Today I have the privilege of interviewing Kwame Alexander. Kwame Alexander is a poet, educator, and the New York Times bestselling author of twenty-five books including Rebound, The Crossover, which won the prestigious Newbery Award in 2015, and Booked. He has won many other literary accolades as well including the Coretta Scott King Author Honor, the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Prize, three NAACP Image Award nominations, the NCTE Charlotte Huck Honor, and the 2017 Inaugural Pat Conroy Legacy Award.
In addition to writing, Kwame has given back to communities around the world including in Ghana where his literacy program LEAP for Ghana trains teachers and has helped build libraries and health clinics. Kwame is the host and producer of the literary variety talk show Bookish, which airs on Facebook Watch, and is the founding editor of Versify, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt books for young readers. He frequently visits schools and libraries where he inspires kids with his Book-in-a-Day writing. He currently lives in Virginia with his wife and two daughters.
Hi, Kwame. It’s Zibby Owens.
Kwame Alexander: How are you?
Zibby: Good. How are you?
Zibby: Thanks so much for doing this interview. I really appreciate it.
Kwame: No, thank you for all your support. I'm excited about it.
Zibby: I have to say I just finished reading The Crossover, Rebound, and Booked. I am completely in awe of you. I feel like you're a literary genius.
Zibby: I'm serious. My son actually read your books first. He couldn't put them down, one after another, after another. He was like, “Mom, you should check these out for your show.” A week a later I was crying in bed having read all them. Your storytelling is unique and moving and amazing.
Kwame: Wow. That's cool. Your welcome. Can you hear me okay?
Zibby: Yes. I can hear you great. Thank you. Let's start at the beginning. I know you grew up in Brooklyn and then Virginia with a college professor father and school principal mother, surrounded by words.
Can you tell me how you started writing, especially writing poetry, and how that led you to be this ultimate innovator in children's publishing?
Kwame: I wrote poetry as a necessity at an early age. It was for Mother’s Day. I was well-read. I had written a lot of book reports, and essays, and things of that nature, and probably a few poems at home because my parents believed school didn’t end when the school day ended. I decided to write a poem to my mother on Mother’s Day because I knew how to do it. The response I got from her was overwhelming. She loved it. She cried. I was like, “Wow. Words are really that powerful?” That was the beginning for me.
I didn’t really take it seriously until the end of high school, senior year and the beginning of college when, again, it became sort of a necessity. I was involved in, at that point, the 1984 democratic election. I was really into it. I remember Jesse Jackson running for president. I wrote a series of newspaper columns in support of his presidency at my high school. The uproar of people who were totally against everything I was saying -- including my friend, he couldn't believe I would write articles in support of Jesse Jackson -- I was, “Wow. Words are really powerful.”
Then in college, Virginia Tech was pretty invested in companies that did business in South Africa. I was a self-proclaimed activist urging our university to divest from those companies. I used poetry to get my point across. We had rallies. It resonated with a lot of students. I found that girls started finding me pretty interesting. Then I started writing love poems. It was on from there, Zibby. I was like, “Yes! Poetry is powerful. Words are powerful. They're going to change not only the world, but they're going to change my life.” I took [indiscernible] class at Virginia Tech. It was on and popping from then on.
Zibby: Isn't it true that you wrote a poem to your wife when you were dating her, one a day for a year, and that's how you were courting her?
Kwame: I wrote her a poem or a quote or a paragraph. I wrote her somethin’ every day for a year. Sometimes they were more poetic than other times. I need to go and get those crates and read some of that stuff. There would be even a time during that year where she was upset with me about something. For a month and half, everything I wrote was tryin’ to make up and apologize. I really got in touch, again, with the power of words. She ended up marrying me. Hey, it works.
Zibby: I'm thinkin’ that's your next book. I don't know. [laughs]
Kwame: Oh, my gosh. Interesting.
Zibby: I get a percentage of this. I'm kidding.
Kwame: [laughs] I've been thinking about writing a book for adults, writing an adult novel. So many ideas have come to mind. Certainly, that's one that could work.
Zibby: I have to say in Rebound and The Crossover, I know they're not intended for adults, but I found them to be on par if not better than a lot of books that I read just for me. The way you talked about loss and the death of a parent or divorce, these are issues obviously that grownups are wrestling with too, especially in how to talk to their kids about it. You do such a good job of telling it from the kid’s point of view.
