Heavy Medal Mock Newbery Finalist: THE DOOR OF NO RETURN by Kwame Alexander
Introduction by Heavy Medal Award Committee Member Louie Lauer
In his acknowledgements, author Kwame Alexander explains that he wrote THE DOOR OF NO RETURN “because people need to know that the middle was not our beginning. I wanted to speak the truth about the history of African Americans, because while most of us are aware of the American part, it’s time for us to know more about the African part, right?” (402) With unflinching honesty, THE DOOR OF NO RETURN provides readers with this look into life on the African continent, as well as a harrowing account of how slavery took that life away.
Set in modern-day Ghana, Alexander creates a fictitious set of villages in 1860. Readers are immersed in this setting through both poetry and prose, the former from the perspective of a boy named Kofi, and the latter in the voice of his grandfather, Nana Mosi. The most striking element of Alexander’s world building is the emphasis on cultural background. Readers get a strong sense of the importance of a storyteller to a community, as well the centrality of water to their daily life. We also get a glimpse into family structure, with special attention paid to cross-generational relationships. Readers also see the impact of Imperialism that is already putting immense pressure on them to turn their backs on their language and their culture. These pieces of cultural information are central to Alexander’s purpose and show readers what life was like prior to slavery.
Storytelling as a means for passing along history and culture is central to this story and is expertly woven throughout the narrative. By placing Nana Mosi’s stories at the beginning of each chapter, Alexander highlights the importance of these stories, as well as storytelling in general. We also see the impact that storytelling has through the stories of Nana Mosi and Kosi. Most importantly, we see how important the storyteller is at framing the story. Throughout history, these chapters of the African American story have been mostly omitted. Alexander reminds his readers not only what life was like for African people prior to slavery, but also that it does matter who is telling the story. Or as Nana Mosi says so eloquently, “until the lions tell their side of the story, the tale of the hunt will always celebrate the hunter” (342).
With all of this emphasis on storytelling, it is important not to forget Alexander’s ability to construct narrative here. The poetry, by utilizing sensory language and a first person perspective, makes the reader feel as if they are in the middle of the action. Even with such important thematic material, this is a book that reads at times like an adventure novel. The action is often jarring and surprising, especially as Kofi and others are kidnapped from their families and sold into slavery. With the feel of an epic, and two more installments promised, this is one of those books that isn’t just important for all readers, but is one readers will want to get their hands on.
Heavy Medal Award Committee members and others are now invited to discuss this book further in the Comments section below. Please start with positive observations first; stick to positives until at least three comments have been posted or we reach 1:00 pm EST. Let the Mock Newbery discussion begin!
About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired in 2022 after 35 years as a full-time librarian. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at email@example.com.
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