Review: The Door of No Return by Kwame Alexander

Review by Amy Halvorson Miller

When I finished The Door of No Return by poet and fiction writer Kwame Alexander, not only was I deeply moved, but I knew I’d read a story that we need now in children’s literature. Alexander’s just-published book is historical fiction told in verse especially for older elementary and young adult readers. 

Set in West Africa in 1860, the story is inspired by the real lives of the Asante people and told from the point of view of 11-year-old Kofi Offin, who brings us into his everyday life with his family and village. Kofi is the grandson of Nana Mosi, a great storyteller; cousin of Kofi Katari, a competitive bully (both born on a Friday); best mate with Ebo and hopeful sweetheart of Ama. Kofi experiences the joy and stresses of boyhood and despite the warnings, he loves to swim in the river Offin, where he was born.

When his older brother, Kwasi, is chosen to compete in a wrestling match in a rival village, unexpected results start real trouble for the family. Ultimately, Kofi comes to understand that he and his people have been betrayed for revenge and payment to the “tall men with no color.” 

Writing novels in verse is a brilliant device, which Kwame Alexander has used in his other books, most notably in The Crossover, which won the Newbery Award for excellence in children’s literature. What we experience right along with our young narrator, is horrifically hard stuff. The pace and rhythm of verse conveys all of Kofi’s fear in being stolen away from his home, across the water to a future completely unknown to him, but which the reader understands will be enslavement. Kofi’s ultimate journey is not made alone. 

As the author put it when asked about the power of poetry, “You can take these emotionally heavy moments in our lives, and you can distill them into these palatable, these digestible words and lines and phrases that allow us to be able to deal and cope with the world.”

The Door of No Return is the first in a trilogy. Enter the flowing story of Kofi’s journey through that door. I’m eager to know the rest of his story.