The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

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Basketball Rule #1

In this game of life

your family is the court

and the ball is your heart.

No matter how good you are,

no matter how down you get,

always leave

your heart

on the court.

(Alexander 2014, p. 20)

I’m not usually a big fan of books written in verse, but I found myself really enjoying this book, to the point where I actually read a little bit of it out loud because I was enjoying the rhythm and flow so much. Each page is written almost like a rap song, with short bursts of text providing glimpses of the story through the main character’s head. While I’ve read similar books before (the works of Ellen Hopkins come to mind), this book felt unique in that it seemed to represent the character’s inner thoughts and feelings through the rhymes. I thought this was a really creative way to tell a story, and I loved every minute of it.

Much like Orbiting Jupiter, this is a short story that doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to tough issues. The novel focuses on a high school boy named Josh Bell. Because his dad was a famous ball player, Josh and his twin brother Jordan have grown up cultivating impressive skills on the basketball court. Though the two have always been close, things begin to change when Jordan gets a new girlfriend and starts to spend all of his time with her. Feeling left out, Josh says and does a few things he shouldn’t (including hitting his brother in the face with a basketball during a game), leading the two to have a falling out. When it becomes clear that their all-star dad is facing serious health problems, however, the two must learn to come together in order to discover what really matters in life.

Like I mentioned before, this book is the exact opposite of the type of book I usually enjoy. I’m all about sweeping fantasy novels written in prose, while this novel is a realistic story written in poetic rap verses. From the very first page, however, I was hooked; I found myself thinking that if all rap sounded like this book, I’d probably enjoy it a lot more as a musical genre than I do. Aside from being rhythmic and pleasing to the ear, the poetic style actually made the story itself more intriguing, as a lot of details must be inferred from the simple lines on the page. This isn’t the type of book to spoon-feed the plot to you; not all of the dialogue is obvious, and it’s very easy to miss details if you aren’t reading closely. That being said, I really enjoyed the suspense that built as I read further, prompting me to wonder what would happen to the father and how the brothers’ relationship would evolve or change.

The most heart-wrenching aspect of this book, in my opinion, is the bond between the brothers and their dad, and the way this bond shapes the narrative as the dad’s health begins to decline. The book is short, but I found myself immediately invested in these characters, wanting their father to be okay every bit as much as they did. As with many children’s novels, however, this novel’s aim seems to be teaching children (and young teens) how to deal with the concept of death. While we know from the beginning that Josh and Jordan’s dad is in poor health, his death at the end still comes as a shock. The novel pulls almost a twist at the end, luring the reader into a false sense of security before dropping the hammer on both the characters and the audience. This, in my opinion, was an excellent way to handle the death, as it shows the harsh reality of losing a loved one suddenly and unexpectedly. Children need to understand these lessons early on, and it’s best to teach them in a way that is safe and controlled (rather than waiting until tragedy strikes).

In the end, the ultimate lesson that I took from this book was that life is short; when tragedy strikes, you forget all of the petty little things keeping you from those you love, and you remember what’s most important. After their father’s death, the twins are able to reconcile, realizing that they will really only have one another in the end. Moving forward, I’d like to think that the two could mourn their father together, sharing in the great moments the three of them shared and carrying on their father’s legacy. As a whole, this book demonstrates the close bond between families, and how even the biggest tragedy can shed light in places where there had only been darkness before. While I came into this reading experience expecting “just another sports story,” I’m pleased to say that I found quite a lot more than I expected. I guess I really should know by now that you can never judge a book by its cover!

Reference:

Alexander, K. (2014). The crossover. Boston; New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt

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“Christmas is the season for miracles, you know. Sometimes they come big and loud, I guess – but I’ve never seen one of those. I think probably most miracles are a lot smaller, and sort of still, and so quiet, you could miss them. I didn’t miss this one. When my father put his hand on Joseph’s back, Joseph didn’t even flinch” (Schmidt 2015, pp. 114-115).

This book was short, but tragic and absolutely heart-breaking. I never cease to be amazed by the ability of young adult and children’s literature to profoundly move me, even though it’s meant for an audience much younger than I am. While I’m not usually a fan of books that make me cry (John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars is a major exception to this rule), I found this story to be a touching look at the bonds that are formed between human beings, whether these bonds are platonic or something much deeper.

