Kwame Alexander is an award-winning poet and children’s book author. His most recent book, The Crossover, is a story told through poems and basketball "rules." The book is about twin brothers who are basketball stars striving for a championship. These brothers – whose nicknames are Filthy McNasty and JB – do everything together, until a girl catches JB’s eye, and the twins’ rope-tight bond starts to fall apart.
Because The Crossover involves poetry, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But it was a really good read — so good, in fact, that it’s now one of my favorite books. Recently, I spoke with Alexander about the book, basketball, and how he decided to tell this story through poetry.
Why did you write the book in the cool, creative way that you did?
I figured that I would write it with poetry because poetry is something I've always loved reading. The second reason is I wanted to sort of mirror a basketball game. I thought, when you play basketball, you're dribbling and you're running fast and sometimes you stop, sometimes you're dunking or shooting. Basketball, when you're playing really well, is like poetry in motion. I thought I could best mirror the game of basketball with poetry.
How did you come up with the idea for the story?
I guess the first thing is I wanted to talk about the relationship between fathers and sons. So that's sort of where it started. And I really wanted to talk about it in a fun and funny sort of way because when I grew up with my dad, he was really a big part of my life. He taught me how to play basketball, he taught me how to play tennis, and so I wanted to show the relationship between a dad and a son. And then I thought, I really wanted boys to like and read the book, so let me choose a sport that I think a lot of boys are involved in, but one that girls can play, as well. So, I thought, basketball! And then I think the last thing is, I wanted to tell a story about family. I wanted to talk about the importance of family and the value of family and how you really have to appreciate your mom, your dad, your sisters and brothers in this life.
I'm a twin, and my brother’s name is Josh, actually. How did you get the idea of using twins? Do you know any that are as close as Josh and JB?
Josh? Really? Do you call him Filthy! (Laughs.) How cool is that! I always wanted to have a brother my age or a bigger brother. I grew up with two younger sisters and a younger brother. I was always the oldest. So when I was writing this book, I was thinking of how cool it would be to write a brother for the main character so that I could sort of live my life over through these pages, of what it would be like to have a brother. And then I have two nephews who are twins and they play basketball. They live in New Orleans. I think going to New Orleans for Christmas vacation and seeing them, and being around them, and seeing their strong bond and how tight they are — they can finish each other's sentences — they were like one. You never knew one from the other, not just physically, but verbally, mentally — just, everything. So I said, "I think I'm going to make the brothers twins." And that's how it happened.
How did you come up with the names Filthy McNasty and JB?
Do you listen to music? Do you listen to jazz music? (Laughs.) Most kids don't. When I was a kid, I didn't listen to jazz either. But I discovered that my dad had a bunch of jazz records in his attic. I found those jazz albums and was, like, “What is this?” I listened and really enjoyed it. I loved the rhythm, I loved the improvisational nature. Jazz musicians will practice and they'll know the songs they have to play. But at a certain point in the song they start to freestyle it and improv. That's another sort of thing that mirrors basketball. There are plays that a coach sets up for the team, but at some point the players have to take it on their own and improv it. So jazz music is something I've grown to really love.
While I was writing The Crossover, I was listening to jazz. It sort of helped me stay in the right mood to write. One of the songs that came on that I hadn't been that familiar with was a song called “Filthy McNasty” by an awesome jazz pianist named Horace Silver. I heard the song and I stopped writing to look at my computer and see what the song was. I thought, "Wow, this is a really cool groove." And the name of it was "Filthy McNasty." I thought, "That name is kind of cool. I think I want to use that name in the book." And I had a nickname for the father ("Da Man"), I had a nickname for Jordan, who is JB, and I didn't have one for Josh, so I thought, “He's going to be ‘Filthy McNasty.’”
JB loves Michael Jordan. Is he your favorite player?
He's probably, along with Bill Russell, one of the two best players ever. Is he my favorite player? No. I really like LeBron James. But it's sort of like comparing three quarters — they're all worth the same. One of them may be a little rough around the edges, one of them may be new, but they all serve pretty much the same function. I think Bill Russell, Michael Jordan, and LeBron James are all pretty much in the same class. But if I had to choose, I'm all for the Miami Heat winning the championship this year because I really love LeBron James.
Is basketball your favorite sport?
It's one of my favorites. I think if I had to pick a favorite sport, it would be tennis. But my dad, Edward Curtis Alexander, was a big basketball star in high school and in college. He played college basketball at Norfolk State University. He also played in the Air Force where he was stationed in South Dakota. His nickname on the team was The Big Al. I can remember when I was little, I would go in his room and find newspaper articles written about him, his picture in the paper, about how awesome he was. I always thought that was really cool, and that one day I'd like to tell a story about my dad. The Crossover isn't about him, but it certainly was inspired by him.
Photos courtesy HMH Books