Sports books for kids are a tough sell. Typically, the ideal audience for a sports book is a boy who likes sports and in my experience, boys who like sports are often reluctant readers. In other words, the ideal audience for children’s sports books, are boys who would rather be out playing sports than reading about kids playing sports! The sports genre bookshelf in my classroom is widely untouched as boys who enjoy reading tend to choose fantasy books and nonfiction books. Dan Gutman’s Baseball Card Adventure books are read, while Mike Lupica is not. When Kwame Alexander’s THE CROSSOVER won the Newbery Medal a few years ago, I tried selling kids on it and found that it had some appeal. The verse style of narrative makes for a quick read and boys who read it felt they were reading something sporty and distinguished at the same time. It lifted them up as readers. Can the same be said for Kwame Alexander’s follow-up, BOOKED?
Nick is 12 years old and loves soccer. Nick’s father is a wordsmith, college professor and Nick’s mother does not work but was once a promising race horse trainer. Nick and his best friend Coby are friendly soccer rivals and are excited about playing for the prestigious Dallas Cup, albeit against each other. Nick has a serious crush on April, who he attends ballroom dancing lessons with (on the behest of his mother), but the bullish twins Dean and Don keep getting in between the couple. Amidst all of this, Nick’s attempt to keep his sanity when his parents announce they are separating, is challenged greatly.
The problem with marketing BOOKED as a sports book or a soccer book, is that it is not really about sports or soccer. I would describe BOOKED as a middle grade coming-of-age story about a boy who happens to like soccer. The book has a lot going on, arguably too much. It’s deeper than most sports books tend to be and it includes very little actual soccer playing. The soccer scenes are few, fast, and fleeting. I think Nick would love to devote more time to playing soccer or thinking about soccer, but he has so much else going on in his life with his parents impending separation, his anxiety around April, his competitiveness with Coby, and putting up with the bullying behavior of the twins Dean and Don. Soccer is tossed in for good measure but it’s one of many things going on in this book.
So BOOKED is not really a sports book. That’s fine. I don’t want to complain about what the book isn’t. It has a lot to say about friendship and family. I like Nick’s relationship with Coby. Their friendship feels genuine to me as does their competitive rivalry. They seem like realistic kids. I also appreciated Nick’s shy nature toward April. In fact, this brought back middle school memories!
Verse novels are hard to read when the voice does not feel authentic, but this is not the case with BOOKED. Nick seems like the kind of kid that I could imagine thinking thoughts in verse. Because of his father’s linguistic background, Nick is a wordsmith himself, as his teachers discover. There’s depth to him. Depth that pours out in the slam poetry style narrative. It seems that Kwame Alexander has found his niche with this style of writing.
My praise ends there though. My main problem with BOOKED is that the story underneath the brilliant verse poetry, is rather boring. Nick is not all that compelling of a character and his supporting cast is rather thinly drawn. Kids with separated parents may be able to relate to some of the inner thinking Nick works through but all of the other problems Nick faces are very normal, boring middle school problems. He likes April but doesn’t know how to act confident around her. The twins pick on him but they are obviously just jerks. Nick isn’t mistreated by anyone else. Everything about Nick and his story is pretty ho-hum. Kwame Alexander attempts to raise the stakes at different times throughout the story but these attempts seem unnatural.
Kwame Alexander's voice is so different than anything else that is out there for kids right now. The man has talent. While I wasn't personally compelled by BOOKED, I admire and appreciate the style. I'm intrigued to read THE CROSSOVER now and see if the hype for BOOKED was well-deserved!