The story focuses on two boys named Jack and Joseph. Jack is a twelve year old boy living a comfortable life on a farm with his parents. Joseph is a troubled teen who was sent to a facility known as Stone Mountain for attempting to murder a teacher. At the beginning of the story, Jack’s parents decide to take Joseph in as a foster child, making him Jack’s new foster brother. While many of Jack’s teachers and classmates are afraid of Joseph because of his troubled past, Jack immediately sees beyond the things that make him scary to other people. Jack soon learns that Joseph fell in love with a girl named Maddie, and now has a daughter (named Jupiter) that he has never been allowed to see. His inability to see his own daughter torments Joseph, as does the fact that Maddie died due to complications during the birth. As the two boys grow closer, Jack learns that there is inherent value in every person, no matter the struggles or troubles that defined them in the past.

I’m not even sure where to begin with this novel. From the very beginning, I felt a profound sympathy for Joseph, and all real teens like him who are misunderstood due to their past mistakes. Even Joseph’s teachers tend to judge him without ever making an effort to know him first, as can be seen in the scene where one of the teachers warns Jack about his new foster brother:

“‘I respect your parents. I really do. They’re trying to make a difference in the world, bringing kids like Joseph Brook into a normal family. But kids like Joseph Brook aren’t always normal, see? They act the way they do because their brains work differently. They don’t think like you and I think. So they can do things…'” (Schmidt 2015, p. 21).

Once again, this is only a fictional story, but the mere thought that a teacher could dehumanize a minor in such a way struck me to the core. The saddest part about this is knowing that there are actual adults out there (many of them responsible for children in some way) that think like this, devaluing human life simply because the child or teen doesn’t “think the same way” as everyone else. The more you learn about Joseph’s struggles throughout the novel, the more your heart breaks for him. He never intentionally did a bad thing. His only real mistake was falling in love with a girl from a higher socio-economic status, one with incredibly over-protective parents who treated him like dirt from the very beginning. As the story progresses, we also learn that his mother is gone and his father is highly abusive , giving him no real family to lean on when his life later falls apart.

Books like Orbiting Jupiter, in my opinion, help to show young teens a different perspective. There are likely many young people out there who think like some of the teachers in the book: that some kids are just “bad eggs,” and aren’t worth trying to rehabilitate or educate. Fortunately for Joseph, there are teachers (and a foster family) in his life who truly believe he can succeed, working with him to help him advance in school. As a young person who likely would have thought the same way before college opened my mind, I can see a great deal of benefit in sharing this book with a variety of audiences. Those in similar situations can relate to Joseph, while those in families like Jack’s can catch a glimpse of the struggles that many under-privileged kids and teens go through. Even as an adult, reading this book proved to be an eye-opening experience.

I’d rather not spoil the ending for those who haven’t read this book yet, but I highly recommend it. The best stories, in my opinion, are the stories that help us to empathize with others, and to see life from the eyes of someone whose struggles are completely different from our own. I think doing this really helps to put our own struggles in perspective, and allows us to develop compassion for others. Joseph’s life is heart-breaking, and it’s even more heart-breaking to realize that there are actual teens out there going through similar struggles. I consider myself humbled and grateful after reading this book, and if it doesn’t already have an award, it most definitely deserves one.

Reference:

Schmidt, G. D. (2015). Orbiting Jupiter. Boston: Clarion Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Joey Pigza Loses Control by Jack Gantos

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“I wanted him to stop telling me who I was when I knew better. He wanted me to be something I wasn’t, and I wanted him to be something he wasn’t. We were so far apart. And yet, even though I knew he was wrong, he was my dad, and I wanted him to be right. More than anything, I wanted him to have all the answers” (Gantos 2011, p. 94).

The more I read children’s literature, the more I find myself surprised at the depth and complexity of it. While it’s true that there are many books (including many of the books I read as a child) that amount to literary junk food, there are so many children’s books that tackle issues even adult stories can’t really handle properly. Joey Pigza Loses Control is one such book. While I’m usually more of a fan of fantasy and science fiction, I really appreciate a story that handles real-world issues in a realistic, humorous manner, and this book handled a number of serious issues very efficiently.

