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Reviews of the 2015 Newbery Award winners

Winner:

alexander_crossoverThe Crossover
by Kwame Alexander
Intermediate, Middle School   Houghton   235 pp.
3/14   978-0-544-10771-7   $16.99   g

Josh and Jordan (JB), identical twin sons of former basketball phenom Chuck “Da Man” Bell, are ball legends themselves, and they aren’t yet thirteen; Josh is the only middle schooler around who can dunk, JB has a mean three-point shot, and together they’re a well-oiled machine on the court. But then things start to change, as they tend to do at their age: JB gets a girlfriend, and before Josh knows it, their relationship is strained to the point of a mid-game altercation that lands him benched for weeks. On top of that, their mother frets constantly over Dad’s poor health, and the boys begin to worry, too. Josh’s first-person verse narration is a combination of exciting play-by-play game details, insightful middle-school observations, and poignant meditations on sibling dynamics and familial love. Since poet Alexander has the swagger and cool confidence of a star player and the finesse of a perfectly in-control ball-handler, wordplay and alliteration roll out like hip-hop lyrics, and the use of concrete forms and playful font changes keep things dynamic: “SWOOP in / to the finish with a fierce finger roll… / Straight in the hole: / Swoooooooooooosh.” Alexander brings the novel-in-verse format to a fresh audience with this massively appealing package for reluctant readers, athletes especially. KATRINA HEDEEN

From the May/June 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

Honor books:

eldeafostar2 El Deafo
by Cece Bell; illus. by the author; 
color by David Lasky
Intermediate, Middle School Amulet/Abrams 242 pp.
9/14 978-1-4197-1020-9 $21.95
Paper ed. 978-1-4197-1217-3 $10.95

At the age of four, in 1975, Bell contracted meningitis, leaving her severely to profoundly deaf. In this characterful, vivid, often amusing graphic-novel memoir she recaptures the experiences of her childhood — adapting to deafness, to others’ attitudes toward it, and to the technology of the Phonic Ear, a cumbersome assistive device. At the heart of her story is an experience relevant to most children: the finding of the “True Friend,” a falling out, and a reunion. Bell combines great humor and charm (her characters are all anthropomorphized bunnies) with emotional complexity and seriousness; her depiction of Cece’s valiant struggles with loneliness, irritation, and embarrassment at the way people treat her is moving, utterly convincing, and authentic — never “poor bunny.” Her forthright humor works especially well in conveying the practicalities of Cece’s mode of communication: “I sure can’t lip-read a butt!” she says, looking at a speaker’s back. This memoir is thus exceptionally informative and entertaining in relation to some aspects of deaf communication, but, most centrally and powerfully, it is exceptional for its perceptive, indomitable protagonist and complex story of friendship, growth, and classroom and family dynamics. DEIRDRE F. BAKER

From the November/December 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

woodson_brown girl dreamingstar2 Brown Girl Dreaming
by Jacqueline Woodson
Intermediate, Middle School Paulsen/Penguin
328 pp. 8/14 978-0-399-25251-8 $16.99 g

Here is a memoir-in-verse so immediate that readers will feel they are experiencing the author’s childhood right along with her. It starts out somewhat slowly, with Woodson relying on others’ memories to relate her (1963) birth and infancy in Ohio, but that just serves to underscore the vividness of the material once she begins to share her own memories; once her family arrives in Greenville, South Carolina, where they live with her maternal grandparents. Woodson describes a South where the whites-only signs may have been removed but where her grandmother still can’t get waited on in Woolworth’s, where young people are sitting at lunch counters and standing up for civil rights; and Woodson expertly weaves that history into her own. However, we see young Jackie grow up not just in historical context but also — and equally — in the context of extended family, community (Greenville and, later, Brooklyn), and religion (she was raised Jehovah’s Witness). Most notably of all, perhaps, we trace her development as a nascent writer, from her early, overarching love of stories through her struggles to learn to read through the thrill of her first blank composition book to her realization that “words are [her] brilliance.” The poetry here sings: specific, lyrical, and full of imagery: “So the first time my mother goes to New York City / we don’t know to be sad, the weight / of our grandparents’ love like a blanket / with us beneath it, / safe and warm.” An extraordinary — indeed brilliant — portrait of a writer as a young girl. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

From the September/October 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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