'Booked' asks tweens to consider the idea that being smart could be cool

Newbery medal-winner Kwame Alexander brings soccer, poetry, and teen life together in a compelling narrative for middle-grade readers.

Booked By Kwame Alexander Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 320 pp. Recommended for ages 10-12

What makes a good book for boys? Perhaps an obvious answer might be, “A sports story.” Although if Kwame Alexander’s writing is any indication, books for boys work best when sports act as a vehicle for universal messages about the challenges of growing up.

In his Newbery medal-winning book, “The Crossover,” Alexander uses poetry to tell the story of twin brothers Josh and JB – reigning basketball champs at their middle school. But like any masterful piece of writing, the story on the surface of “The Crossover” – the basketball story – really functions as a metaphor for narrator Josh’s journey through a rocky period with his brother, and with their father’s failing health.

Alexander takes a similar approach in his newest title, Booked, although in this verse-driven narrative, the sport is soccer. And main character Nick isn’t dealing with a parent with health issues, but with the health of his parents’ relationship. In other words, if “The Crossover” was about loss, then “Booked” is about change.

Twelve-year-old Nick’s life revolves around soccer. It’s his passion. His identity. True to a middle school mentality, it’s also the way Nick thinks he can impress the girls. But there’s more to Nick than soccer, and Alexander handles this revelation deftly, showing us a character who’s ready to accept, and grow into, the parts of himself that previously made him uncomfortable. The idea that it’s OK to be smart emerges organically in this story, and as Nick’s comfort level with his own intelligence increases, the reader gets the message, too.

This isn’t to say that “Booked” is didactic. Although of Alexander’s two books, it’s definitely the more message-driven. Besides nudging his readers to consider the possibility that being smart is cool, Alexander also hammers themes about literacy and poetry: Namely, that all books, even books written in verse, are “books for boys.”

When we meet him at the beginning of the story, Nick is a reluctant reader – partly because he’s squirming under his father’s hard-driving academic influence, and partly because he has better things (like soccer) to do. However, with the help of a book-wielding fairy godfather, and the attentions of a cute girl, Nick is drawn into the world of stories, specifically stories in verse. If readers of “Booked” wonder what to tackle next, Alexander slips an entire reading list into the pages of this book. Parents and librarians take note!

What Alexander does so well is to drop these messages, like breadcrumbs, along the way, while keeping the focus of the story on the emotional issues that any reader in this demographic can relate to. Nick’s journey isn’t just one of self-acceptance. He also deals with bullies, the break-up of his parents’ marriage, and the emotional ups and downs of friendships and relationships.

All of this is accomplished with Alexander’s trademark humor and energy. When Nick’s concerned parents take him to see a shrink, the related poem earns the title, “Doctor Fraud,” while the poems describing Nick’s prowess on the soccer pitch practically hum with intensity. For readers who appreciate emotional depth, the poetry exploring Nick’s relationship with his mom offers poignancy – and a variation in the book’s rhythm.

All of which is to say that while “Booked” will definitely appeal to boys, its themes are universal. Because in Alexander’s capable hands, what makes a good book for boys, actually makes a good book for any reader who needs the reassurance that in spite of the challenges, he – or she – can still win at the game of growing up.

Jenny Sawyer is co-founder of the educational website www.60secondrecap.com and writes frequently about children's literature.

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