The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

Mar 4, 2015

Except for a brief stint when I was 16 and had a crush on half of my small town's high school basketball team, I've never really been that into the sport.

So when The Crossover won the 2015 Newbery, I was, hmmm, not that excited. Quite frankly, the only reason I picked it up was because a) it won the Newbery, b) it was a verse novel, so I knew I'd only be giving up a couple hours of my life to suffer through it, and c) I wanted to be able to form a true opinion of it.

Oh, and I guess I also was a tiny bit interested in seeing how basketball and poetry would go together. Because I was pretty sure they would clash big-time.

I was absolutely, totally, completely wrong. Never have I been so quick to try to snatch back my words.

This novel is passionate. And honest. It's powerful. And real.

There aren't many books that I finish and immediately hand over to Mike. But with this one, I did exactly that.

I guess I could stop gushing and actually tell you about the book.

It's about a boy named Josh Bell (or Filthy McNasty, although, as it turns out, he's not crazy about the nickname). He's the star of his junior high basketball team. Or I should say, co-star. He shares the spot with his twin brother, Jordan (i.e., JB). Together they rule the court.

But early in the season, some things happen in Josh's life that he's not happy about. First off, JB gets a girlfriend, and Josh is jealous about the way it changes their relationship. Also, things are not good with their dad. He is Josh and JB's biggest fan and in his younger days was something of a basketball star himself, but his health has always been shaky (hereditary hypertension), and Josh is worried about what it could mean for their family.

I wish more people would read verse novels (maybe they will get a little more attention now with both The Crossover and Brown Girl Dreaming receiving Newbery bling this year). I think people are scared of them. When I praise them, people sometimes ask me this, "Yes, but does it tell a story?"

And to answer that question, let me give you three examples:

First, I mentioned earlier that Mike is now reading The Crossover. A couple of nights ago, I asked him, "Where are you now?" just like I might ask about any other story. I couldn't have asked that if it didn't follow a definite story line.

Second, the characters are unforgettable. The details are presented in a stark, minimalistic way, but they are there and perhaps even more vivid and meaningful because there aren't a lot of descriptions muddling them up. Ask me about JB, and I'll tell you he shaves his head, is a bit insensitive, and loves to make bets (it made me laugh when the boys and their dad challenge three college students to a game of three-on-three, and as they're shooting the opening basket, JB screams, "Loser pays twenty bucks!" He's not one to miss an opportunity). Ask me about their dad, and I'll tell you he's upbeat, stubborn, and has an appetite for Krispy Kreme donuts. He would do anything for his boys . . . except maybe go to the doctor's.

Third, it follows a narrative arc just like any other story: it sets things up, there's some rising action (which may or may not involve an almost broken nose and a suspension), a climax, and a resolution. There were moments when I didn't want to put it down because I was so anxious to find out what was going to happen next.

But it does all of these things while still twisting your heart in a way that only poetry can do. The words are sparse; the emotions are not. One of my favorite images comes after Josh and JB's falling out:
JB looks at me.
I wait for him to say something, anything,
in defense of his only brother.
But his eyes, empty as fired cannons,
shoot way past me.
Five short lines, and yet I'm sure even those of you who haven't read the rest of the book can feel the hurt and regret and tension in those words.

The story opens with a description of dribbling. The description is a visual experience (I really think you have to read this book, not listen to it). Some of the words are enlarged or stretched out or italicized. At first, I was unimpressed, but this type of verse returned periodically throughout the story, and each time it returned, I liked it more and more. I think I've had a rather limited view of what a verse novel could be about (see prejudiced comment above), and this book shattered that view. Verse novels can be about basketball, and it can be just as thrilling as actually sitting on the bleachers (or, perhaps, if you're like me and don't really love the sport, maybe even more so).

The whole book was extremely creative. One thing I really loved was when a big, unfamiliar word was nestled among the rest of the poem ("Did your father and I raise you to be churlish?," for example), and then the following poem was a definition of that word with three examples of how that word might be used ("As in: I wanted a pair / of Stephon Marbury's sneakers / (Starburys), / but Dad called him / a selfish millionaire / with a bad attitude, / and why would I want / to be associated / with such a churlish / choke artist."). Those were some of my very, very favorite poems.

One of the most real conversations in the book happens between Josh and his mom just after Josh completely loses his temper and intentionally hurts JB. She starts out kind and gentle, almost like she knows she can't fly off the handle if she wants him to open up to her ("Can I make you a sandwich? You want a tall glass of orange soda?"), but then she does fly off the handle ("You've been just what? DERANGED? When did you become a thug?"). I cringed a little when she lost her temper, both because I could almost feel Josh closing up with every attack, but also because I've been that mother--the one saying things while at the same time thinking, Don't say that! It's not going to help matters any. It's just so hard to keep your cool when your children are doing completely irrational, stupid things, and I thought Kwame Alexander* captured this conversation very well.

