review: Booked by Kwame Alexander


title: Booked
author: Kwame Alexander
date: HMH; April 2016
main character: Nicholas (Nick) Hall
Middle Grade Fiction

Eighth grade is a grade filled with growing up and this is especially true if your name is Nick Hall. Nick and his mother are quite close but he has a strained relationship with his father. Poor relationships with dad seems to be a constant source of problems for young men in books and movies and Booked is no exception to this observation. Nick particularly doesn’t like that his father forces him to read the dictionary to improve his vocabulary. Despite how much energy Nick uses to resist his father, even the least observant reader will see how much Nick takes after him.

Nick feigns a disinterest in school but offers no pretense in his love of soccer. While Nick’s dad thinks grades are the key to college, Nick thinks his will be soccer. He shares this passion with his best friend Coby. While they’re both agile on the field, only Coby has what it takes to talk to girls. Even with his growing vocabulary, Nick has no words for April. The cast of characters is rounded out with Dean and Don Eggleston, twins who terrorize Nick and even more so his bff Coby who they attack with racial slurs. Alexander deftly handles these scenes, writing the reality of these verbal assaults while giving readers no reason to tolerate them. These scenes are the only time race is mentioned, making Coby’s mixed heritage more of a burden than a blessing. These supporting characters lack development, leaving Nick to carry the story himself. Will he find himself? Will he find and use his words? Will he grow up?

From the title of the book (a triple entendre) and even the very first page with ‘soccer’ embedded into its text, we are alerted to the fact that this book will be all about word play and hidden meanings and for the most part we’re not let down. I understand the contextual meaning of footnoting in the book, but accompanying Nick’s growing vocabulary with footnoted definitions makes me question for whom this book is written. Readers have to be trusted enough to know the words or to know how to figure them out. Just like with translating Spanish words in English books, this practice can annoy readers on a couple of levels levels.

Few people like reading dictionaries but many students are friends with the school librarian and will relate to Skip MacDonald aka The Mac aka the librarian.

He sounds
like he’s on the mike,
His flow is sick.

He pops his shoulders.
Bobs his head.
All while reading.

You listen.
You laugh.
You follow along.

Never through
you’d like
a book

of poems.
Two hours later,
when The Mac lands

on the final page,
the doctors and nurses
who’ve lingered
and listened, and who
crowd your room,
give The Mac

a standing ovation.

I have to wonder how well it works to write a book that goes on about how great books and reading are. I imagine Alexander visiting a school, delivering one of his highly engage sessions and every young person there will want to read his book if they haven’t already. They’ll come across titles of other wonderful middle grade books and they may go on to read them. Wordsmith, poet and storyteller that he is, I’d bet the name of this blog that he can get them to read. I reluctant readers will just want a good story and the same may be true for those who already enjoy reading.

Despite all that I mention, Alexander writes a cohesive story. That may sound like a trite compliment, but he builds upon several complex story lines and they all come together quite well, and he does that in narrative poetry, a structure with few if any safety nets. Alexander explores ways of adding textured meaning to his story, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

The book I reviewed was an advanced copy and changes may have been made in the final copy. I do have two ARCs of this book and will be glad to send one copy to each of the first two teachers who emails me their school mailing address. I’ll remove this offer once I’ve received two requests.

crazyquilts at hotmail dot com