You say in Rebound, “I wish I could stretch my arms like Reed Richards all the way to heaven and hug my father one more time, just one more time.” Then it was so beautiful in Booked, in The Way a Door Closes, you wrote, “From your window you watch with love and happiness, sink like twins in quicksand when she drives away leaving you suffocating in sleeplessness, out of breath and hope, exhausted, trapped, falling.” In The Crossover -- I'm sorry to butcher your writing with my horrible voice here, I'm sure it’s more melodic if you read it -- “There are no coaches at funerals, no practice to get ready, no warm up. There is no last second shot. We all wear its cruel midnight uniform, starless and unfriendly. I am unprepared for death. This is a game I cannot play. It has no rules, no referees. You cannot win.”
I literally get goosebumps every time I read this. How do you think you've managed to talk so beautifully across both adults and kids? What has the effect been like on you? Do people come up and thank you all the time? Tell me about it a little more.
Kwame: Now that I hear you read it, wow. It is confirmed. I am a genius.
Zibby: Right? [laughs]
Kwame: [laughs] Whoa. Those are beautiful words. All I can say, Zibby, is once you get into the rhythm of writing -- The Crossover was five years. Booked was two and a half years. Rebound was two years. Once you get into the rhythm, it’s like a dream state. I don't even remember writin’ those words. All I can figure is I sat in Panera Bread so long in the same chair that eventually it just clicked. I think that's what happened with the writing. The longer you get involved and invested in the characters in the story, the more the story begins to write itself. You become the vessel. Are you open to being the vessel? I'm always open to that inspiration and that level of creativity. Wow. I got to go back and read those books again.
Zibby: I could read it to you all day.
Kwame: [laughs] I hear from a lot of young people, a lot of adults, the impact that the books have had on them. Some of it has to do with me putting in the work. A great part of it is the poetry. Poetry has that power. It’s so short. It’s so few words. There's so much white space. When it hits you -- poetry is meant to get to your heart. That's the goal of it. It’s not a lot of words because each word counts. Each word matters. It’s meant to, when done right, rip your heart out and stomp on it. That's one of the advantages to writing in poetry when you know what you're doing. I've just been doing it long enough that I at least think I know what I'm doing.
Zibby: I think you know what you're doing. If you don't, then I don't know who knows what they're doing.
Kwame: Thank you.
Zibby: I like how you mix a bunch of different styles in your books. Sometimes you use more of this hip-hop vibe. In The Crossover when you write “Ode to my Hair,” you wrote, “If my hair were a tree, I’d climb it. I’d kneel down beneath and enshrine it. I’d treat it like gold and then mine it. Each day before school I unwind it, and right before games I untwine it. These on my head, I designed it. One last thing if you don't mind it, the bet you just made, I decline it.”
You have that mixed in with these heartfelt inner feelings and monologues, all these different styles meshing to make this completely emotional read. Was that intentional? Do you just go where the words take you?
Kwame: It’s intentional in the sense that The Crossover took five years to get published, and that was one of the main concerns. “What are you doing? You're all over the place.” I was like, “This is how the story needs to be told. This is how I write. There is no one way for me to write verse.” I want kids to be exposed to a variety of verse. There's beauty in all of it. There's different ways to tell different sides or different facets of the story. Not all facets can be told well with a rhyme and couplet or [indiscernible] or a haiku. They all deserve their own style. I feel where I am in the story and what type of poem dictates that. I'm not limited or I'm not heemed up by any notion of what I think or what I think publishers think it should be. I've never felt that way. Again, that's why it took so long and why it got so many rejections. That's the conventional wisdom, that I have to be one and it can't be all.
Zibby: Is it true that twenty-two publishers rejected The Crossover before it went on to win the Newbery Medal?
Kwame: It is.
Kwame: It is. I know, right?
Zibby: What was that like? Did you ever want to give up and put it on the shelf and say, “Forget it?”
Kwame: All the time. I gave up a lot. Every time I got a rejection, I couldn't write the rest of the day. I packed up my bags, sad. Inevitably, I knew I was doing something that was pretty good even though I was being told it wasn’t. I knew that it was good. I had to constantly remind myself of that. I loved the story. I loved it. I figured if I loved it then when it gets published it’s probable that other people are going to love it, or at least there's a better chance that other people are going to love it, especially adults. When we talked about writing for adults, I knew that it had to be a story about kids, but it had to be a story for everyone.
