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the crossover

22 march 2015

The Crossover, Kwame Alexander's verse novel, came out of nowhere in January to win the Newbery Medal. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt didn't print enough copies for me to get one till March, though when I did I liked the cover, orange and textured like a basketball. Judging the book by it works fine, because there's a lot of basketball inside.

I'm inclined to like the choice of The Crossover for the Medal this year on several counts. It's by a less-lauded writer; it's an African-American story; it's a boy's book; it's sport literature; it's poetry. It also presses the envelope of children's-lit themes a little. It's not profane or sexual, but it deals with serious issues (jealousy, violence, death) and it treats seventh-graders as prospective adults watching their elders for clues about growing up – not, as in so many contemporary children's books, trapped in a liminal no-man's land between childhood and adolescence. It's a Young-Young Adult book, if you like, and it takes chances.

So if in the end it's not very good, you can at least say that The Crossover tried. I will spoil the story somewhat in what follows, so stop reading now if you hate that kind of thing; but it's hard to talk about the book without spoilers.

One reason I need to do some spoiling is that narrator/protagonist Josh Bell isn't really driven to get or achieve anything in the course of the plot that he unfolds. He wants to win the basketball championship, but that's not really a goal; that's more of a setting (and one of the most familiar ones in children's literature). He has character notes: he's a twin, and his relationship with his brother Jordan is marked by the almost inevitable love-hate dynamic of twins who are teammates and rivals.

But mostly, things happen to Josh in the novel, and his narrative is one of witness and processing. The one event that should be dramatic – when Josh deliberately throws a basketball into Jordan's face instead of passing it to him, because he's jealous of Jordan's success with a girlfriend – is an anomaly. We know Josh is a nice guy, and has just lost his cool to a momentary testosterone surge. The brothers are never really at odds dramatically; they want the same things; after the ball hits Jordan, the tension dissipates and their rivalry goes nowhere.

The major thing that happens to Josh and Jordan is the death of their father, Chuck. It's heavily foreshadowed. I do have to realize that child readers aren't born knowing about foreshadowing. Heck, senior English majors can have a hard time remembering what foreshadowing is. But for the first half of the book, mostly nice things happen, and the only clouds on the horizon are that Chuck doesn't like to go to doctors, has some medical mysteries in his past, isn't supposed to eat too much salt, and is in house-husbandly retirement from a pro basketball career because too much stress is bad for him. Not too much doubt about the plot directions out of that situation.

On page 100 of 237, Josh says

you can get used to
things going well,
but you're never prepared
for something
going wrong.
In a placid work of fiction, though, you're positively busting for something to go wrong, just to sustain your interest.

Go wrong it does. Chuck starts having little episodes, and then, while trying to Oedipally outdo Josh in a driveway one-on-one, he keels over. He'll rally but eventually succumb. That's heavy stuff for a children's book, and Alexander treats the material seriously but unsentimentally.

Again, though, it's basically something that happens to Josh and his brother, not something that involves conflict or cross-purposes. There's some attempt to spark some tension between Chuck and the twins' assistant-school-principal mother over his diet and exercise habits, but the drama is minimal. When the food pyramid goes to battle with the Grim Reaper, the guy with the scythe always wins.

The book, then, is an internal monologue of how Josh copes with stuff that happens to him, and as such it's fine. It only really gets tiresome when it gets educator-y: when Josh has to do a book report on previous Newbery Medalist The Giver (114); when his mother Dr. Bell starts extolling a good education; when Josh keeps applying newly-learned vocabulary words to the understanding and expression of his preteen experience. I mean, I'm certainly not against education or vocabulary, and I even like The Giver; but it's notorious that if you want to win a Newbery Medal you have to throw a number of sops to to the jury in the form of little lessons that show the value of language and literature. Just once I want to read a good book about kids who hate to read.

Alexander, Kwame. The Crossover. Place: Boston: Houghton, 2014.