You might remember that one of my main complaints with El Deafo (which won a Newbery Honor this year) was that the climax was poorly executed and resolved (it celebrated deception and irresponsibility, and I couldn't get behind that). The Crossover presented its own host of poor choices and actions, but they weren't the climax. They happened in the middle of the book, with plenty of time for the main characters to learn and grow from them. As it should be.

Okay, remember how I raved and raved (and raved) about Brown Girl Dreaming? Well, when it won a Newbery Honor and The Crossover won the Newbery Medal, I was a little indignant: No way was it better than Brown Girl Dreaming. No way! But . . . here I go retracting my statements again. I still love Brown Girl Dreaming. This book didn't make me love it any less. But, I may have been more impressed with the execution of this book. It was just so original. I just never ever ever expected the game of basketball to be enhanced by poetry. And it totally was. Also, I really love it that this book will have major appeal to both boys and girls. I think boys need to be exposed to the power of poetry, and this book is the perfect introduction for that. This will be joining our collection for sure.

If you haven't read it yet, I hope this review is the push you need to get your hands on a copy.

*Curious about how to pronounce Kwame Alexander's name? Check out this audio clip.


  1. I recently picked this one up for $2 on Kindle. Will have to see how the formatting works before I commit to reading it that way - thanks to your review. And you know that I know how strong the "I handed it right to my husband" endorsement is :-)

  2. I couldn't believe how much I liked this book. I really, really hate basketball, and I don't particularly like novels in verse, but The Crossover really blew me away. I can't wait to share it with my boy in a few years. And, as much as I enjoyed Brown Girl Dreaming, I really do think this one deserved its gold.

  3. Ohhh, this makes me super excited to read it! Is it marketed as MG or YA, do you know Amy?

    1. Middle grade. Josh and JB are 13, but it definitely has a middle grade feel to it.

  4. OMG, I *hated* this book. Well, I thought it was a good book, very powerful (although I still hate verse novels), but I *hated* Josh's family and thought they were borderline abusive. When JB cut off Josh's hair, no one ever cared (well, except Josh, who hadn't gotten over it by the end of the book). There was no apology, just some jokes. I spent the whole book waiting for some discussion of the bullying relationship between the brothers, but instead Alexander went with Josh exploding violently and everyone condemning him and nobody ever helping JB learn not to be such a horrible brother.

    And I got no sense that ever JB learned anything. I really don't think the family will do well in the next years. The ending was tragic -- not just the death, but that I don't see things getting better. If Josh doesn't get away from JB, I don't see them doing well in high school. And Josh seems the kind of guy to sacrifice for his brother until he blows up again, and his mom will encourage that, (and then condemn Josh again without giving him any useful tools) and UGH. It's so sad.

    1. Hmmm...although that was definitely not my takeaway, I can see your point, and I appreciate your honest feedback. I do agree with you that there was a lot of tension in the two brothers' relationship with each other and that, at times, it did border on abuse. Your comment is actually making me want to reread it and give a more critical look at the family's relationship. As always, thank you for your thoughtful ideas. I always look forward to discussing books with you!

    2. I doubt anyone else read it this way; it just happened to hit a lot of my buttons. One of my son's has Asperger's, and got in trouble several times because he just didn't understand what was going on, and then would get blamed for everything by authorities. There's no direct correspondence to the book, but I got annoyed when the mother claimed to have no idea what had led up to the outburst.

      Probably another button is that I think letting kids get away with small aggressions against their family does a huge disservice to that child. Like if a little brother is poking a big brother -- you can tell the big brother to ignore it because it doesn't hurt, but that is really hurting the little brother, since you are teaching him that it doesn't matter if he tries to hurt people.

      It's a kid's book, so the emphasis is on Josh and what he feels, which is probably why it doesn't worry about JB. Heck, for all we know the parents are talking with JB off the page, and Josh is too young and self-centered to notice. But it meant that I, with my particular hot buttons and interests, kept getting the wrong message. I just had to dump it on you because none of my friends around here have read the book :-)

    3. Sorry I'm so slow to respond. I've been scrambling to tie up a few loose ends before my little blogging break.

      I think you bring up so many good points, and you are free to dump them on me anytime! I really value your opinion and insights. Especially interesting to me is what you said about what might be happening off the page. If it was happening, I think it would have been nice for us as the readers to see it because it does leave that aspect a little unresolved (and in an unsettling way). Anyway, you've given me lots to think about for the next time I read it.


Proudly designed by Mlekoshi playground