Right from the start, Kwame Alexander’s new book, “The Crossover,” looks, sounds and even feels different.
The hardcover book has the texture and orange color of a basketball. Inside, words change in size from one line to the next and sometimes drop diagonally across the page, as when the narrator describes how he moves down the basketball court:
and my dipping will leave you
G on the floor, while I
to the finish with a fierce finger roll . . .
Straight in the hole:
The hero of “The Crossover” is a tall 12-year-old named Josh Bell, who offers up the story of his life in a series of poems that are sometimes fresh and funny, sometimes sad and painful, but always move the story along in a compelling way.
Alexander says his 17th book was partly inspired by basketball legends such as Michael Jordan and the way their agile playing is often described as “poetry in motion.” As Alexander put it earlier this month, “I wanted to get across on the page what it looks like when Paul George dunks or LeBron James scores 61 points.”
In the book, Josh talks a lot about basketball as his middle-school team wins game after game. But “The Crossover” delves into off-court issues as well, including tensions developing between Josh and his twin brother, Jordan. It also addresses the warm, sometimes bumpy relationships Josh has with his father, a former basketball star, and his mother, his school’s assistant principal.
Says Alexander, “I tried to keep in mind what it’s like to be a middle-school student dealing with all the woes and wonders of the tween and teen years — love, loss, friendship, family, school, homework.”
In writing about Josh’s family, Alexander followed the “Write what you know” advice that’s been given countless times. But he also wanted “to write some of what you don’t know.” As he puts it, “I tried to draw on things I remembered, like the joy and the sense of humor that was so prevalent in my household. I also drew on some things I wished had gone on in my household, like having a brother who was my age, who I could talk to, play with, fight with, learn from.”
Alexander became excited about writing in college after a childhood filled with books. Both in Brooklyn, where he was born, and in Chesapeake, Virginia, where he moved at age 12, “books were on shelves on every wall in every room. My parents forced us to read every day. Then we could do other things. In college, I realized poetry was a way I could be cool. I could write my observations about the world in a witty, clever way that people would be interested in.”
As he was writing and rewriting this complex novel in verse, Alexander put together “a wall of sticky notes — with plot points and a timeline to follow.” He says it took him a couple of years to “get it right.” And he points out that even writers need coaches: “I had a lot of readers and writers to offer their insights in the making of ‘The Crossover.’ ”
Kwame Alexander will be one of two guest judges for the 2014 KidsPost’s Poetry Contest. Alexander said the first poem he remembers writing was for a Mother’s Day gift when he was 12 or 13. “She loved it,” he said. For a chance to impress your family and friends as a poetry contest winner, submit your entry by Monday. Complete directions and a entry form can be found at kidspost.com .