Writer Kwame Alexander has penned more than a dozen books for young readers. His novel-in-verse, The Crossover, won the Newbery Medal in 2015. It tells the story of two basketball playing twin brothers, and was followed up by another novel-in-verse, Booked, which has a soccer theme.
Alexander’s latest book returns to basketball as a metaphor. But it’s not a novel. Instead, it’s a collection poems and essays called The Playbook: 52 Rules to Aim, Shoot and Score In This Game Called Life. He and musician Randy Preston have been touring to schools around the country, performing songs based on Alexander's books.
The Playbook is a kind of follow-up to The Crossover. The two main characters are basketball champs, and their father gives them "basketball rules for life." Alexander says young people really took to these rules, so he decided to expand on that idea.
The "rules" are based on the peculiar sayings and proverbs he picked up from his family when he was growing up. "My grandma used to say things like, 'Dishwater gives back no images,'" he explains. Preston interjects, "What in the world?"
"Exactly! I'd be like, 'What are you talking about?'" Alexander continues. "My father would say, 'You can't know what you don't know."
"As an eight-year-old, you're like, 'What in the world are you talking about?!' So I wanted to write a book about some of that stuff that I still remember, but do it in a way that would be cool for kids," he adds.
The Playbook features dozens of tips for life, framed as tips for the court. "Basketball is the hook," Alexander explains, but he's quick to add he's not a "didactic writer." Although he "writes with an intentional message," he tries to make sure his writing is nuanced and subtle while making a metaphor between life and basketball.
"We also want them to get the message about how family is so important, about friendship. And I think they're going to get that," he says. "We're really pushing a message to the kids of being okay with who you are," Preston adds.
Alexander's goal for the book is about more than giving middle-grade readers some tips for how to be better friends and family members. He hopes The Playbook will give kids the tools to be better adults.
"The mind of an adult begins in the imagination of a child. And so to the degree that we can create these well-rounded, connected, empathetic human-beings as children, when they get older we won't have to wonder what's in their mind, because we will have helped create a mind that is all about making the world a place by any means necessary," says Alexander.