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Swing, a Novel-in-Verse by Kwame Alexander with Mary Rand Hess

SWING
Written by Kwame Alexander
with Mary Rand Hess

(Blink YA Books; $18.99, Ages 14-18) 

 

Swing by Kwame Alexander and Mary Rand Hess book cover

 

 

Starred Reviews – Kirkus, School Library Journal 

Kwame Alexander’s Newbery Award-winning novel, The Crossover, used basketball as the backdrop for the story. His new book, written with Mary Rand Hess, is a novel-in-verse called Swing with a prologue beginning:

We were halfway through

junior year.

Rounding the bases.

About to score

it’s a good bet that the title refers to baseball.However, Hess and Alexander also collaborated on the 2017 novel Solo about rock and roll, and it turns out that Swingis as much about swinging the beat as swinging the bat. Most of all, though, it’s about putting yourself out there and embracing life.

The book opens as narrator Noah and his best friend Walt (AKA “Swing”) have again failed to make their high school baseball team. Noah wants to give up, lamenting:

But the truth is

we suck.

Our baseball dream

is a nightmare.

It haunts me.

Noah defines himself by what he can’t do. He can’t play baseball, and he can’t tell his longtime crush, Sam, how he feels about her. With Walt’s encouragement, Noah tries writing poetry for her, but it’s not very — well, see for yourself:

I want you

to be my symphony

Your legs

two piccolo trumpets

blazing through

the air.

Even Walt agrees the poem is not good enough to give to Sam, but when Noah buys a second-hand Louis Vuitton Keepall as a birthday gift for his mom, he finds old love letters stashed in the lining that inspire him to try again.

Tonight, I’m ready

To tear courage

Out of the book of dares

And make it mine.

The love letters give him a scaffold for creating art worth sharing. Noah uses them to make blackout poetry — he blacks out some words so that the ones that remain legible form a new poem — and then adds original graphic elements with his pen. The resulting mixed media art stands out, even in this book composed entirely of poems. They make me curious; I have to figure out which letter Noah uses for which piece. They make me want to try writing blackout poetry myself, and they make Noah more confident, able to express himself and impress the girl he loves.

As wonderful as Noah’s art is, my favorite creation in this book is, simply, Walt. I want to reread Swingto spend more time with him. Noah describes him and his quirks like this:

My best friend

Walt Disney Jones

is obsessed with jazz,

baseball,

dead famous people,

and finding cool,

if it’s the last thing

we ever do.

But Walt’s a

self-proclaimed expert

on how to

never give up

until you win.

When it comes to “finding cool,” especially with regard to girls, Walt relies on his older cousin Floyd and a podcast called The Woohoo Woman. He won’t give up, whether he’s practicing baseball or finding a date for prom. He even gets a tattoo inspired by Tupac Shakur’s acronym THUG LIFE. Walt’s tattoo says HUG LIFE, exhorting everyone who sees it to embrace the world, and all its people and opportunities, wholeheartedly.

Noah’s quest to win Sam over from her boyfriend takes flight after Noah’s parents go on a trip, leaving him home alone for a few weeks. Noah’s grandmother is supposed to supervise him but doesn’t believe it’s necessary. Walt, on the other hand, moves right in, believing Noah absolutely needs supervision if he’s going to win Sam’s heart. Walt anonymously sends Sam one of Noah’s poems, but it’s still up to Noah to decide how and when to reveal himself. Will he ever convince Sam to promote him out of the friend zone?

Swing is most of all a coming-of-age story, but there is a mystery in the background throughout. People find American flags left on lawns, stuck on windshields, and painted on freeway exit signs, and the town debates whether the flags represent a show of patriotism or a sinister warning.

no one can agree

on why the flags are here,

who’s planting them,

and whether or not

we should be

happy or offended

that they’re growing

like dandelions.

The flag mystery leads a fairly light story into heavier territory. I believe in building empathy and understanding through books about difficult topics; however, in Swing, the social justice issues are not well developed. Because of this, I felt unprepared for a tragedy (caused by police using excessive force) at the end of the book, and I think younger, sensitive readers in particular may have the same experience. Most of us dislike spoilers, but with Swing I think it’s fair to provide readers with a little warning before reading and a lot of opportunities for discussion afterward. In that context, I recommend Swing to readers fourteen and up as both a funny coming-of-age buddy story and a serious vehicle for discussing the people we as a society forget, fear, or abuse.

