SWING Written by Kwame Alexander with Mary Rand Hess (Blink YA Books; $18.99, Ages 14-18)
★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
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
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
two piccolo trumpets
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,
dead famous people,
and finding cool,
if it’s the last thing
we ever do.
But Walt’s a
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
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.
HELLOFLO: The Guide, Period. THE EVERYTHING PUBERTY BOOK FOR THE MODERN GIRL Written by Naama Bloom Illustrated by Fleur Sciortino
Read an excerpt from HELLOFLO: The Guide, Period. Just scroll down for a taste of Chapter Seven courtesy of Penguin Young Readers. (Dutton Children’s Books; $19.99 Hardcover & $12.99 Paperback, Ages 10 and up)
Tweens and teens will enjoy HELLOFLO founder Naama Bloom’s shame-free attitude towards all things period-related, making this an ideal read for girls entering puberty and interested in learning more about their bodies. Got questions about bras, cramps, facial hair, shaving or tampons? The answers are all in here. Bloom’s even included stories from girls and women who’ve been there and whose experiences will remind adolescents that they’re not alone. Know someone who needs this information or will need it soon? Consider sharing this post with its enlightening excerpt about changes that occur in the brain during puberty. They’ll want to read more. This honest and empowering guide, vetted by doctors, covers a variety of essential topics such as:
· BREAST CANCER AWARENESS: HELLOFLO encourage early detection practices, and emphasizes the importance of knowing your body, starting with instructions for giving breast self-examination (pages 40-41) · STUFF WE WANT TO HEAR ABOUT: Like period-proof underwear and a recommendation for a good gynecologist, there is some information that is meant to be shared. Everyone has someone – a young girl, a grown woman, a mom, a dad, an aunt, a big sibling – who would want to hear about a modern and inclusive puberty guide. · FOR YOUR FYI: What are fallopian tubes, again? Do periods attract sharks? When did modern shaving start? There is so much information packed into HELLOFLO’s colorful diagrams.
EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER SEVEN, MIND THE GAP:
We’re going to talk about your brain and how it develops. This is critical information that I didn’t have until I was already a grown-up. Once I learned about this stuff, I realized how helpful it would have been to know all of this when I was still a kid. That’s why I’m sharing it with you.
What you’re about to read is an introduction, a vastly simplified overview of brain function and development to help you understand what’s happening. This is not a complete explanation; it’s really just broad strokes.
Think of your brain as your command center. In this command center there are approximately 100 billion neurons. Neurons are cells that transmit information through your brain.
Your brain, and its neurons, perform important functions and are responsible for your behavior, feelings, and judgment.
Your brain completed approximately 95 percent of its development before you were six years old. Your brain, like your body, had a major growth spurt. Right now, while you’re going through puberty, your brain is having another growth spurt, and the pathways that make connections between your actions and your brain are further developing.
Have you ever seen a plasma globe? It’s a clear glass ball with a mixture of gases and an electrical current. When you aren’t touching the outside of the globe, it looks like a bunch of small lightning bolts coming from the center. Then when you touch the outside of the globe, the bolts come together to form fewer, stronger bolts. Your brain develops much like a plasma globe. There are bolts, or neural pathways, in every direction. Then, like someone’s hand is placed on the globe, the smaller neural pathways disappear in favor of fewer, stronger neural pathways.
During puberty, it’s as if there are a few hands being placed on your plasma globe to make fewer, stronger bolts. Here’s an example. If you really love to play a musical instrument and you keep playing throughout your adolescence, those pathways will become permanent and you’ll likely keep playing that instrument, or at the very least maintain the skill, for the rest of your life. But if you stop playing and practicing during adolescence, those pathways will slowly get weaker or even disappear. The cells and connections that are used frequently will survive and flourish until they essentially become hardwired. But the paths that aren’t used are the small bolts that disappeared. These pathways don’t have to be lost forever; you can always learn new skills or re-learn those that have been lost. But your chances of hardwiring skills increase if you work on them throughout your adolescent brain growth spurt.
How theCommand CenterMakes Decisions
The way your brain is developing also impacts the way you make decisions.
There are two parts of your brain that are critical to -decision making: the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system. Think of these two parts of the brain like this: The limbic system makes decisions based on emotion, and the prefrontal cortex makes decisions based on logic. The tricky part for you is this: Your prefrontal cortex, or rational brain, is not fully developed until you are about thirty years old; those bolts in the prefrontal cortex are just starting to get stronger. But your limbic system bolts are nice and strong.
