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26 january 2020

In Kwame Alexander's verse novel The Crossover, life is proceeding normally for Josh and Jordan Bell when their father Chuck suddenly passes away. Before Alexander's prequel Rebound begins, life is proceeding normally for Chuck Bell, back in his own childhood, when his father suddenly passes away.

Prequels, like sequels, can sometimes be more "instant remakes" than separate parts of a long story arc. This is truer of Rebound than just about any other prequel or sequel I can think of. The trauma of the sudden death is undeniable, but its reiteration (if you read both books, and in either order) subtly lessens its impact.

Despite that loss of impact, there are things to like about Rebound. Chuck starts the novel as Charlie, processing his grief awkwardly, chafing at his relative poverty, getting middling grades in school, living for comic books and Pac-Man (it's the late 1980s). Petty crime looms in his future, so his widowed mother packs him off for a summer with the grandparents in Washington, D.C. Under the tutelage of his cousin Rosie, Charles becomes Chuck (his grandfather's nickname for him), and discovers that he's pretty good at basketball, a game that, till then, he'd only sat on the bench and dreamed about. At novel's end, he still doesn't have the Air Jordans that he covets, but he's got something better: game.

Chuck also has a best friend (a girl!) named CJ, back home, who is nerdy, self-confident, and (we learn) will become his wife, the mother to Josh and Jordan of Crossover fame. Chuck in the present still thinks that kisses are mushy stuff, like any good children's-book protagonist, but the prequel nature of Rebound means that we get a glimpse of Chuck grown up, rather than preserved in eternal pre-adolescence. (In fact, we get a glimpse near the end of Chuck already dead, which is potentially mawkish but circle-of-lifey enough.)

Dawud Anyabwile contributes comics narrative to Charlie/Chuck's story. In Anyabwile's lively graphics, we see Charlie emerge from his readerly fixation on comics, where he vicariously identifies with superheroes, to become a sports hero in his own right. Would that it were always that simple. But Rebound itself is a book that challenges readers to emerge from behind a book and become heroes, in family life, school, and whatever playing field suits their talents.

Alexander, Kwame. Rebound. Illustrated by Dawud Anyabwile. Boston: Houghton, 2018.