Zibby: Is this in part why you started your own imprint called Versify, so you could publish things that other people didn't want to take a chance on?
Kwame: That's what I thought. I wanted to find more Kwames, and more books that “crossed-over,” and build careers of writers who didn't have opportunities. That was my goal. It’s so funny. It seems like so many of the books that would have gotten passed on four years ago, it would've gotten rejected, they're all being bought now. Everybody’s gettin’ it now. They said, “Well, The Crossover sold a gang of copies. Verse is selling so well, then we’re all going do it.” I created a level of competition for myself.
Zibby: [laughs] With Rebound and The Crossover, did you have it all planned out -- the story, not the way you told it, but the meat of it -- the way everything comes together in the end and you explain how everyone's related? You tie in Filthy McNasty, and even what they say to each other at night, and all these amazing things between the two books. Did you have that goal at the outset? Did you decide to do that when you started the second book?
Kwame: With Crossover and Rebound?
Kwame: I knew that there needed to be connections. I knew that some of the connections already existed. I knew that some of them I was going to have to really dig up and said, “Wait a minute. I think that's a connection too. Let me explore that.” Some of them I knew in advance. Some of them I figured out later as I was writing.
Zibby: Is it true -- this is just a technical question -- isn't April in Booked Skinny’s daughter?
Kwame: How cool is that?
Zibby: That was really cool. I just wanted to make sure. [laughs]
Kwame: Yup. April is Skinny’s daughter. I think the next book is about April.
Zibby: Nice. Awesome.
Kwame: I think it’s about April. Yup.
Zibby: Excellent. I figured after reading these basketball-centric works that you would be some sort of former champion basketball player. Then I read that you were actually a tennis star growing up, that you were number one on the tennis team and had travelled the country in the mid to late-eighties playing tennis tournaments. This is true?
Kwame: This so true. I loved it. It was my sport. I loved playing basketball. I loved being competitive in tennis and playing in tournaments, and probably because I wasn’t great or didn't spend a whole lot of time playing basketball. Tennis was something I committed five or six years of my life to.
Zibby: I'm a huge tennis fan as well. Is there going to be a tennis book, maybe called Net or Slice or something?
Kwame: There is going to be a tennis book. I think it’s going to be called Love.
Zibby: Aw. I'm writing a memoir myself right now called Forty-Love about falling in love again at forty.
Kwame: That's great. I love it.
Zibby: I can't wait for your book now. That's amazing. That's awesome.
Your poem “Take a Knee,” which you originally released on ESPN, which is super interesting in and of itself, is your poetic commentary on our country today. Can you tell me more about the meaning and intention behind “Take a Knee,” and also what you think about the NFL recently requiring football players not to take a knee?
Kwame: The NFL needs to watch the poem, apparently.
Zibby: I guess so.
Kwame: I wanted to write about why we protest, we why write, why we take a knee. The alternative for this country would be something that we aren’t prepared for. There's only so long that you can take the life of a brown boy before a community of people who care about the lives of boys, of children, stand up and fight back. This is a way of this community saying, “Stop. No more.” This is a way to protest that. It’s a way to do it in the spirit of Gandhi and Dr. King. It’s a way to do it that doesn't really hurt anyone. It’s a way that people can remain sane.
How do you remain sane when these lives of brown boys are being moved, or being shifted, or being blown away like sand in a windstorm? How do you remain sane in the midst of that when you have brown boys -- as you said, children -- or you teach brown boys or whatever, if you're just a human being who understands the value of life, how do you remain sane and just move on with your day? One of the ways you do that is you raise your voice, and you share your voice, and you make your voice heard about what's wrong. Taking a knee is what does that. It’s something really simple. You have to allow human beings the space to stand up for what's right. The poem was about that. Again, if you don't want people taking a knee, if you think that's unpatriotic, wait ‘til you see the alternative. That's not good for anyone.
Zibby: In your interview on The Opposition with Jordan Klepper you say that poetry is instant access to humanity. Can you explain what you meant by that?
Kwame: You said it best. You said after you read all three books you cried. You had this emotional connection. That's humanity. When you feel connected to other people, people you don't even know, people you have no relationship with -- you feel connected to them because they are human. You are human. Your lives and their lives, and your experiences and their experiences have intersected in this moment. That's humanity. From my perspective, that's humanity. Books have a way of being able to make those connections for us before we’ve even made them in our lives, so they can be instruction and inspiration for us. Poetry is the most immediate way to get there. Of all the forms of literature in language, poetry can do that quicker, more substantial, and certainly when done right, more emotional.
