This month, we examine 2015 Newbery Medal winner, The Crossover by Kwame Alexander.
Basketball Rule #1:
In this game of life
your family is the court
and the ball is your heart.
No matter how good you are,
no matter how down you get,
on the court.
Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover is prime reading material for those children who don’t like reading.
Do long, square paragraphs bore you? The Crossover is told in poetry, varying between sizzling hip-hop and irregular verse, all unnecessary fuss shaved away. Do you hate when books tell you how to feel? The Crossover withholds judgment across the board. Do you like sports? Hot damn, you’re in luck! The Crossover stars two passionate basketball players, and even off the court, the b-ball references are as plentiful and obvious as colorful drops of sweat in a Gatorade commercial.
The Crossover is the story of basketball phenom Josh Bell, his twin brother, and their father’s complicated legacy. It is the winner of the John Newbery Medal for the 2015.
This review is spoiler-heavy. You have been warned.
Before I get into the story, let me talk about the style for a bit. In a word – fragmentary. Instead of typical prose, sentences are sliced into ribbon-thin paragraphs of verse. The text itself is practically a series of drabbles, sketching scenes with an economy that would make Ernest Hemingway burst with pride.
I’m no stranger to drabbles, or to fragments. The 1998 Newbery winner, Out of the Dust, is told in a similar style to The Crossover. But fragments, let alone poetry fragments, are a bold choice to hang an original story on – the writer has to trust his audience to connect the dots, and trust his story and style to support each other.
I’m not entirely sure that they do. The fragments, and Josh’s first-person perspective on the material, means that we get a very limited scope of the story’s action – and especially of the other characters. The characters around Josh tend to feel flat and static, mostly serving the purpose that the story needs of them, and not a lot more.
So what does the story entail? Let’s do a breakdown of how The Crossover fits with The Newbery Formula:
Our narrator, Josh Bell, is a Kid Hero, twelve years old, with an identical twin brother, Jordan “JB” Bell, who could technically qualify for Herodom, but we don’t ever get his narration. The book might have been better if we heard his voice, too. The brothers are about equally talented, and equally committed to their game. There’s no vicious, hateful rivalry between them as in Jacob Have I Loved (1981 winner) – just the everyday tension and confusion of two close brothers growing up.
The setting is… the setting… it’s set in…
Actually there are precious few clues AT ALL as to where this book is set, and whether it’s in a Small Town or big city. There’s no references to weather, or to what kind of house the protagonists live in. With close reading, I’ve deduced that the family probably lives either somewhere in North Carolina, or Boston. Probably.
There is no Doomed Catalyst, as such, not embodied in one character. The new arrival who changes the characters’ dynamic is Miss Sweet Tea, the new girl in school who becomes JB’s girlfriend and the subject of Josh’s mixed jealous feelings. The adult who teaches profound truths is the Coach, whose Phil Jackson-inspired meditations are largely ignored and very minor. The Doomed Mentor role goes, hands down, to the twins’ father, who encourages his sons but doesn’t offer much in the way of education. He does offer a lot in the way of death.
There is no Social Issue, which seems to me a deliberate choice of a piece with the decision to set the story in a maddeningly anonymous town. Even the fact that the Bell family is African-American is not played for drama, with the exception of two details: the importance that Josh attaches to his dreadlocks, and the way that Josh’s mom warns him, after he lashes out on the court, “Boys with no self-control become men behind bars,” an ominous warning in America’s ongoing epidemic of police violence against black men.
The Hands-On Activity is obvious; it’s even depicted on the cover. Both of the Bell twins are the middle-school basketball stars of their nebulous town. Josh, under his nom de guerre, Filthy McNasty, narrates basketball games he plays or watches with fantastic rhythms and poetry.
The Romance is witnessed, not experienced firsthand. Miss Sweet Tea, as Josh dubs her, forms a rift between the two brothers. This plotline is interesting enough, with “thirst” standing in for young romantic stirrings, but it’s not really fleshed out enough. Nothing in this book is really filled out enough – and I’m saying that having just come of off reading a couple of books that laboriously filled out their themes until the final, weary paragraph.
And that includes the Death by Newbery Medal. The father dies. This death is telegraphed obviously, from very early on – and it stands out even more when there are so few other details. Presently, their father’s illness and hospitalization dominates the narrative. Out of what had been freeform and slice-of-life storytelling comes a distinct theme. What is that theme?
