Books And More

A Chat with Kwame Alexander

TIME For Kids talks with the Newbery Award–winning author about sports, poetry, and his new novel, Booked

April 22, 2016

Kwame Alexander is the author of 21 books for young readers. His basketball-themed coming-of-age novel The Crossover was written entirely in verse and won several awards in 2015, including the Newbery Medal for the Most Distinguished Contribution to American Literature for Children. Through his Book-in-a-Day Literacy Program, Alexander has so far visited 76 schools in the U.S., Canada, and the Caribbean. His visits are inspiring students from kindergarten to high school to have an appreciation of reading and writing, especially poetry. 

Alexander’s new novel-in-verse is about middle-schooler Nick Hall, whose love for soccer helps him cope with the challenges of growing up. Booked will be available on April 5.

TFK: Why have you made sports the focus of both of your recent novels, The Crossover and Booked?

KWAME ALEXANDER: It has to do with my love of sports. As a kid, I loved to play sports. I was a competitive tennis player. I love to watch sports, to get excited about what happens on the court and on the field. And sports are a great metaphor for life. Ultimately, I want to write stories about family and life and love and loss—familiar things. I use poetry to distill the depth and breadth of those topics. Why not use [sports]—this thing that I love so much—as a way to frame these stories? I know kids are going to get into it. What kid doesn’t love surfing or tennis or swimming or football or lacrosse?

TFK: What does soccer tell us about the character Nick? 

ALEXANDER: Soccer is a long game. You’ve got to have that endurance, you’ve got to have that patience, and at the same time, you’ve got to know when to fire it up. The game speeds up and slows down, and that’s what life does. Life is this long journey with very few time-outs. You can’t just stop. And when you have those opportunities to reach that goal, you’ve got to go for it, because those moments are few and far between. You’ve got to say yes, you’ve got to be fit, you’ve got to be prepared—you have to put in the work for life and be able to endure that journey. Soccer is an awesome metaphor for our lives, for being able to last and reach our goals, whatever they may be.

TFK: Why did you write these two novels in verse rather than in prose? 

ALEXANDER: Why not? I am a poet by training, by love, by desire, by necessity. I’ve always been immersed in the joy and power of poetry, in trying to convey my feelings and ideas about the world we live in. Poetry allows you to talk about some heavy and deep stuff, but you can do it in a way that’s palatable. You can swallow it. Poetry can be so cool—it’s so rhythmic. The way the word can move on the page can really grab you in and get your attention. And there are topics like basketball that lend themselves to writing in the style of rhythm and rhyme. When basketball is played by some of the greats, like Lebron [James] and Steph Curry, basketball is poetry in motion. There are some topics that lend themselves better to poetry. I like that. There’s a lot that boys especially don’t like to talk about. We don’t have the language. We’re not given the language to be able to share these thoughts, these pains, and these emotions. Poetry is a way that allows us to deal with those things and to understand ourselves—to cope and to heal. That happens with Nick in Booked, and it happens with JB in The Crossover, and it certainly happened with me as I was growing up.

TFK: Does improvisation play a role in your writing process?

ALEXANDER: Poetry and literature at its best can be compared to jazz. Knowing how to play the notes, knowing how to write the line. Being able to play the notes that aren’t there. One student told me that he liked all the white space on the page because it allows him to use his imagination. You don’t want to say everything with poetry. You want to show just enough so that the reader can add their piece into it. I definitely incorporate elements of improvisation into my poetry. I love to see where it goes and where it takes me. Which, by the way, is what some of the best soccer players do.

TFK: Do you have the same love-hate fascination with words and wordplay that Nick does? 

ALEXANDER: The book isn’t autobiographical, but surely I was able to pull from my own experiences. My father made me read the encyclopedia. I did not like that. But when Jeopardy! came on, I knew things! I loathed books and I loathed words, and sometimes I loved them. I see a lot of that when I meet kids in schools around the country. They know things, but they don’t think knowing is cool, that participating in the writerly life is cool. My goal is to help them see that words can be cool, that books can be cool. I’m the guy to do that.

TFK: What can literature offer young people that video games or television or texting cannot?

ALEXANDER: Video and television, for the most part, offer fantasy. They offer entertaining and unrealistic fantasy. Literature offers possibility. It opens up a world of possibility to readers. As a writer for kids, my goal is to help readers imagine what’s possible in the world—how to make it better and how to make themselves better in it. That’s a big responsibility.

TFK: How did Book-in-a-Day get started? 

ALEXANDER: It started on a dare. A teacher asked me to teach her kids how to publish a book, and she had only one day for me to come. And over the course of one day, I helped them publish a book. And I decided this might be something I want to offer to more schools. For the next nine years, I led this workshop that teaches kids how to write and publish books. It’s a pretty intensive workshop for K–12th graders, [so far] in 76 schools. I’m really excited. This spring, Book-in-a-Day will be released as a kit, called Kwame Alexander’s Page to Stage Writing Workshop. It will have videos and manuals that teach teachers how to do this workshop and empower their students in writing, publishing, and presenting their work.

TFK: Which authors have had the greatest influence on your writing?

ALEXANDER: Nikki Giovanni, Langston Hughes, e. e. cummings—those are the main ones. It’s the things they wrote about, the way they play with language, the musicality of the poetry. Nikki Giovanni’s poetry is very musical—she’s sort of blues and gospel. Langston Hughes was more jazz influenced. 

TFK: Are you planning a new novel? Will it be in poetry? 

ALEXANDER: It will be. I’m writing a prequel to The Crossover. It’s about the father, Chuck Bell, when he was 12  years old.

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