April 26, 2016

Surveying Stories: Observing adults in Kwame Alexander's THE CROSSOVER and BOOKED

Children's literature trends toward patterns or themes which repeat -- sometimes because that's just what happens to hit the market at a given time, and other times it's an active interest which people are seeking to promote. Occasionally, I observe these themes or topics in a certain author's work, and try to work through the ideas of what I find intriguing. This is an occasional series which proposes to study these elements in children and young adult fiction from a writer's perspective.

Let's survey a story!

Today's books are both by Kwame Alexander; THE CROSSOVER and BOOKED; companion novels which are both sports-centric novels in verse with male protagonists. Both books briefly feature the complexities of children's relationships with the adults in their lives - both parents and others.

Observations: Poet Kwame Alexander came to my attention with the snap-crackling dialogue in HE SAID, SHE SAID (2013). Adults - parents - weren't as largely featured in that book, possibly because he wrote the story around characters he met in leading a writing workshop. This gives the novel immediacy and authenticity -- but not a lot of adult input. (And there wouldn't have been room for a whole lot, as Omar's ego takes up 90% of the room.) This was also clearly a YA novel, with a frankness about sex which sort of... precluded adult interaction. Not entirely, but enough that the adults didn't, for me, really register.

However, in THE CROSSOVER, the 2015 John Newbery Medal for the Most Distinguished Contribution to American literature for Children, the Coretta Scott King Author Award Honor, etc. etc. etc., and winner of allll the stars -- parents are very visible. THE CROSSOVER is clearly a middle grade novel, with all the complications therein. Josh and Jordan, at almost thirteen, still rely heavily on their parents for support -- and in this novel, entertainment. One of the things I really loved in THE CROSSOVER is the boys' tender relationship with their mother and their father. I like the way they were challenged and gently buffeted in the storm of adult ability until they upped their game. Their father was a font of unchallenged ridiculousness - and bits of wisdom thrown in, too. And, Mom and Dad have ... a life. Even a private life. (Ewwww.) When so many novels do the lazy thing and merely sketch in adults as the narrative version of Charlie Brown's cartoon teachers, fully realized human beings with their own stories - stories which have an affect on the narrative arc - it adjusts the perception of adulthood in children's stories, and maybe in child readers' eyes.

BOOKED, which is a sport-centric companion novel to THE CROSSOVER, though not a sequel, depicts an only child, which necessarily positions the adults in his life more centrally. Nick Hall places soccer at the center of his world - but, he learns, it is not central to his parents' world. As circumstances stretch and challenge their family, he has to reframe his relationship to mother. He is forced to see her not just his pancake-provider, and forehead kisser, but as a person occasionally solely allied with other adults - as all parents sometimes are - but then, Nick also realizes his mother is a person who occasionally allies with just... herself. Mothers as individuals separate from their children isn't something which gets delved into a lot in children's lit, especially in the middle grades, and this is fantastic to see here.

Two more characters from BOOKED intrigued me; Mr. "Mac" McDonald and Ms. Hardwick. Both adults are unmarried and childfree in the novel. Historically, childfree adults in middle grade or children's literature have been either elderly, odd, or sort of neutered caretakers (too many teachers to count, including Miss Honey in MATILDA; Heidi's grandfather in HEIDI; Miss Spink and Miss Forcible in CORALINE) or less dimensional characters with sort of walk-on roles or few lines at a time (the Magician Uncle in THE MAGICIAN'S NEPHEW; Hagrid in the Potter books). Having interests not child-centric or a life outside of the classroom/home where they interact with the child seems to be a relatively new development for childfree adults in middle grade literature. Having someone like your school librarian be a former rapper -- with a scar -- makes for a character who is intensely interesting. Having him be whimsical and unpredictable makes him a well-rounded, real human adult as well (and, wisely, Alexander never satisfies our curiosity about him... which leads me to believe [hope? cross fingers?] we'll be seeing him again).

Ms. Hardwick, Nick's frowning 8th grade English teacher, is distinguished from being just another figure in the long blurry ranks of "adult" by being seen out of context: first smiling, understanding who he is, and then by jarring him entirely by wearing red shoes, and being someone's... date. (Oh, the horror!) It's kind of terrifying to poor Nick, but it makes her real, if not rather amusing - and reassuring. Childfree adults do exist without being The Crazed Crone in the Woods, and without being a faceless teacher, droning - human wallpaper.

Which leaves me to wonder whether we're changing our perception of childhood, as writers, or our perception of adults. Maybe we are, at last, giving some respect to the middle graders and not believing them totally oblivious. Maybe we're giving some respect to the mentors and the relationships that adults have with children, not just as their jailers and their providers, but including the relationships they have with those who are also their guides and friends.

I read my copy of these books courtesy of the Public Library. You can find THE CROSSOVER and You can find BOOKED by Kwame Alexander at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

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