Emily Koch

Kwame Alexander opens a planned historical fiction trilogy with The Door of No Return, which takes place in 1860, near the end of the transatlantic slave trade. Eleven-year-old Kofi Offin lives in the Asante kingdom, in what is now Ghana. Kofi holds deep respect for his grandfather, the village storyteller, who always begins his stories by saying, “There was even a time . . .” In this time, Kofi has a crush on Ama, a girl in his class. In this time, Kofi and Ama’s teacher forces them to speak English instead of their native language, or face the wrath of his cane. And in this time, Kofi’s older brother, Kwasi, will unintentionally alter the fate of their entire family, and Kofi will have to draw on all of his grandfather’s wisdom to survive.

Alexander has been convincing middle grade readers that poetry is cool since his 2014 book, The Crossover, for which he won the Newbery Medal. Like many of Alexander’s earlier books, The Door of No Return is told mostly in enthralling, action-packed verse. Alexander is an eloquent craftsman with a deep awareness of the power of every word in a verse novel, and that awareness shines on every page of this book. Typographic manipulation, such as changing the size of the text, is used sparingly, which makes those moments particularly impactful.

The book is not entirely written in verse, however. Each of its seven chapters begin with a prose story narrated by Kofi’s grandfather, Nana Mosi. These tales offer context and foreshadowing in equal measure, culminating in a heartbreaking ode to storytellers, “The Story of the Story,” in which Nana Mosi warns that “until the lions tell their side of the story, the tale of the hunt will always celebrate the hunter.” 

Some of Alexander’s most beloved works, including The Crossover, incorporate sports as both subjects and extended metaphors. Alexander continues—and elevates—this approach in The Door of No Return through Kofi’s aptitude for swimming. Kofi receives his second name, Offin, because he was born in the very river where he now finds sanctuary after school.

The story of African Americans did not begin during the middle passage. Every person who was enslaved came from a home with a rich history and unique culture. Their stories have been told in excellent books for young readers, including Sharon Draper’s Copper Sun; Nikole Hannah-Jones, Renée Watson and Nikkolas Smith’s The 1619 Project: Born on the Water; and Ashley Bryan’s Freedom Over Me. But many more are needed, and there’s no one better to add to this vital canon than Alexander.

Kwame Alexander brings his deep awareness of the power of verse to this story of an African boy named Kofi, set near the end of the transatlantic slave trade.

Fifteen-year-old Harris Jacobus knows that people at his new high school will make assumptions about him because of his disability, a form of muscular dystrophy called spinal muscular atrophy. He levels the playing field by asking everyone he meets one simple question: “What’s your favorite color?” 

This is how Harris knows that Zander could be a potential friend. Zander’s favorite color is yellow, and Harris’ is blue, so only green separates them on the color wheel. It’s why Harris is willing to give 20-something Miranda a chance as his nurse (to “attend school with me and make sure I don’t die”), even though she’s still finishing up her nursing program. Her favorite color combination, orange-red, is blue’s complementary color (though it doesn’t hurt that Harris also thinks she’s attractive). And it’s one of the reasons Harris is captivated by Nory, whose locker is next to his: She refuses to tell him her favorite color. 

Harris has decided to use his new school as a “chance to finally start living a real teenage life”—going to parties, breaking curfew, maybe even having a girlfriend. When Miranda discovers Harris’ feelings for Nory, she decides to help them get closer. Eventually, Harris begins to question Miranda’s advice—and her judgment. 

In The First Thing About You, debut novelist Chaz Hayden offers a fresh perspective on a teen protagonist who longs to feel “normal” and check off a list of milestones (first crush, date, concert and so on). The book’s structure—five sections of varying lengths—beautifully reflects how time in high school can feel like it’s moving at different speeds depending on the situation, and short chapters mimic a fast-paced school day.

Harris’ conversational narration will resonate with teen readers (though some of his thoughts about gender border on stereotypical), and his experiences offer an invitation to question the very notion of normalcy. Miranda often blurs professional and personal lines, particularly during a scene in which she kisses Harris on the mouth without asking for or receiving his consent first, and some readers may find Hayden’s depiction of Miranda’s behavior disturbing. Even Harris gradually realizes, “I didn’t like the person I became around her.”

Like Harris, Hayden also has spinal muscular atrophy. He vlogs about his life on YouTube, where he reads aloud from and cringes at entries from his old journals, and he pours a similarly humorous, unflinching tone into Harris’ story. Fans of John Green or teen rom-coms will enjoy Hayden’s reminder that we are all trying to get others to look beyond our surfaces.

Debut novelist Chaz Hayden offers a fresh perspective on a teen protagonist who longs to feel normal in this humorous, unflinching book.

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