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Kwame Alexander. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-544-57098-6

Alexander scores again with this sports-themed verse novel, a companion to his Newbery Medal%E2%80%93winning The Crossover. Eighth grader Nick, a devoted soccer player and fan, enjoys some friendly competition with his best friend, Coby. What Nick doesn't like is words%E2%80%94neither the ones in the dictionary that his linguistics professor father wrote (and is making him read) nor the ones he learns in his honors English class. But the school's quirky rapping librarian, Mr. Mac, helps Nick discover both a love of reading and a way to connect with the girl of his dreams. Alexander skillfully juggles verse styles to realistically capture Nick's humor and smarts (showcased in witty footnoted definitions of words like "cachinnate" and "mewling"), passion for soccer, and vulnerability when being bullied, having surgery, or facing his parents' troubled marriage. Emotionally resonant and with a pace like a player on a breakaway, Nick's story will have readers agreeing: "The poems/ were cool./ The best ones were/ like bombs,/ and when all the right words/ came together/ it was like an explosion./ So good, I/ didn't want it to end." Ages 10%E2%80%9312. Agent: Deborah Warren, East West Literary Agency. (Apr.)