"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
September 22, 2015
The Crossover: Poetry for Reluctant Readers
by Erin Cowles

I’m not known for my athletic prowess. With the rather embarrassing exception of that one season in high school where I joined the men’s water polo team to try to prove something (what I really proved: I’m a terrible athlete), my involvement with team sports these days is binge watching the Olympics every two years. I don’t think I can name a single team that made it to the NBA playoffs.

So why did I find myself with a book about a basketball player that goes by “Filthy McNasty” in my hands?

Simple — pretty much everyone loves Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover. Boys love it. Girls love it. Teachers love it. Parents love it. Even reluctant readers love it. I recently listened to Alexander speak at the National Book festival, and pretty much every adult that came up to the microphone to ask him a question said something along the lines of, “My child/student hates reading, but he loved this book.”

To sweeten the deal, it accomplishes all this as a book of poetry. You heard me — junior high boys are loving a collection of poetry. I had to find out why.

At the simplest level, The Crossover is a verse novel about junior high basketball star Josh Bell (a.k.a. “Filthy McNasty”) and his quest for the season championship. But that isn’t what sucks people into this book.

Underneath the trash talk and swagger, The Crossover is a book about Josh’s relationship with his family. I love that despite the complicated feelings his family brings, Josh’s family is a place of love and support. His parents love each other and firmly love him. His brother is his best friend and an important part of his identity.

Josh has a great relationship with his parents. He feels the pressure of having an assistant principal for a mom and a former professional athlete for a father, and it certainly causes conflict. That said, he wants to protect them, make them proud, and emulate them.

However, the relationship that steals the show is Josh’s dynamic with his twin and fellow basketball star JB. I love how richly Alexander crafted their relationship — Josh’s feelings of isolation when JB gets a girlfriend and spends less time with him, how they turn to each other to try to understand their father’s health condition, their unspoken language on and off the court, and the ways they hurt each other and forgive each other.

Alexander’s poetry is perfect for his audience — energetic, playful, and varied. I especially liked the poems he structured as definitions of words. In addition to teaching new vocabulary, they teach the power of having the right word to explain your emotions.

The Crossover won the 2015 Newberry Award and the 2015 Coretta Scott King Honor Award. But most importantly, it has won over kids that thought poetry had nothing to offer them.

Target audience: Ages 9-14.

Read this book if…

  • You have a book report due and you are short on time. Poetry = small word count, and teacherly admiration for choosing a poetry collection.

  • You’re a twin. I loved how Alexander captured the relationship between Josh and JB.

  • You think poetry is hyperemotional, boring, and involves a lot of flower or trees — this book will change your mind.

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About Erin Cowles

Erin Cowles is a mother of two, living in the Washington D.C. suburbs. Before motherhood, she used her masters in library and information science in a law firm library. Now she uses it to find good books for her family at her local public library. She teaches part time for a SAT prep company, where she enjoys the challenge of making rather dull subject matter interesting and making college a reality for her students. During women's history month, she profiles Mormon women that inspire her at ldswomenshistory.blogspot.com.

Erin currently serves as a counselor in her ward's primary presidency.

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