Reading Novels in Verse by Kwame Alexander

Man, I wish someone had introduced me to Kwame Alexander’s writing when I was a kid. Growing up, poems meant Wordsworth and Frost – the first I would never grow to love, and the second was never taught as more than a maudlin, sentimental version of what he had to offer. Poems were distant, archaic and dull. I was too obtuse for poetry and poetry took itself too seriously for me.

About two years into my teaching career, I stumbled upon The Crossover by Kwame Alexander. I had been looking for “books about sports for boys” – such a common request from parents of reluctant readers who hate to empty their pockets (not surprisingly) on the favourite Wimpy Kids and Captain Underpants-es. The Goodreads blurb of the book sounded too good to be true. It goes something like:

Summary“With a bolt of lightning on my kicks . . .The court is SIZZLING. My sweat is DRIZZLING. Stop all that quivering. Cuz tonight I’m delivering,” announces dread-locked, 12-year old Josh Bell. He and his twin brother Jordan are awesome on the court. But Josh has more than basketball in his blood, he’s got mad beats, too, that tell his family’s story in verse, in this fast and furious middle grade novel of family and brotherhood. Josh and Jordan must come to grips with growing up on and off the court to realize breaking the rules comes at a terrible price, as their story’s heart-stopping climax proves a game-changer for the entire family.

What a fitting search result to my query. I looked up The Crossover with some apprehension, because I don’t exactly understand basketball, or any sport for that matter; not entirely sure I understand the mind of a 12-year-old reluctant reader. But it was the middle of the school year and I was out of options for this kid, so I picked it up. And there was no coming back! Enter: unapologetic 27-year-old fangirl.

Last month I read the “second instalment” in the series called Booked, an unrelated story, this one about a young soccer player, but a similar pattern of writing. I knew what I was going into, and it didn’t quite have the same impact as The Crossover, but it was pretty good nonetheless.

Kwame Alexander does what I wish someone had done when I was a kid – he makes poetry seamless, flowing and fun. I thought that the verse would be a part of the book that I’d get used to, you know, something I’d learn to ignore after a while. But NO. I loved it! The ridiculously no-holds-barred experimentation in writing; it was so enjoyable. He pulled out all the stops. You leave these books with a new understanding of the narrative breadth and depth of poems. Here’s what I mean:

two consecutive chapters from Booked

The writing is simple, without being simplistic. It’s clear. It comes from a good place, but it’s not preachy. It sounds unapologetically like its characters; not like what grown-ups think kids sound like… It has a casual sense of humour. And it does a very serious job of promoting the exploration of language as a means of expression, and family values and friendship, and bullying, and life-choices… and it does all that without a hint of self-indulgence or pretension!

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