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Poet’s novel turns young sports lovers into book lovers

March 26, 2015 at 6:10 PM EDT
How do you get reluctant readers to fall in love with a book? Writer and literacy activist Kwame Alexander says you have to offer them something relatable. In "The Crossover," basketball is the hook to persuade kids to pick up a novel written in poetic verse. Jeffrey Brown sits down with Alexander to discuss his award-winning young adult book.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally, March Madness continues this evening with the next round of the NCAA playoffs, known as the Sweet Sixteen.

With so many eyes following the excitement on the court, we turn to story of how one writer used basketball to inspire children to read.

Jeffrey Brown has more, our latest conversation from the NewsHour Bookshelf.

JEFFREY BROWN: Up and down the courts, a drive to the hoop, a fast break in the other direction. Middle school boys and basketball, and, well, why not poetry? They come together in “The Crossover,” a novel in verse about twin brothers obsessed with basketball. It’s won this year’s Newbery Medal, the highest honor in young adult literature.

KWAME ALEXANDER, Author, “The Crossover”: Josh Bell is my name, but Filthy McNasty my claim to fame. Folks call me that because my game is acclaimed, so downright dirty, it will put you to shame.

JEFFREY BROWN: Its author is 46-year-old poet, writer and literary activist Kwame Alexander. At the St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School near his home in Northern Virginia, he told us of his own obsession, introducing boys to the joys of reading.

KWAME ALEXANDER: You want to reach all kids. You want to reach librarians and teachers. But you often hear that boys don’t read or boys are reluctant readers.

Well, I believe that they don’t have anything that’s relatable. Basketball, sports is the hook, but once you get them hooked, family, love, friendship, brotherhood, you know, jealousy, all the things that girls are interested in, all the things that we’re interested in. We’re all interested in the same things, but I think sometimes with boys you have got to — you have to reach them a different way.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, a novel in verse, right? You are trying to reach boys, you say, especially, particularly, and you’re giving them poetry.

KWAME ALEXANDER: Right. Right. Poetry.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

KWAME ALEXANDER: Right. No, you’re dead on.

And that’s why the book got rejected 20-plus times.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really?

KWAME ALEXANDER: Because you have got this sports book and you’re writing in poetry? We don’t — there’s a disconnect.

So, how do we hook kids who are reluctant readers? Well, poetry is a vehicle. I believe it can be the bridge, Jeffrey, to take our kids to a more higher level of appreciation for language and literature.

JEFFREY BROWN: “The Crossover” tells of a year in the life of a close-knit African-American family, the traumas of adolescence and sibling rivalry, the illness of a loving father.

It also shows the sometimes subtle ways that race plays a role in the boys’ lives.

The mother tells her son about being careful about how young black men shouldn’t show real anger in public. Are you conscious of messages in a sense or just showing us life? Or how did it work?

KWAME ALEXANDER: Yes, that’s interesting, because, when I wrote it, I often hear that question. There’s a strong race element as it relates to the way they’re trying to raise their boys or when the father gets stopped by the police.

And I never thought about that when I was writing it. It didn’t come to mind that the mother was talking to her young black boy and saying, you know, you’re going to — if you’re angry, you’re going to end up like this. It was just, you know, a mother trying to tell her child that you need to have a little bit of joy in this world. You need to find a little bit of peace.

And if that story can relate to a young black boy, as it should, then great. If it can relate to a young Asian boy, then great. But I think the idea is that we want our children to be interested in positivity and not necessarily negativity.

“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 have never had a girlfriend, but if I did, you better believe she would be pulchritudinous, as in, wait a minute, why is the pulchritudinous new girl now talking to my brother?”

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re a poet. But you had to make decisions about what kind of poetry, right, how to — so there’s rhymes.

KWAME ALEXANDER: Sure.

JEFFREY BROWN: There’s stuff that sounds like rap.

KWAME ALEXANDER: Sure.

JEFFREY BROWN: There’s a lot of free verse.

KWAME ALEXANDER: Sure.

JEFFREY BROWN: How did you think about that?

KWAME ALEXANDER: There’s haiku.

JEFFREY BROWN: There’s haiku.

KWAME ALEXANDER: There’s list poems. There are these vocabulary poems.

See, I’m in love with poetry. And there are so many different forms of poetry. And I believe I wanted to have that sort of variety, that sort of diversity of verse, so that kids could sort of figure out what they were interested in and what they could latch on to and perhaps mimic some of these poems themselves.

JEFFREY BROWN: That message isn’t lost on teachers and librarians across the country, who have seen children drawn to “The Crossover,” such as this seventh grader in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

(SINGING)

KWAME ALEXANDER: This is the next thing that I do when I’m writing a poem.

JEFFREY BROWN: Kwame Alexander himself gets into classrooms frequently, working with students through his Book-in-a-Day program. He’s also taken those efforts overseas, leading a delegation to Ghana in 2013 to distribute books, build a library and train teachers.

KWAME ALEXANDER: I don’t believe that writing is just pen to paper or finger to laptop. Writing is active. Writing is action. Writing is activism. Writing is being part of the world. And that’s what I like to do.

I like to inspire and show teachers and children that poetry, on a more general level, is cool, is fun. And I like — I think I have learned how to do that to a certain degree.

Wow. Ooh.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you say it’s cool? What do you do?

KWAME ALEXANDER: What do I do?

“I got up this morning feeling good and black, thinking black thoughts. I did black things, like played all my black records and minded my own black business. I put on my best black clothes, walked out my black door, and, lord have mercy, white snow.”

I show them. I don’t need to tell you that it’s funny, that it’s cool. That was a poem by Jackie Earley. It’s called “1,968 Winters.”

So I model what poetry can do.

Three lines of the haiku. The last line always has to be the ah-hah.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Kwame Alexander, congratulations, and thanks for talking to us.

KWAME ALEXANDER: Thank you.

 

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