Friday, February 20, 2015

Rhythms and Layers

Kwame Alexander wrote his 2015 Newbery-winning novel The Crossover in poems that slip off the tongue effortlessly. The emphasis of the all caps and the line breaks assure even those who hesitate to read passages aloud that they will read (and sometimes shout) the lines properly from the start.

2015 Newbery winner Kwame Alexander
Photo: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
As with any great long poem, the novel's multiple meanings begin to emerge as the story progresses. The crossover move ("in which a player dribbles/ the ball quickly/ from one hand/ to the other./ As in: When done right,/ a crossover can break/ an opponent's ankles"), narrator Josh's signature play, takes on diverse aspects of crossing a threshold (from childhood to adulthood, life and death) over the course of the novel. The 10 rules of basketball that twins Josh and JB's father reinforce in them apply as much to life as they do to the game. The dreadlock incident (in which JB bets Josh that if JB can score the last basket of the game, he can cut off Josh's dreads--Josh agrees to one, JB cuts five, then their mother makes Josh slash the rest) hits Josh nearly as hard as it did Samson. The incident begins an escalation of his sense of loss and betrayal.

As Josh's rift widens with JB, who's not just his identical twin, but also his best friend, Josh is in danger of a spiral downward, and his parents won't allow it. Kwame Alexander told Karin Snelson in an interview for Shelf Awareness that he almost didn't keep the parents in the book. "In a lot of middle-grade and YA fiction the parents are done away with so that you can focus on the kids," he said. "My familial bonds were always extremely important, so that was my frame of mind at first. But as I wrote the book, I got caught up in this notion that the parents can't be that instrumental. And so the parents were introduced in the book, but they were just sort of there. I told myself, you have a loaded gun, but you haven't fired it. What's the point of introducing these strong parents if you aren't going to utilize that strength to make the story even more powerful? And once I decided that, I thought, well, that's the kind of house you grew up in, you can draw on your own relationship with your family."

So the final layer is art imitating life. There's no doubt of the emotional truth that informs this novel in verse.

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