three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
26-Jan-Feb-2007
By: 
Joe Miller
user_rating: 
0

A-Cross-XAs journalist Joe Miller followed the Kansas City Central High School debate team for one year, he found "in this small but strong debate program, in the stories of its struggles and triumphs, the whole of racism as it exists in society today." The African-American squad, from an inner-city school where only one in three graduated, regularly defeated opponents from suburban and prep schools to win a top-10 place at the 2002 national championships. Focusing on four troubled students and their white female coach, Miller explores how the debaters’ passionate visions triumphed over their backgrounds while he details his own growing involvement as the team’s assistant coach. Miller concludes that the team’s tale—about racism, poverty, inequality, and perseverance—is "the sort of success story that should be told and retold until it takes root in every urban school across America."
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 496 pages. $26. ISBN: 0374131945

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"[T]hink of a scenario as exciting as a sports game with high stakes like triumphing over racism, bad politics, and abject poverty. … Part of the drama of the book comes in the complicated family lives of the debaters." Caroline Leavitt

Denver Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Swiftly, [Miller] immersed himself in this world, traveling with the teens, meeting their girlfriends, sharing hotel rooms, and eventually becoming the team’s assistant coach, riding a rollercoaster of victory and fury. … Debate, he later realized, taught the kids tricks to win instead of becoming empowered to speak up for their own vision of a better world." Colleen O’Connor

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"There are very few [books], like Cross-X, in which the author, with a front-row seat, finds he can’t help but roll up his sleeves and jump in. It’s an incredibly powerful, daringly hopeful book." Weston Cutter

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Miller’s partisanship sharpens every time the Central team travels and is confronted yet again by all it lacks: schools with art on the walls and computers that actually work, schools with nearly as many foreign language classes as Central has security guards. As we witness these disparities … we seethe right along with the author." Kristin Ohlson

Rocky Mountain News 3 of 5 Stars
"Miller is far from an unbiased observer. … But don’t let that ethical slip deter you. Miller’s fervor for the team rubs off and it’s hard not to cheer these underdogs." Karen Algeo Krizman

Critical Summary

Journalist Joe Miller’s first book is highly political, and very important. Not only does it point fingers at the deficiencies of the Kansas City School Board, but it also reveals how race, class, and poverty affect education in America. While Miller’s analysis of these issues may seem old hat, his in-depth portrayal of the debaters’ complicated, troubled family lives elevates his narrative’s significance. (One student comes from a family of sharecroppers; another lives in homeless shelters.) Miller also provides an interesting history of debate in America—from the Lincoln-Douglas debates through today’s speed-reading tactics. If the book loses some focus or seems overly long when Miller details his own role as coach, it nonetheless should serve as a wake-up call.