I want to say, Legacy. But my eighth-grade teacher would chide me for describing the entire theme in just one word. A critic (even if they’re only thirteen) should be able to capture a work’s theme in a sentence at least, not just a word.
But The Crossover doesn’t offer enough to make a sentence. It’s not that there are conflicting messages in the story. It’s that Alexander fails to fully develop any of the present messages. The novel spends very few words on the successive plot lines, such as Josh losing his dreadlocks, Miss Sweet Tea and JB’s romance, Josh’s suspension and repentance, and finally, their father’s illness. Each thread just yields to the other without building on one another, without influencing one another, without any of them even reaching a solid place of closure. It makes an unsatisfactory reading experience.
Okay, okay, I know life is usually like that, but I still don’t like it. Remember what I said about Newbery winning books as kid-friendly literary fiction? Proper catharsis and closure is not, apparently, literary.
The way that the father’s death is handled bothers me particularly. There’s a precarious but beautiful balance to be struck, as a writer, between skimming past your theme, and developing it laboriously. The Giver (1994) strikes that balance, with Jonas facing multiple challenges and moral quandaries, few of which are resolved simply. This quality, among others, ensures that The Giver remains an important and compelling read, even two decades after its publication.
In contrast, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1977) chooses the overt development of its theme. It barely lets a page go by without hammering in some new example of why racism is bad, but family unity is the strongest force there is.
The Crossover falls on the other side of that balance: instead of laboring over its theme, it skims by. If the book had worked more on its themes, the results could have been deeply compelling and powerful. This skimming reminds me of no other Newbery winner more than Jacob Have I Loved, which, incidentally, is one of the worst books I have ever read.
Imagine these underplayed elements working together to make a theme: Josh and JB’s father’s fear of doctors; his denial of his own health problems; the genetic legacy of hypertension he passes on to his sons along with his athletic gifts. Josh’s narration mentions each of these items once, maybe twice, and then never brings them up again.
By discarding these elements, Alexander drastically undercuts the novel’s theme. I feel no desire to reread this book, ever; I’ll never uncover more from it than I did on my first two readings. The story is just a series of things that happen, with meaning that is transparently simple, and the most interesting questions aren’t even posed. What parts of their father’s legacy will JB and Josh hold on to, and which will they discard? More pertinently to the action, is the decision to be at your parent’s deathbed the kind of choice that should be left to a child who is not yet thirteen? This is meaty stuff with great potential. Furthermore, none of these questions are explored before in other Newbery winners that I’ve read. So why does Alexander skim past it? Is all of this to be relegated to the realm of classroom discussion?
It’s a mark of respect to one’s readership to let them fill in the holes themselves, as Louis Sachar says at the end of Holes (1998 winner). But this choice strikes me as a poor one. The fragmentary style undercuts the chance of emotional engagement with the characters and theme. The Crossover may have strong youth appeal, but it’s ultimately an unsatisfying read.
So… that said, what’s next?
In lobby of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences headquarters in Los Angeles, many artistic posters of various films honored by the Academy grace the walls. Lawrence of Arabia glowers at you as you ascend the staircase, while The Last Emperor sadly regards his kingdom beside the emergency exits. Right by the first entrance to the theater there are two posters side by side, one permanent, the other shifting annually. The poster on the left is the film Wings, from the year 1927, the very first film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. The poster on the right, for the moment, is Birdman, the most recent film to be so honored.
The Oscars are a plum seven years younger than the Newbery (Wings was not awarded its Oscar until 1929, while the first Newbery was awarded in 1922). Now that I’ve looked at the most recent winner, next month I’ll examine the very first winner – Hendrik Willem Van Loon’s nonfiction history text, The Story of Mankind. Van Loon looks mostly at the history of Europe, seeing world powers develop and influence each other, all to set the stage for the Great War, the “war to end all wars.” It’s a hefty read, and I look forward to sharing my thoughts with you in May.
Catherine Faris King is a Los Angeles based writer who studied English with an Emphasis in Creative Writing at Whittier College, and French Literature at the Sorbonne, in Paris. The Ninety-Ninth Bride from Book Smugglers Publishing, is her publishing debut.