Kwame Alexander (He Said, She Said) introduces charismatic Josh Bell, a 12-year-old poet and ace basketball player. Josh narrates in stanzas, and starts off like a competitor in a poetry slam, proving he's both scholar and athlete with his sights set on Duke.
Josh's father played pro ball, and he calls Josh "Filthy McNasty," from a song on Horace Silver's Paris Blues album ("a mythical man" of "dubious" character). Josh's identical twin, Jordan ("JB"), is also a gifted ball player. People can tell them apart on the court because Josh is "an inch taller, with dreads to my neck," while JB gets his head shaved once a month. JB is the jumper; Josh is the slasher, and the master of the crossover, "A simple basketball move/ in which a player dribbles/ the ball quickly/ from one hand/ to the other./ As in: When done right,/ a crossover can break/ an opponent's ankles." School comes harder to JB, but he's always up for a wager. The twins bet that if JB scores the last basket of the game, he can cut off Josh's dreads. Josh agrees to let him cut just one, but JB accidentally trims off five. Their mother then makes Josh cut them all, and the loss hits him nearly as hard as Samson's. Tension smolders. When JB gets interested in a "pulchritudinous" new girl, Josh acts as his brother's Cyrano de Bergerac.
Alexander carefully charts, through a series of poems, Josh's simmering pot building to the boiling point. Josh lets loose on the basketball court, blowing the game and nearly breaking his brother's nose. The author charts the start of a downward spiral, but Josh's parents refuse to let him succumb. Despite the damage to the brothers' relationship, the novel brims with evidence of the family's deep respect and love for one another. They release pressure through humor, as when their mother, concerned for their father's eating habits and a history of heart disease, serves pita bread in lieu of her fabulous fried chicken ("But is hummus really the answer?" Josh wonders). When their father's health takes a turn, the family comes together.
Concrete poems that simulate on-court action, the novel's organization into "four quarters" (plus "warm-up" and "overtime") and a smattering of their father's 10 rules of basketball--as applicable to life as they are to the game--will draw in less avid readers, and the fully-fleshed characters and Josh's spellbinding wordplay will keep all readers riveted to find out if the brothers can mend the breach in their once iron-clad bond. --Jennifer M. Brown
Shelf Talker: Josh Bell, star scholar-athlete, tells his tale in poems, as a rift develops with his twin brother and he could well succumb to a downward spiral.