The Limbic System
The limbic system is the part of the brain that controls your emotions. It controls your tears and your laughter and your anger. This part of the brain will be pretty much fully developed by the time you go through puberty.
Your limbic system wants you to feel good. It’s the part that loves your friends. Because it’s fully developed before your prefrontal cortex, your rational brain, sometimes it can get you in difficult situations. For example, when you’re with your friends and someone has an idea to do something fun, but perhaps risky, your limbic system will get excited to ride along. Since it’s fully developed, it might get to a decision quicker than your prefrontal cortex. Your fully developed limbic system plays a big role in the peer pressure adults worry about.
Another great example of how to understand this distinction is to think about using helmets. When you’re a little kid you wear a helmet when you’re riding a scooter, riding your bike, or skiing, rarely challenging your parents. But when you get a little older, sometimes helmets seem less cool. Your brain hasn’t gotten stronger or more resistant to concussions if you fall. But you are making decisions for yourself and you are choosing what feels good, not necessarily what’s the safest. That’s your limbic system talking without getting feedback from your prefrontal cortex.
It’s nothing to be ashamed of. When I was a teen it wasn’t considered cool to zip up a winter coat and wear a hat. I still recall freezing outside with my friends in the winter because I was more concerned about pleasing them than I was about staying healthy. My limbic system won a lot back in those days.
The Prefrontal Cortex
As we discussed, the prefrontal cortex won’t be fully developed until you are roughly thirty years old. Yes, thirty! For many of us, that’s after we choose to begin families. Hard to imagine, right?
The prefrontal cortex is in charge of making rational decisions. When you were little you needed your grown-up to tell you not to touch the stove because it was too hot and you’d get burned. The prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain that tells you these sorts of things as you get older, so you don’t need your grown-up around all the time to make sure you don’t get hurt.
This is important so I’m saying it again:
The part of your brain that is responsible for making rational decisions is not fully formed until you’re thirty years old.
As you get older, the decisions you’re faced with are more nuanced than whether or not you should touch a hot stove. Also, the really complicated decisions are often made with your friends who we know now impact your limbic system. That’s why this is such critical information.
An undeveloped prefrontal cortex is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. You’re still on the hook for all your actions. You remain responsible for you. However, it does mean you might have to work harder in order to make good decisions.
When you’re a grown-up all these parts work together at the same speed. When you’re going through puberty, it can sometimes feel a bit like your limbic system is in charge.
So what’s a girlto do?
For one thing, be patient. When I said your prefrontal cortex won’t be fully developed until you’re thirty that doesn’t mean that it’s not capable of making good decisions. What that means is that it operates more slowly than the other parts of your brain. So while the emotional part of the brain is moving quickly, the prefrontal cortex is sluggish to respond.
There is one thing you can do to help you make better decisions: slow down. Give your rational brain a chance to process and catch up. Find a quiet place and really think about your decisions. You’ll be glad you did.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Naama Bloom is the founder of HelloFlo.com, a modern-day health site for girls and women. Her mission for HelloFlo was to create a place where women and girls could learn about their bodies in an open and honest environment without any shame and with a healthy dose of humor. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, with her husband and two children. HelloFlo:The Guide, Period. is her first book.
Felton Reinstein is many things – the top high school recruit in Wisconsin, squirrel-nut brain, narcissist, the kid who found his dad hanging in the garage and big brother to Andrew. With all of that going on Felton was bound to fumble at something – turns out it’s his relationships. After becoming a star football player in Stupid Fast, Felton became so caught up with his newfound fame and the pressures of getting a college scholarship that he began to ignore everyone. He forgot his best friend Gus’ birthday, wouldn’t return calls and belittled his younger brother Andrew’s musical talents and concerns. As a result, Gus turns against him and Andrew concocts an elaborate ruse in the form of a made up orchestra camp to escape Felton and meet their dad’s family for the first time. Journey along with Felton in planes, cars and some seriously gross Greyhound buses from Wisconsin to Florida as he searches for Andrew, makes amends with Gus, and struggles to figure out how his actions and inactions cause pain with the help of a few long lost family members.
At its core, Nothing Special by Geoff Herbach, is a character study of Felton Reinstein. Told in a series of unshowy, earnest journal entries to Felton’s possibly-ex-girlfriend Aleah, Felton comes across as both a dumb jock and complex person with a tortured past. Felton is genuine, self-reflective and charming in his honesty, even when he is being a narcissistic gorilla. His tender heart and great juvenile sense of humor repeatedly left me in tears and giggle fits.
I highly recommend Nothing Special to anyone, but especially encourage boys and reluctant readers to pick it up. It won’t disappoint. Ages 12 and up.