  • Review by Mary Malhotra

 

What Light written by Jay Asher


WHAT LIGHT
by Jay Asher
(Razorbill; $18.99, Ages 14 and up)

 

Jay Asher's What Light cover

 

What Light by Jay Asher was released in October and was a perfect way to kick off the holiday season, but it’s also a book that keeps the holiday spirit going all year round. In fact, I’d say anytime is a great time to read a romance. It tells the story of teenager Sierra, whose family owns a generations-old tree farm and spends every December in California selling their trees to locals there. Her overprotective father keeps all the worker boys at bay, even though Sierra has no interest in a fleeting romance—that is, until she meets Caleb. Struck by his charming character and smile, Sierra’s feelings for him clash with her high standards for relationships as well as the rumors she hears about Caleb. He has a history that looms over him like the Ghost of Christmas Past, but Sierra tries to lighten the burden he’s carried with him for so long.

Sierra and Caleb share the instant love of Romeo & Juliet (though without the dramatic dual-sacrifice ending). In fact, the title, What Light, is a nod to Romeo & Juliet’s first meeting: “What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.” However, the title becomes much more meaningful as the relationship between Sierra and Caleb unfolds.

Given that it is only 186 pages, and given Asher’s ability to instantly make me care about his characters so much that I need to know what happens next, it’s no surprise that I finished this book in one day. What was a surprise (and delight) was just how much my teenaged niece, new to Asher’s novels, loved the book as well. She had told me that she needed a book for her independent reading at school, and I immediately suggested this. She was going on a trip, and I told her it would be perfect for the plane ride. Upon her return, she messaged me immediately and said that she loved the book, could not put it down, and had never been so happy to be “forced” to read a book. She loved the bond between Sierra and Caleb and said, “It’s so cute….  I want this to happen to me.”

This story is one of family and friendship, understanding and forgiveness, love and loyalty, and, most of all, hope. My niece has been passing this book around to her friends, and I have been passing it along to those of my students who are avid young adult readers and enjoy a spark of love and hope in their lives. In a world that offers so much darkness at times, Asher’s latest novel offers us some well-needed light.

 

  • Reviewed by Krista Jefferies

 

 

 


 

Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING
Written by Nicola Yoon
(Delacorte Press; $18.99, Ages 12 and up)

EverythingEverythingcvr

⭐︎ Starred Review – School Library Journal

Madeline Whittier has read more books than you, but she hasn’t been outside her house for as long as she can remember. The protagonist in Nicola Yoon’s #1 New York Times Bestseller, Everything, Everything, lives an air-locked, filtered existence, with no outings and virtually no visitors, because she’s “basically allergic to the world.” She has Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, or “bubble baby disease.” While she could have grown to be a weird or bitter eighteen-year-old, it’s clear from the funny drawings and comments with which she annotates her life that she has remained sweet, optimistic and thoughtful.

Since Madeline’s father and brother were killed in an accident when she was a baby, Madeline and her mom are almost everything to each other. Then Olly moves in next door, with his all-black wardrobe, his parkour litheness, and his off-the-wall sense of humor. Madeline realizes she won’t really have everything unless she can leave her germ-free house and be Outside with Olly.

I enjoyed the unusual format of the book, its short chapters that don’t necessarily follow each other, the hand-written notes and drawings. Appropriate as well as charming, the format reinforces how Madeline feels about herself: “If my life were a book and you read it backward, nothing would change.” Before Olly, her “life was a palindrome — the same forward and backward.”

That being said, eventually sequence matters, and the real “Book of Maddy” — Everything, Everything — is different if read backward. In the interest of not giving away too much, I won’t tell you the questions the book made me ask beyond “What would it be like to be a bubble-baby?” But rest assured Yoon’s novel provokes other thoughts as well, about the nature of love, and risk, and life itself.

  • Reviewed by Mary Malhotra
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