Joey Pigza is a young boy suffering from ADHD, who has just been given medicine (in the form of a daily patch on his arm) that allows him to feel “normal.” Joey is excited because, for the first time, he will be visiting with his dad for six weeks of the summer. Despite being told that it will likely never happen, Joey can’t help but hope that this trip will mend his family, bringing his parents back together again. At first, Joey’s dad seems just like him: “wired,” optimistic, and full of enthusiasm for the future. He quickly learns, however, that all is not as rosy as it seems, and that his dad has many problems of his own that need to be worked out before he’s ready to parent anyone.

The quote that struck me the most from this book can be found about halfway through the story, when Joey is pretending to be a mannequin in a shopping mall. As he’s having his fun, a nice, motherly woman catches him in the act, giving him a strange look when she finds out what he’s doing:

“She gave me a strange look when I said ‘normal,’ like the last thing in the world I was was ‘normal.’ Oh well, I thought, maybe it’s not a good idea to be too normal. It didn’t sound like much fun if it only made you afraid to do the stuff you really wanted to do” (Gantos 2011, p. 110).

Though this is only a work of fiction, I found myself really connecting to Joey’s desire to be “normal.” I’ve suffered from anxiety for most of my life, and even as an adult I find myself wishing that I was “normal,” and that “normal” things (like driving and dating) didn’t cause me to shut down with panic and fear. Like Joey, I also fear what might happen if I were to stop taking the medication that helps me feel more normal, and that I’ll quickly slip back into the “old me” if I’m not careful, too afraid to leave the house and get things done. If a 24 year old woman can connect to this fictional boy, I can’t imagine how his struggles relate to actual children who might be reading this book.

One thing I’ve never dealt with is divorce, though many children out there have had to go through the changes that accompany parents who have chosen to separate. I felt for Joey as he struggled to connect with his dad, wanting him to be proud of him and form a bond that they’d never shared before. This becomes even harder when Joey’s dad turns to alcohol, becoming a different person entirely when he’s intoxicated. These are very serious issues, but issues that children in the real world often have to face. Joey’s story shows children that, while you can’t always fix the messes in your life, there is always hope for a brighter future. Joey has a mother who loves him deeply, medication that helps him feel better, and a dog (Pablo) who serves as his best friend. Even without his dad, Joey lives a good life, and when things don’t quite work out the way we planned, his story shows children that there are always blessings to be had in life.

This book also shows, like the above quote implies, that adults don’t always have the answers. Sometimes, they’re every bit as lost as children, and this is important for children to understand. At the end of the day, we’re all human, and we all have flaws and lapses in judgment that lead to sticky situations; I think it helps children to see that nobody is perfect, not even those we look up to most.

It has always been my belief that children’s stories shouldn’t shy away from tough issues, as they allow children going through these experiences to feel as if they have a friend (fictional or otherwise) coping with the same struggles. For children who aren’t facing the same issues, stories like this introduce them to some of the world’s injustice in a safe, controlled manner, one that allows them to wonder about these experiences and ask questions.

This is easily the type of book that could spark a classroom discussion about divorce, alcoholism, and ADHD, all tough topics that many children are having to deal with in reality. I’ve heard criticism that it treats these topics too lightly, but I think humor is sometimes the best medicine when it comes to the topics that are the most heart-breaking. Sometimes, it just helps to laugh about the dark parts of life, even when we don’t always feel like it. I also think that the addition of humor allows children to feel comfortable reading until the end; if it was dark and depressing all the way through, it wouldn’t give anyone much incentive to keep reading. The humor shows children that it’s okay to be happy and enjoy yourself sometimes, even when the things you’re going through don’t seem at all funny. Life isn’t just light or dark; it’s a messy combination of both, and I think this book captures both sides of the coin in a meaningful way.

When I have time, I’d love to read the rest of the series; I think Joey is a wonderful character, and his story is filled with a lot of heart and realism. This book proves that the right story can really warm me up to genres that I haven’t explored much previously!

Reference:

Gantos, J. (2011). Joey Pigza loses control. New York: Square Fish.

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

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“Reader, you must know that an interesting fate (sometimes involving rats, sometimes not) awaits almost everyone, mouse or man, who does not conform” (DiCamillo 2006, p. 25).

