Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander,
Is the 2015 Newbery winner -
The award for best American children's literature.

The book follows Josh and Jordan Bell,
African-American, middle-school-aged twins
Who love basketball,
Their father,
And Sweet Tea.

Except the latter.
That's the nickname Josh gives
His brother's girlfriend.
Josh is none too happy
That a girl has come between them.

Josh also learns that his father,
Who'd played professional basketball,
Quit the game for health reasons
And he won't see a doctor
Despite fainting spells.

Dad blames the doctors
For taking his own father far too young
Instead of the heart disease
He's apparently inherited as well.

Written in verse
But reads like prose
The Crossover is a quick read
But not a simplistic tale.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Go Set a Watchman: You Can't Go Home Again

The biggest lesson to learn from Go Set a Watchman? You can't go home again. That is a prominent theme of the book, but also a warning for those hoping for another To Kill a Mockingbird (see my review here). Mockingbird, published in 1960, focused on Jean Louise "Scout" Finch from the ages of 6 to 9 and her interactions with fellow Maycomb County residents as she tried to understand racism and bigotry. Watchman traverses the same territory from the adult Jean Louise's perspective.

Watchman was written prior to Mockingbird but shelved when her publisher suggested she rework it to focus on the stories of her childhood. The manuscript, thought lost for decades, was found in a safety deposit box. Controversy swirled over the announcement of its publication in the wake of the death of Harper Lee's sister, who had fiercely protected the author's legacy.

Watchman tells the story of 26-year-old Jean Louise, now living in New York, returning to Alabama for a visit. She is naturally conflicted over the changes she observes. However, the story eschews vivid depictions of the physical contrast between the small-town rural life of Scout's youth and her adult, big-city life. I anticipated her observing the slower pace, the buildings which hadn't changed a bit, the businesses she was surprised were still standing, and what people had died or moved away. This would have been similar to how Mockingbird unfurled its lessons couched in character vignettes and snapshots of young Scout's adventures.

Instead, Watchman focuses on the adult Jean Louise's inner turmoil and debates with other characters. This makes for an even deeper exploration into racism and bigotry, but at times it feels less like a novel than a philosophical dialogue constructed by Plato.

In the end, the reader feels Jean Louise's pain in recognizing that home will never be the same and that maybe it was never what she'd thought in the first place. However, the reader also feels another kind of pain. The reader longs to return to the world Harper Lee built for To Kill a Mockingbird but must accept the futility of such a dream.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Aural Fixation: My Latest Book!

Aural Fixation: More Essays from a Musical Obsessive

Available at Amazon for $9.95.

This sequel to No One Needs 21 Versions of “Purple Haze” trots out another collection of music-themed essays, this time as originally featured in the column “Aural Fixation.” Essays take on the Grammys, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Glee, terrestrial radio, Tom Cruise, and the state of the music industry, often voicing a contrary opinion to the all-too-common laments of the typical music critic. Whitaker asserts that rock and roll isn’t dead, that pop music matters, and that best-of lists are a good thing. 146 pages. Published 2015.

Monday, March 9, 2015

To Kill a Mockingbird: The Master Class of Novel Writing?

Image from 1962 film version of To Kill a Mockingbird.

With the recent announcement of the impending publication of Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman, which features a grown-up version of the Scout character she introduced in To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), I was inspired to revisit the latter. According to, this Pulitzer Prize winner is part of the curriculum in 3/4 of American public schools and sells about a million copies a year. All told, the book has sold 30 million copies in more than 40 languages (Crash Course Literature 210). The 1962 movie version was nominated for Best Picture and garnered Gregory Peck an Academy Award for Best Actor.

Unsurprisingly, some critics made it their mission to knock the book as overrated. They're wrong. In fact, some of the criticisms of the book are precisely what make it great. For example, Scout, who ranges from ages 6 to 9 during the book, serves as a first-person narrator. However, the sophistication of her language, storytelling, and awareness feel more like an adult. Despite the inconsistency of the approach, it gives the novel an added dimension of allowing the reader to view the story through a child and adult's eyes simultaneously.

Another criticism concerns the potentially disjointed nature of the vignettes about the townspeople. Rather than distract from the primary stories around Boo Radley and Tom Robinson, these seemingly superfluous stories immerse the reader in Maycomb, Alabama. In addition, each of Scout's (and her brother Jem's) encounters leads to another lesson handed down from their father, Atticus, about not judging other people.

The novel also has characters painted in one-dimensional strokes, from the noble heroics of Atticus to the without-any-redeemable-quality nature of Bob Ewell. However, these polarizing characterizations of good and evil remind readers how a child oversimplifies perceptions - and serve as warnings for us to not do so as adults.

In my own writing, I can only dream of achieving half of what Mockingbird accomplishes. Harper Lee paints her characters and the town with such vivid language that the reader is transported to that place and time. Scout's sense of exploration and child-like curiosity is fully embraced even as she is exposed to ugly truths about racism and prejudice.

These are all qualities which play into my current project, Abigail's Atlantis, about a 12-year-old girl coming to grips with the transition from childhood to adulthood. While the language and perspective I employ may occasionally feel too adult, that's precisely the point. Like Mockingbird, I want to capture that in-between state of sometimes seeing things as a child and at other times as an adult. If I can make the same mistakes as Mockingbird with even a modicum of the same ability, I'll consider my book a success.