SLAM DUNK: “I believe that books are like amusement parks and sometimes kids ought to be able to choose the ride that’s going to thrill them,” the children’s book author Kwame Alexander says. His last novel — “The Crossover,” a Newbery-winning, hip-hop-inflected tale of basketball-loving twin boys Josh and Jordan — was written in verse, as is his new one, a prequel called “Rebound.” It enters the middle-grade hardcover list at No. 3.
His books pulse with musicality, so it’s no surprise that Alexander plays tunes while he writes. “I listen to jazz, mostly for the rhythm and the joy,” he says. “Songs that inspire and enrapture me, that never end. Long jazz songs like ‘So What’ by Miles Davis and John Coltrane’s almost 14-minute, avant-garde, hypnotic rendition of ‘My Favorite Things.’” A playlist for “Rebound,” he says, “would be a cornucopia of all the songs that defined my teen years, from ‘Man in the Mirror’ to Phil Collins to the Fresh Prince and LL Cool J. But also, there’d be some Luther Vandross and Earth, Wind and Fire, because when we went to our grandparents’ house, that was what was playing on the record player. I think there’d be a Nancy Wilson or Ella Fitzgerald song on there.”
Though some educators credit his books with drawing in the most reluctant readers, Alexander says, “I don’t believe in reluctant readers in the same way I don’t believe in reluctant moviegoers or reluctant eaters. If I’m at a play and I’m severely unimpressed, I will ask my wife, ‘Can we leave at intermission?’ If something doesn’t rip our heart out and stomp on it, it doesn’t have to mean that we are reluctant, just that it’s not interesting.” Kids, he believes, are the same way. He adds, “I think poetry is a surefire way to get young people engaged with literature because of its immediacy, its emotional intimacy, its rhythm, its ability to take the human soul entire, as Langston Hughes said, and squeeze it, ‘like a lemon or lime, drop by drop, into atomic words.’”
In his books, the twins follow guides to life called the “basketball rules.” Alexander lives by them too. “‘A loss is inevitable,’” he says, quoting rule No. 10. “‘Like snow in winter. / True champions / learn / to dance / through / the storm.’” He explains, “Recently, my mom passed. While I was writing ‘Rebound,’ about a boy dealing with loss and grief and trying to find himself in the new normal of his life, I was trying to rebound from loss and grief and trying to find my new self. And it was cathartic to be writing my life. It helped me get back on the dance floor.”
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