Zibby: My son Owen has a question for you. He wants to know how do you have time to write such good books with all the other things you're doing?
Kwame: Owen, I have no idea. I don't even stop to think about it because I’d probably go crazy. I just do it. That's a great question. I have no idea how I get all this stuff done. I know that I love it. I love my job.
Zibby: Can you tell me more about what's coming next? On Instagram you said you had just finished a book this weekend. What was that about?
Kwame: It’s a book. The cover was just released today. The cover was just revealed today. It’s a book about baseball and jazz music and social justice. It’s called Swing. It comes out on October the 2nd. I'm really excited about it. It’s a different kind of novel. It’s very different. It’s timely. It’s a good book.
Zibby: Will you write any more about the Bell family? I want to know what happens with them from here on out.
Kwame: I’ll never say no. If I can figure out another story to tell them about them, sure. People ask me a lot to write about Roxy.
Zibby: I could see that.
Kwame: Maybe there's a Roxy Bell story comin’ out. Who knows.
Zibby: Have you ever thought about any of your books turning into film in any way?
Kwame: Yeah. We’ve been working on a Crossover TV series for a long time. Hopefully that will come to pass. Certainly I could see Solo and Swing as movies. It’s definitely something that I've thought about.
Zibby: I just signed up for your Solo book club for my kids for the summer. Can you tell listeners more about the book club?
Kwame: Say it one more time.
Zibby: The Solo book club that you're launching for the summer, you're releasing different guides and discussion videos while we all read Solo together through the month of June.
Kwame: Oh, yeah. It’s something a little fun we thought we’d do online, little book club with the author. I’ll be doin’ some readings from the book. I got some questions and stuff I’ll be answering, some commentary. It’ll be interactive. It’ll be fun.
Zibby: Awesome. Do you have any advice to aspiring writers out there, kids or grownups?
Kwame: Just read as many good books as you can. I was in Mexico this weekend. I was on the beach. I did absolutely nothing but read. I had planned on not writing for a while. I needed a break. I read this one book by Kevin Young. It’s called Brown. It’s a collection of poems. It rocked my world. I love this book of poems. I loved it so much that when I got back home I said, “I'm ready to start writing again.” Of course, I had already decided I wasn’t going to write for a while. I needed a break. A good book can inspire you to not just want to write but to want to write really good, to write about something that matters. My advice would be read everything you can get your hands on. Enjoy it. Be inspired.
Zibby: Can you tell me a little bit about all of your nonprofit work, like your work in Ghana?
Kwame: What would you like to know?
Zibby: You have something called LEAP for Ghana, which trains teachers and builds libraries and health clinics. How did you originally pick Ghana? There was something that you had started building a library but realized without a health clinic, it was a waste. They had to get people healthy first. Is that what happened?
Kwame: It was sort of like that. I've been going to Ghana for six years. I've been going to a village that a friend of mine is the Queen of. I wanted to do something in this village that helped match their ambition with some resources. They didn't have a whole lot. What I do is I write. I know books. Maybe a library would work. The next one evolved into a library and a health clinic because I realized a library wasn’t their idea. It was mine. I really needed to ask them what they wanted. Of course they wanted a health clinic. Then the library evolved into a library and a health clinic. Now, it’s evolved into a library/health clinic/internet café. It’s evolved. It’s opening in mid-July. It’s been six years. It’s been part of my life’s work. I'm excited.
Once this is done, I'm excited to see what's next. I have no idea. Where am I going to go next? What am I going to do next? I know I have to be doing something because I want to live this authentic life that's about trying to change the world. Otherwise, writing to change the world becomes moot. What am I writing about? Why am I writing? I really want to be actively involved in trying to make the world a better place, trying to be a willing participant in this world.
Zibby: Like everything else that you've written and said, I find that super inspiring and a great note to end on. Thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it. As you can tell, I'm a huge fan. Sorry to be totally so ridiculously complementary. I really do feel that your work is sensational. Thank you, if nothing else, for entertaining my son a couple hours so I could do something else.
Kwame: That's cool. You're very welcome. I appreciate your time.
Zibby: I appreciate your time. Thanks so much. I can't wait to read Love.
Kwame: Thank you.
Zibby: Take care.