Kwame Alexander won the Newbery Medal in 2015 for his earlier novel, The Crossover, about twin boys who love basketball. His new novel in verse, Booked, is about twelve-year-old Nick, who is crazy about soccer. Nick’s parents both love him, but they’re not sure that they still love each other, and his mom is away a lot with her work. His dad, a linguistics professor, is passionate about Nick’s education, and is forcing him to read the entire dictionary! Besides wrestling with his parents’ expectations, Nick is struggling with bullying at school. His best moments come when he is on the soccer field, winning games and practicing the moves that he hopes will impress April, who seems quite willing to be impressed.
Alexander has accomplished seemingly impossible feats in these two novels. First of all, he has written realistic novels that boys actually enjoy! So many books for boys at this middle-school level are fantasies, since the most avid readers at this age devour enormous sci-fi fantasies one after the other. This is just a small minority of kids, though, who are doing most of the reading, so enticing reluctant readers with the realistic stories that they prefer shows that Mr. Alexander knows kids and wants to give them stories that resonate in their lives. Secondly, the fact that these stories are written in verse is stunning. Imagine reluctant readers loving poetry for fun! The free verse sets the pace for the meaning, with long lines for emotional passages and short, zippy lines that fly down the page for soccer scenes and breezy reading. The chapters often read like rap songs, bopping along to a beat.
Finally, though, Alexander joins a small group of new authors speaking in a voice that has long been missing from African-American children’s writers: the average, middle-class, twenty-first century kid. So many African-American children’s books are depressingly didactic. It’s not that they’re not high quality; some great works of literature reside on these shelves. However, most books written for or about African-American children take place during the time of slavery, the Civil War, or the Civil Rights era. Contemporary stories often deal with troubled inner cities, drug addiction, or gangs. All of these topics are important and need to be remembered or addressed, but we all need a broader view of this community, and especially of young, black men. If those of us who are not African-American only hear of them as “troubled youth,” we will continue to view them suspiciously as “Other.” And in the meantime, what the twelve-year-old African-American boy down the street is really worrying about is whether he’ll pass Friday’s math test or whether his parents will get a divorce. Just the usual stuff of life: school, sports, girls, parents. Just like everybody else. Because, really, isn’t that enough for a kid to handle?
It’s this deep understanding of kids’ lives, what worries them and what thrills them, that makes Kwame Alexander’s novels appeal to all kinds of kids everywhere. And if they come away with a fascination for poetry, even better!
Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.