Given the popularity of sports among American youth, it's a little surprising there aren't more sports stories on the list of Newbery winners. Kwame Alexander's The Crossover is one of them, a novel about twin brothers Josh and Jordan Bell who are seventh grade basketball prodigies whose mother is the assistant principal of their school and whose father is a retired Euroleague basketball star.
Calling the most recent addition to the Newbery ranks a "novel" is a bit of a stretch. The story is told by Josh, whose favorite subject is English and who unfolds his tale in a series of free verse poems somewhere between slam poetry and rap. The wordplay is pretty good, reminiscent of hip-hop, and with an easy cadence that moves us through the adolescent tale almost stream-of-conscience.
It's odd that Josh's poetry is good since he claims more than once that his favorite rapper is Lil Wayne, one of the most profane and untalented rappers working today. That aside, there is another problem with his raps—they don't convey much emotion. One of the truly great things about rap is its ability to convey deep emotion hidden beneath a veneer of cleverness and verbal pomposity.
Well, The Crossover has the pomposity but lacks the substance. On top of that, it wants us to take seriously something that only a seventh grader can really take seriously: young love. But, you might argue, this is a novel for young people, it doesn't have to convince adults. True, but there are deeper things for youngsters to be reading about than the junior high crushes of young basketball stars on "hot girls."
The larger context in which Josh and Jordan fight over Alexis "Sweet Tea" (Jordan's girlfriend) is more believable. The boys' father, Charles, has a family history of heart failure, has symptoms of his own, and yet refuses to see a doctor. Woven throughout the twins' rivalry and fights over Alexis are the concerns of their mother, Crystal, for the health of her husband.
Yet even this rings too hollow. We get a laundry list of sorts of symptoms, then suddenly Charles dies at the end and the last poem leaves us on a supposedly uplifting note, as the twins lay aside their differences and shoot hoops together outside their father's funeral. The whole thing feels rushed, not just because of the staccato poems but because we never see enough emotion to get a clear picture of Charles Bell or his family. The family scenes seem obligatory and cut from cardboard.
And yes, this is a novel for adolescents and about adolescents, and Jordan's entire relationship with Alexis is predicated on his physical attraction to her tight pants, etc. Of course boys experience this, but there's a better way to deal with hormones in a novel than shoving your two young characters into the library to make out.
Which brings us to a final critique of the novel: it's not for kids. If this review has seemed to hold The Crossover to a standard too high for "juvenile lit" as they call it, that's because Alexander expects us to hold it to a higher standard. His supposedly seventh grade narrator is too shrewd, too eloquent, too adult for us to buy him as a seventh grader, no matter how intelligent he or his assistant principal mother are.
This is ultimately why The Crossover fails on all the levels it fails on. Alexander isn't a bad writer, he just isn't the least bit convincing when he poses as a 12-year-old kid with Duke aspirations. Lay aside any moral objections (should preteens be making out? should they listen to Lil Wayne?), and you simply have a novel that has fly tricks but no real game. On a scale from the Lakers to the Bulls, this one rates a Harlem Globetrotters.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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