How Will Kwame Alexander Change Children’s Literature? by Michelle Ardillo
In 2000, I bought a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (as it was titled in the UK) in a bookstore in Glasgow, Scotland, as a souvenir for my eight-year-old daughter, an avid reader just like her mom. And, thus began our journey into the Harry Potter world of madness, going to Border’s Books initially, and later Barnes & Noble, at midnight to wait in line to get the next book the minute the boxes were opened, serving my daughter lunch AND dinner in bed the whole next day so she could read Book 5 without stopping so it could be passed over to her sister the same day.
As a veteran language arts teacher, I watched the impact of other popular books and series spread like wildfire through a middle school. Once I proctored a standardized high school admissions test where students were allowed to read if they finished a section early. I watched as student after student pulled out The Hunger Games. The same thing happened with the Divergent series, and of course, with Rick Riordan’s Lightning Thief, and his subsequent books as well, which sold out at the school’s Scholastic Book Fair in a matter of minutes.
Over the summer I transferred to a new school, and I was looking for some new books to teach. I kept hearing about this basketball book that was told in verse, like poetry, like rap lyrics. I borrowed my new school’s copy of The Crossover and read it in one sitting. I was hooked. I absolutely had to teach this book.
First of all, you should know that I know absolutely nothing about basketball. I had to ask the school’s PE teacher what was the “key”. Secondly, we only owned the one copy, so I had to ask my new principal to order thirty copies of it, in hardback yet, a sizable expense for our small school. I googled the title basketball move and read Wikipedia article on famous pro-basketball players who mastered the crossover in one form or another. My new-found basketball knowledge bought me serious street cred with my sports-crazy 7th grade boys. They even managed to teach me how to do a (poor) behind-the-back pass!
As we started reading the book, I saw lightbulbs going off over the heads of even my most reluctant readers. “Can we read some more?” was music to my ears, and surely, was the first time such words had been uttered from the lips of some of these kids.
Kwame Alexander is currently on a major book tour. Kids all over the country are lining up to see him, hear him read, buy his book, and just stand in awe of this man who writes about sports in a way that makes reading fun. His Instagram account posts daily photos of him with kids swarming around him, and not just here in America, but in Paris, Oxford, Bologna, as well.
In reading interviews he’s given, he put a lot of thought into the birth of The Crossover: not many words on a page, lots of white space, pages of text reminiscent of e e cummings (an author/poet Alexander mentions on his own website as a favorite of his), with words sliding across the page, one letter per line in some places. The protagonist, a 7th grade African American basketball phenom, is jealous of his twin brother’s new girlfriend, not just because he doesn’t have a girlfriend, but because of “Miss Sweet Tea”, he doesn’t really have his twin brother anymore either.
Aside from being a fun read (albeit sad in some places), there’s a so much to be covered from a teaching standpoint. It’s chock-full of themes to explore, discuss, and write about, and it’s dripping with figurative language to enjoy and analyze. The title alone covers so much ground in its multiple meanings that my 7th grade spent a whole class period discussing just how brilliant it is for a title. (No spoiler here, you’ll have to read it yourself!)
Alexander is a compelling speaker, he’s basketball-tall with a wide smile, shiny bald head, and glasses with trendy, colored frames. He talks about how he hated reading as a child, a difficult pill to swallow for his parents who are both writers. Once he found books about sports, however, he was transformed. So, he writes for those same types of boys who just hate reading, or maybe, who just haven’t had the right book placed in their hands—yet.
Rebound is his latest book, the sequel to The Crossover. Booked is about soccer, an idea that he says came to him after a speaking engagement at a school that invited him to their soccer game. Solo delves into the world of rock and roll music. A deviation from his sports books, it is perhaps for a more mature audience, with its tales of drug addiction.
With the 2015 Newberry Medal in the bag, Kwame Alexander has already made a significant contribution to children’s literature. How much more will he change the way young people read? How many reluctant readers will “crossover” and become readers? He has the potential to truly awaken in a new generation a love for poetry via his great characters woven into stories that they feel they can relate to. I can’t wait to see where he goes next!
Michelle Blanchard Ardillo is a middle-school language arts teacher and freelance writer. She has been published in Washington Family Magazine and in Reflections (Telling Our Stories Press, 2015). Follow her on Goodreads and Twitter @michardillo, or read more of her work on her website, Cajun Girl in a Kilt at www.michelleardillo.com.