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2015 Newbery Medal Winner: The Crossover

The Crossover

2015 Newbery Medal Winner
2015 Coretta Scott King Honor Award Winner
Written by Kwame Alexander
Published in 2014 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Grades 4-10
ISBN: 0544107713
Book Review
“See, when I play ball, I’m on fire. When I shoot, I inspire. The hoop’s for sale, and I’m the buyer.” Twelve-year-old Josh Bell is notorious on the basketball court for “agitating, combinating, and elevating his game,” but readers need not have a background or interest in basketball to be captivated by this electric, fast-paced novel in verse. Josh and his twin brother, Jordan, have “slammerific” shots, but it is their lives off the court that leave readers feverishly reading on as the story reaches a high-stakes climax for their family.  This year’s Newbery recipient will inspire adolescence and adults alike to reflect on the compelling storyline, masterful and lyrical use of language, and heartfelt message long after the last ball has swished through the hoop. Classroom applications are endless as The Crossover offers us a great gift to motivate readers and to mentor aspiring poets and mixmasters to write with voice and heart.

Teaching Ideas / Invitations for Your Classroom:
Grades 4-10
Crossover. The title of the book, a basketball term, is defined by Josh in one of his poems early in the book. Yet, throughout the story Josh and JB cross over metaphorical and physical boundaries as brothers. Track with students the multiple meanings the word “crossover” has throughout the novel supporting students to use text evidence to support their thinking. Next, have students consider the boundaries they crossover in their own lives. What are the ways they want to “crossover” that they haven’t explored yet in themselves? Consider why Kwame Alexander chose this term as his title. What can we learn as writers from this model of simplicity from both the book’s title and through the individual titles of the poems throughout the text?
Duet Model: Novels in Verse. . The choice to write the novel in verse rather than prose is intentional and, as such, integral to students’ understanding of The Crossover. 2014 was in many ways the year of the novel in verse. Support students in text clubs to read The Crossover, Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, or Andrea Davis Pinkney’s The Red Pencil, two other novels in verse written in 2014. In what ways would these novels have been different if written in prose or consider what would be lost if they were not written in verse? Next, have students design oral and visual presentations for the class that explains the genre of the story (personal narrative or fiction), character profiles, turning points, and compelling messages for us to consider. Digital storytelling provides a powerful method for these presentations as students can weave image, text, and sound to demonstrate their interpretations of the text with audience in mind.
Exploring the Sounds, Structures, and Language of Poetry. As a poet, Josh uses the tools he has as a poet to make his meaning clear. Specifically, Josh uses the sounds, structures, and language of poetry to tell more of his story. Analyze with students the sounds of his poems including the use of rhyme and rhythm to mirror the feeling of a basketball being dribbled down court. In what ways do Josh’s poems remind readers of the sound of rap songs? What are Josh’s inspirations for the sounds of his poems from both basketball and from the hip hop artists he loves? Analyze the structures he uses and how he varies his use of them including white space, length of stanzas, line breaks, use of italics, bold words, and capitalization. Finally, support students to find language choices that grab their attention such as lines like “the unspoken words/ volcanic and heavy” or “the cats are balling”. How do his word choices pull us in as readers? What techniques does Josh use that we can use in our own writing of poetry?
Rules On and Off the Court. Throughout the book, we encounter ten basketball rules written as poems. While labeled Basketball Rules, they also serve as rules for life. Explore with students these ten poems naming some of the themes that emerge from these isolated rules including family, dedication, loyalty, loss, and redemption. Support students in partnerships or writing clubs to craft their own rules using basketball as a frame of reference or determining a reference of their own. Next, pair The Crossover with Game by Walter Dean Myers drawing comparisons between how both authors use basketball as a metaphor for the protagonists’ lives.
Markers of Identity. One of the first things we learn about Josh is his nickname, Filthy McNasty. Not a nickname of his own choosing, Josh goes back and forth embracing or rejecting the name given to him by his dad. Also early on in the story, we learn of Josh’s “locks” or dreadlocks as an important marker of identity and we experience his loss when JB cuts them off after a bet. Explore with students why Kwame Alexander would lead his story with these identity markers as a way of getting closer to Josh right from the beginning. Support students to share their own identity markers including the clothes, jewelry, and sneakers they wear, the names they use in peer crowds, and other markers that define who they are. Encourage students to notice the identity markers of other characters they are reading about in other books of their choosing.
Genre Mixing: Text, Letter, and Found Poetry.  Josh’s poems are about a range of topics including his own reflections on his performance on the court to explorations of his increasing anger and frustration over JB and his new girlfriend. Yet, Josh also explores other sites for poetry including texts from his mom, a letter he writes to JB, and articles from the local paper. Have students mine their own writing journals, emails, texts, and social media posts as potential sites for poetry. Have students writing letters to people in their own lives in poetic form. Encourage students to look for “found poetry” in newspapers and magazines by finding words, sentences, and topics that can be remixed into poems of their own.
