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.