YARN is psyched to continue its 5th Anniversary 5 Questions series with none other than Kwame Alexander of the multi-award winning novel in verse, The Crossover—about a basketball star middle schooler named Josh, aka Filthy, and his family. For those of you who haven’t read this book, run out NOW, and get your hands on a copy. Furthermore, if you have any “I don’t read novels, thanks” friends who DO like sports, get them a copy for their birthdays. We promise, that person will thank you. But you don’t have to like sports to love The Crossover—just ask Kerri, who doesn’t even know the rules of b-ball (something about a court and a basket, right?), but whose heart got pumping hard from the poetry in this novel.
KA: Thanks so much! A writer just wants to write a good book, so to receive an award like this is incredibly gratifying and humbling.
YARN: You have written in so many genres: children’s picture books, YA poetry, creative nonfiction, and cultural criticism. How do you decide which form to use for a particular topic?
KA: Most of the time I write in verse, but every now and then I feel like switching it up. Maybe I will have read a good How-to book and say, “I want to write one of those.” My parents raised us to have the confidence to tackle anything, and if we didn’t know how to approach something, we at least had the sense to learn.
YARN: With you winning the Newbery Medal for The Crossover and Jacqueline Woodson winning the NBA for Brown Girl Dreaming (which also received a Newbery Honor), we wonder if you think that books in verse are having a moment–and why that might be? (We’re asking Jacqueline the same question, btw–will be fun to compare your answers!)
KA: People love poetry. The thing is, because of the way we are taught it from middle school on, we don’t know we love it. Or we forget. But, it’s there. Lying dormant somewhere between our hearts and our heads. I think what Jackie, KA Holt, Sharon Creech, Nikki Grimes, and others are doing is waking up the wonder of poetry, reigniting the joy and passion of verse. Dynamic, rhythmic, accessible page-turning books of poems are not a moment. They are a continuous movement. Of leaps and bounds. In rhythms and sounds.
YARN: Josh, the narrator of The Crossover, whose nickname is Filthy, is not only a rapper-poet and basketball star, he is has some awesome dreadlocks (which come to a certain tragic end). Those dreads are such a great character detail, helping to define Filthy in unique and fascinating ways. How do you find–or decide on–details like this for characters, and sustain them throughout a narrative?
KA: It’s a part of writing a novel. You want characters that are going to live with the reader, so you build these unique and fascinating things that are memorable. And, because you only have a few words to compose a poem with, each word has to count. Has to punch. And they must all dance together to show, not tell. All of that is how you do it. It’s technical. The part that’s challenging is deciding on what those things are. What the images and metaphors are. I borrowed a little from my own life. I had locks for about five years, and then my daughter was born, and she’d pull them. And she was strong. So, I cut them, then kept them in a box under my desk. Art imitating life, I guess.
YARN: The poetry about basketball is gorgeous in The Crossover. Even to those of us who don’t watch or play the sport, your onomatopoeia, the sculptural font changes, and spacing of the poetry make our hearts pump, and help us not just see the game but feel what it’s like to play it. Which made us wonder: Do you play ball? Are you an avid fan? When you play or watch basketball, do you compose in your head like Josh does–was that the genesis of those poems? Or did your composition happen in a different head space? Basically, how the heck do you translate sport into poetry?
KA: Ha! I love watching basketball, especially the NBA. Even more so, LeBron James. But, tennis is the sport I played in high school and college. To have an edge, I talked a lot of trash on the tennis court. I was famous for it. I wanted to give that same energy, super-confidence to Josh, but I didn’t want him to appear arrogant and unlikeable, so I made his trash-talking internal, and gave it a structure so it could move the story along. How do you not translate the rhythm of a dribble or a dunk into poetry? It’s the perfect sport because it’s like ballet in sneakers with a ball. Poetry in motion.
YARN: We don’t want to drop a big spoiler bomb here, so I’ll ask this as gently as I can: Did you ever consider other endings for any of the story lines in this book?
KA: The current ending of the book was not the original ending. Let’s just say, the characters determined how the story needed to end, and I just accepted it.
(Bonus question) YARN: Why set this book in middle school and not high school?
KA: I’d written a YA novel, but I’d never written a middle grade novel. I wanted to try writing for that audience. Also, I think middle school is when we lose boy readers. I set out to write a book that would find them, give them a story they couldn’t put down. A story that I would have wanted to read when I was 12. In middle school.
YARN: Thanks so much, Kwame!
Kwame Alexander is a poet, author of 18 books, and recipient of the 2015 Newbery Medal for his novel, THE CROSSOVER. The founder of two literacy organizations: Book-in-a-Day and LEAP for Ghana, he regularly travels the world conducting writing/publishing workshops at schools and conferences. Kwame has owned several publishing companies, written for stage and television (TLC’s “Hip Hop Harry”), recorded a CD, produced jazz and book festivals, hosted a radio show, worked for the U.S. Government, and taught high school. In 2015, Kwame will serve as the Bank Street College of Education’s first writer-in-residence. Visit him at KwameAlexander.com.