Poetry as Performance: Slam-dunkin’ Poetry. Support students to select a poem of their choice from the book to practice reading or performing the poem using their voice and body to tell more of the story. View poetry slams from places like The Nuyorican Poets Café in New York City that now has recorded live performances. Also view performances of youth poets from the annual New York Knicks poetry slam cosponsored by UrbanWordNYC. Learn about groups like Louder than a Bomb which support afterschool and during school poetry clubs with annual performances. Now available through NetFlix, Louder than a Bomb, has a feature-length documentary film which spotlights the poetry lives of several Chicago adolescence involved in their poetry clubs. Finally, start of slam poetry club of your own as part of the official or unofficial curriculum at your school.  
Mirroring the Game as a Mentor Text. Kwame Alexander uses the traditional time periods of a basketball game to create sections for his novel: Warm Up, First Quarter, Second Quarter, Third Quarter, Fourth Quarter, and Overtime. Support students to synthesize what happens in each section of the novel drawing comparisons to how the events mirror the flow of a basketball game. Consider the other ways in which the book mirrors the feeling of a basketball game such as the lyrical language that feels like a basketball being dribbled or white space that serves to mirror the feeling of a ball being thrown through the air. Have students write their own texts using the structure of other events such as sporting events, theatrical performances, etc.
Critical Literacy and Social Justice
Grades 6-10
Literary Legacy. In an interview with the blogger and librarian, Mr. Shu, Kwame Alexander described his hope for The Crossover to serve as a “literacy lifeline” for coming of age readers. In what ways, does The Crossover serve as a literary legacy for boys, specifically boys of color who may have less access to compelling and powerful characters in the world of children’s literature? Pair The Crossover with articles by Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers noticing the ways they describe the apartheid of children’s literature and the impact they hope their work has on readers. Support students to share their thoughts on the ways in which Kwame Alexander is changing the nature of the children’s literature game. How has he redefined the genre and inspired young people to see themselves as readers and writers whose lives and interests are worthy of great stories?
Definition Poetry: Crossing-over and Co-opting Words. As traditionally academic terms are introduced to the story, Josh co-opts these words and writes poems that define them his own way including poems titled crossover, calamity, patellatendinitis, ironic, pulchritudinous, and hypertension. Support students to be their own wordsmiths or Noah Webster’s selecting traditionally academic words and writing their own “definition poetry” using Josh’s poems as a mentor text.
Cultural References as Cultural Capital. Throughout the book, Kwame Alexander weaves in cultural references for readers to further investigate such as when Josh and JB’s coach uses The Art of War to inspire his team on and off the court or when Mr. Bell, Da Man, compares Josh’s basketball performance to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Research these references with students and consider the ways in which an understanding of cultural references serves as a form of capital or access to power and position. How do they view others who know cultural references to art, literature, and music? How do they think they will be viewed by others if they don’t have access to “cultural capital”?
Interrogating Markers of Class and Race. References to prison as a pipeline as well as reference to recruitment pamphlets in the Assistant Principal’s office for the Marines and the Air Force may stir connections for some students and disconnections for others. Read with students the PBS Fact Sheet on the School-to-Prison-Pipeline with particular attention given to the infographic. Read selections from The New York TimesThe Huffington Post, and National Public Radio on the school “discipline gap”.  In what ways can we interrogate these references as markers of class and race? Do your students experience these messages in their own lives when considering the possibilities for their futures?  Support students to create their own life maps writing and drawing about the possibilities they want for their own futures.
Further Investigation
Online Resources
Kwame Alexander’s Site
Follow Kwame Alexander on Twitter and Facebook
Extended Book Trailer with Kwame Alexander
Kwame Alexander Riffs on Librarians and The Crossover
Mr. Shu Reads Interview with Kwame Alexander
Washington Post article
The Guardian article
Essence Magazine article
Los Angeles Times article
ESPN Video on The Crossover
Alexander, K. (2013). He said she said. New York, NY: Amistad Press.
Alexander, K. (2009). And then you know. Kingsport, TN: Word of Mouth Books.
Alexander, K. (2007). Crush: Love poems. Kingsport, TN: Word of Mouth Books.
Aronson, M. & Smith, C.R. (Ed). (2001). Pickup game: A full day at the courtSomerville, MA: Candlewick Press.
Myers, W.D. (2009). Game. New York, NY: HarperTeen.

Katie Cunningham About Katie Cunningham

Katie is a Professor of Literacy and English Education at Manhattanville College. There she is also the Director of the Advanced Certificate Program in Social and Emotional Learning and Whole Child Education. Her work focuses on children’s literature, joyful literacy methods, and literacy leadership. Katie is the author of Story: Still the Heart of Literacy Learning and co-author of Literacy Leadership in Changing Schools. Her book Start with Joy: Designing Literacy Learning for Student Happiness will be released September 2019. She is passionate about the power of stories to transform lives.