“Would you like to hear, reader, how it all unfolded? The story is not a pretty one. There is violence in it. And cruelty. But stories that are not pretty have a certain value too, I suppose. Everything, as you well know (having lived in this world long enough to have figured out a thing or two for yourself), cannot always be sweetness and light” (DiCamillo 2006, p. 183).

This book was incredibly sweet! As with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I remember seeing the movie for this book a long time ago. Unlike the C.S Lewis work, however, I did not remember anything about this story, making the book a fresh and exciting experience.

The Tale of Despereaux, as you might expect, follows the story of Despereaux, a tiny mouse with big ears and even bigger dreams. Shunned by his fellow mice for being different (and for talking to humans), Despereaux is thrown into the dungeon to be eaten by rats, but not before meeting and falling in love with the beautiful princess Pea. Spurred forward by his love for the princess and his desire to be an adventurous knight, Despereaux is able to survive the dungeon and save princess Pea from a vengeful rat named Chiaroscuro and a simple, misguided servant girl named Miggery Sow. The Tale of Despereaux is a modern fairy tale at its finest, with suspense, adventure, intrigue, and a whole lot of heart.

Once again, I found this tale to be both simple and cute, inviting children into a world where anything is possible, and where even a mouse can be a hero. In my opinion, the overall messages of this story are that love and hope are wonderful, and those who are different are usually the ones who have the best adventures (as the above quote implies). From his birth, Despereaux is seen as an oddity, a mouse with big ears who doesn’t act like a mouse. Despite this, his optimism, bravery, and love for the princess are what make him successful, delivering a subtle but wonderful message to the reader.

Similarly, the themes of redemption and forgiveness are explored in a way children can understand, without ever pandering to or talking down to the audience. For example, Roscuro turns to revenge after seeing the princess’s hatred for accidentally killing her mother, but realizes the error of his ways when she forgives him. Forgiveness also makes Despereaux feel better when he chooses to forgive his father, letting go of any anger or resentment he might have held. This, too, is a very deep and crucial message, delivered in a way that makes it easier for children to understand.

Grief, too, is explored in the way the kind bans soup after the death of his wife. As the book says:

“This is the danger of loving: No matter how powerful you are, no matter how many kingdoms you rule, you cannot stop those you love from dying. Making soup illegal, outlawing rats, these things soothed the poor king’s heart. And so we must forgive him” (p. 119).

This is a very simple, yet powerful, way to explain love and loss. As the narrator points out, the king’s actions may have seemed extreme, but they were done in an act of grief, something that we all experience and handle differently. While a younger reader might not immediately pick up on this theme due to the subtlety in which it is presented, older children (and adults like me) can look back on stories like Despereaux and appreciate these very complex themes presented in simple ways.

Despite the simplicity of the story, The Tale of Despereaux also features quite a bit of darkness, much like the original versions of the Grimm fairy tales. I was shocked at the abuse poor Miggery Sow had to endure, being beaten so badly that she became both “simple-minded” and nearly deaf. That is a concerning level of violence for a children’s book, though I agree that sometimes a little violence is necessary to convey a realistic story (even if the setting and characters behave in a way that’s fantastic). My problem, however, is that the violence is almost played for laughs rather than serious issues. Miggery is a sympathetic character, but also constantly mocked for being “dumb” and played as the comic relief.

The book’s treatment of Mig, to me, is the only real mixed message the book sends, and the positive messages outweigh it enough that I don’t see it being a huge problem. That being said, I would hope it doesn’t encourage kids that it’s okay to bully and make fun of those who are different, especially if they have disabilities or aren’t as smart as other children. Of course, Despereaux himself is different, and played as the hero, so perhaps this isn’t the message the author intended to convey at all.

Overall, I really enjoyed this story, yet another that I missed out on during my own childhood. I remember readingBecause of Winn-Dixie and The Tiger Rising as a child, but this is a Kate DiCamillo story that unfortunately slipped by me when I was younger. After reading it, however, I can honestly say that I’m very glad I gave it a try!

Reference:

DiCamillo, K., & Ering, T. B. (2006). The tale of Despereaux: Being the story of a mouse, a princess, some soup, and a spool of thread. Cambridge, Mass: Candlewick Press.