Dorothy's List: 'The Crossover'

Jan 4, 2016

Outside their classroom, seventh and eighth graders at Rutland Town School are bounce passing and showing off their basketball moves, including the move their latest read was named for – the crossover. When we asked them how they liked the book, they raved about the book. They’re not alone.

The Crossover is flying off library shelves like a half-court sinker. It’s a novel-in-verse about identical twins – Josh and Jordan – who are basketball stars at their middle school. Their dad is a former professional baller. Their mom is assistant principal at their school. The story is told from Josh’s point of view. One of the big changes in Josh’s world is that his twin brother Jordan has started spending more time talking to girls and less time playing ball with him.

The tension between Josh and Jordan escalates, and they both do regrettable things. One of those actions leads Josh to write an apology letter to his brother. At Rutland Town School, the students put themselves in Josh’s shoes and tried writing their own letters to Jordan, whose nickname is JB.

Eighth grader Amy McGee's letter starts out this way:

Dear JB,

The other day, while we were in the game, I made a huge mistake. I let my personal feelings get in the way of the game. But I also let them get in the way of our twin relationship. I think that it is about time that I told you what’s been bothering me and gave you a reason why I hurt you the way I did. I’m jealous…

The apology poem that author Kwame Alexander wrote from Josh to JB in The Crossover is called "Dear Jordan."  It’s written in two columns and the author says it can actually be read several different ways: top to bottom, left to right or diagonally.

The students at Rutland Town School had some questions for the author. We put their questions a to Kwame Alexander.

Kyle DelBianco: Why did you choose to write the book in poetry form?

Kwame Alexander: I like to think that basketball is like poetry in motion. I mean, you imagine Steph Curry going back behind his back with the ball or Allen Iverson doing his crossover or Michael Jordan or LeBron James moving to the basket in this rhythmic, energetic, really awesome way. I mean, what better way to capture that movement from the court, and to put that on the page, than through poetry? I mean, because basketball is poetry in motion, and so I thought let’s use verse. Let’s use rhyme, let’s use free verse, let’s use different types of poetry to sort of mimic and mirror that action on the court and do that on the page.

The Crossover is the story of twins but seventh grader Devon Kibbey noticed that readers get the point of view of only one brother.

Devon Kibbey: How did you decide that you were going to write the story from Josh’s perspective?

Kwame Alexander: Wow, never been asked the question before. Devon, good question. I think Josh was the first character I wrote. So I knew that the book would be told from the vantage point of a boy. That it was going to be a 12-year-old boy. I was going to sort of remember what I went through during that age and I sort of knew that that was going to be the point of view, from his perspective. And so that was the first character that I created.

And then I knew that there were going to be parents. And, eventually after maybe a draft of it I knew that I wanted him to have a twin brother. So it was chronological. It began with Josh. It began with this 12-year-old-boy, who came to be known as Filthy McNasty.

Josh’s Dad gives him the nickname Filthy McNasty. Alexander says he came across the name while working on the story. He said, "I listen to instrumental jazz when I’m writing, and I looked over to see what song it was and it was a song by Horace Silver called Filthy McNasty, and decided I am so going to use that name in this book."

Alexander also found a way to sneak some of his favorite words into the book. First he would use the word in a poem, then he would write a second poem to define the word. He says it all started with one synonym for "beautiful," in this passage from The Crossover:

While Vonde and JB

debate whether the new girl

is a knockout or just beautiful,

a hottie or a cutie,

a lay-up or a dunk,

I finish my vocabulary homework –

and my brother’s vocabulary homework,

which I don’t mind since English is my favorite subject

and he did the dishes for me last week.

But it’s hard to concentrate

in the lunchroom

with the girls’ step team

practicing in one corner,

a rap group performing in the other,

and Vonde and JB

waxing poetic

about love and basketball.

So when they ask

What do you think, Filthy?

I tell 'em,

She’s pulchritudinous.

"Oh my goodness, what a word, Amy," said Alexander. "I love that word! Pulchritudinous! And so, I was like, 'I gotta use this word.' And then, of course, I thought, 'What middle grade kid, or teacher for that matter, is gonna know what that word means?'"

And so the next poem starts with a definition:

pul-chri-tu-di-nous

[PALL-KRE-TOO-DEN-NUS] adjective

Having great physical

beauty and appeal.

As in: Every guy

in the lunchroom

is trying to flirt

with the new girl

because she’s so pulchritudinous.

As in: I’ve never had a girlfriend,

but if I did, you better believe

she’d be pulchritudinous.

As in: Wait a minute –

why is the pulchritudinous new girl

now talking

to my brother?

Seventh grader Matthew Goulette wonders where Alexander’s ideas for The Crossover came from.

Matthew Goulette: Is this story based on your life or someone you know?

Kwame Alexander: No, it’s not autobiography. It’s not memoir. It’s completely fiction. It’s made-up. Sure, writers, we write from observation, imagination, experience. So, certainly there are some things from my life that have probably creeped into this book. My mom was a school principal ... My dad played basketball before I was born. And when I was born he was a PhD. So I didn’t get the cool dad, I got the academic scholar dad that made me read books. Um, so yeah. It’s fiction but certainly there are parts of my life that I remembered and drew from.

Seventh grader Joe Anderson eludes with a between-the-legs crossover outside of Rutland Town School.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

The Crossover has been winning top prizes and awards in children’s literature. Seventh grader Dylan DiPietro wonders how that feels.

Dylan DiPietro: How did you react when you learned that The Crossover won the 2015 Newbury Award?

Kwame Alexander: "Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh! Oh my goodness!"

How did I react? I danced around my room. My wife and I danced ... My daughter, who’s seven-years-old, in second grade, she woke up and she came in the room and said, “What’s all the commotion for?” And we said, “Daddy just won the Newbury Medal.” And she said, “Yay! Now can you go make my French toast please?”

We kept her home all day and just sort of got on the couch, lit the fire, smiled, laughed, danced and sort of basked in the joy of this wonderful honor. Yeah, it’s sort of still a little tough to talk about because it’s overwhelming. It’s life changing. I’m still reacting to it. It’s wonderful. And I’m so thankful.

And after that type of success, Rutland Town seventh grader Joe Anderson wanted to know it there’s more to come.

Joe Anderson: Will there be a sequel with Josh and Jordan playing high school basketball?

Kwame Alexander: Wouldn’t it be cool to write a sequel where they’re playing high school basketball, and they go to college and get drafted into the NBA? Unfortunately, that wouldn’t be a middle grade novel. You know, that would be a high school novel, or a young adult novel, or an adult novel for that matter. So, if I could figure out what to do with a sequel to make it still compelling and meaningful and significant and keep it in that era. Sure. But I’m not there.

However, I will tell you this. I am writing a prequel to The Crossover. And it is about the father when he was 12-years-old. So I’m very excited about that.

And that’s not the only story Alexander has been working on. He has a book coming out in April about a soccer player who doesn’t like to read. It’s called Booked. Come spring, these Rutland Town readers may be inspired to head out to the soccer pitch as well.