter-upon-chapter of gerunds. Alexander uses this style mostly when the protagonist is on the court with the ball playing a ratta-tat-tat beat off the palm of his hand. You could call this book style a "crossover" of experimentation that is a slam dunk in the end. While the topic is more middle school, grade 5 students will like it as well. A great addition to your library.

Josh Bell and his thirteen-year-old twin brother, J.B, are phenomenal middle school basketball players. Josh goes by the nickname, Filthy McNasty, from a song by jazz musician, Horace Silver. Josh can dunk the ball and likes how his dreadlocks separate him from J.B's shaved head. He's a forward and J.B. is a shooting guard. When J.B. falls in love, Josh finds he doesn't like being alone. Rather than dealing with his anger in a healthy way, he takes it out on the court with the basketball.

Josh's mom is an assistant principal of the school and she won't tolerate Josh's physical display of anger. She punishes him and J.B. won't talk to Josh. Meanwhile Josh can't seem to fix the mess he's created because he won't face his feelings. The subtle storyline is an understatement in the complexities of relationships. Josh's dad played professional basketball in Europe before an injury ended his career. His health is not the best and while the mom seems to understand the seriousness of his hypertension, the boys do not. When she argues with the dad about taking care of himself, the dad charms his way out of her concern causing her to put off forcing him going to the doctor.

The author creates an authentic voice in this middle class family and ego of a good athlete. Josh likes the glory of the game and being the top goal-scorer on the team. He talks big about his skills and even when he fails he has this positive mental image of himself doing great feats on the court. This imagery makes it no surprise that he performs well under pressure in the big game. It also shows why he decided to play in the game at the end versus being with his family. He is similar to his father in his love of basketball. They both love the crowds and Josh deals with life by playing the sport. He says he won't miss the game for a "maybe" and it is unclear what will happen to his dad.

In an interesting question-question session between father and son it becomes clear that his dad knows he'll play in the game. And I meant question-question, not question-answer. The two kind of answer each other and kind of don't. The father knows that the J.B. won't play in the big game and he wants Josh to play. He knows that he would do the same thing if he was in the Josh's position. Later when Josh has to make the decision he admits as much. I did have to go back and read the chapter, "For Dad" because I missed the importance of it the first time around. It confused me because I didn't understand the communication going on between J.B. and Josh. Alexander is very subtle with details. Plus, I was distracted by the format. I liked the non-rhyming couplets in this chapter. The choice creates white space with minimal words accenting the inner turmoil of Josh as he is on the court with his thoughts.  The imagery and emotion packed into such a small space is like a punch or bounce of a basketball. Quick and punctuated.

The chapter on Josh's play-by-play is supposed to sound like an announcer's voice. Again it shows Josh fantasizing he's a great star or player, a common activity athletes or viewers do in sports. The format is mostly free verse but there is wordplay and rhyming that has a lyrical quality. I really enjoyed the energetic use of poetry that reflects basketball and the characters' emotions.

Josh likes learning new words and the chapters that define them also show him trying to understand his relationship with his dad and brother. The short chapters on Rules in basketball are more rules for living life and having healthy relationships with others. Josh is intelligent and cocky with an introspective ability that makes the reader know that he will be productive person who can live a happy life.

5 Smileys

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