Sunday, February 7, 2016

Kwame Alexander: Inspiration Incarnate

When Kwame Alexander won the 2015 Newbery Medal for The Crossover,  he got phone calls from several other Newbery Medalists: Katherine Paterson, Katherine Applegate, and Linda Sue Park, among others. All of them had the same advice: "Do not plan on writing any book during your 'Newbery Year.'"

Kwame in "beach wear" (All photos by Bruce Guthrie)
Kwame, however, is seemingly inexhaustible, and he was undeterred by this advice. Far from writing nothing, Kwame actually wrote three -- yes, count 'em, THREE -- books! And so it was that he came to my library recently to launch one of those three, a gem of a picture book titled Surf's Up!, illustrated by Daniel Miyares. Although it was a cold February evening Kwame was resplendent in a denim jacket, t-shirt, light pants and a cool pair of orange sneakers. He said his young daughter told him that he needed to dress in clothing appropriate for the beach, "since your book is about the beach."

In Surf's Up!, Kwame tells the story of two frogs named Bro and Dude who have a difference of opinion. Bro is desperate to head out on a nice day and catch some waves on his surfboard, while Dude wants to finish the exciting book he is reading before hitting the surf. As Dude gets deeper into his book, Bro gets swept up in the story, which adult readers may recognize as a riff on Moby Dick.  By the end, the two frogs have switched places, with Dude -- who has finished the book -- heading off with his surfboard and Bro curled up and reading.

Kwame wrote the text of Surf's Up! during a plane ride. "I thought it was perfect," he laughed, "and then I spent the next year re-writing it." Miyares is actually the third illustrator for the book. "The first two just couldn't get it right," Kwame said. "It is a tough book to illustrate because it's all dialogue." Miyares, however, really understood the ideas behind the text, Kwame said, and "he took all that and did something unique with the illustrations."

Kwame gets ready to read Surf's Up!

Surf's Up! has gotten several starred reviews, with Kirkus calling it "a warm-hearted tribute to reading," and Publisher's Weekly noting that the book is "a wild ride on the sea of imagination and a rousing high-five to the power of reading." But Kwame was dumbfounded by a question recently asked by a librarian about the book, which she had only heard about: "What color are the frogs?" It was the same question Kwame had been asked about the twin brothers who are the protagonists of The Crossover. In the case of the question about the frogs of Surf's Up!, Kwame said he responded that "your question is more intriguing than any answer I could ever give."

After telling this story, Kwame noted: "The problem is us, the adults -- not the kids. We're the ones who compartmentalize and treat people as 'the Other.'... I believe that we children's book authors, teachers, parents -- we need to help children imagine a better world, to plant the seeds of ideas in the minds of our children." If you've ever met or seen Kwame in action, you can envision his passion as he said those words. He's a truly dynamic speaker who feels it is his mission to inspire and empower children and teens through his books and appearances at schools and other organizations.

Kwame himself is one of four children who were raised by parents who were passionate readers. As he puts it: "Our house was a library and my Dad and Mom were verbal maniacs." Kwame recalled that he got in trouble at the age of two at preschool when, upset by a child who had knocked over his block tower, he spouted several lines of Fox In Socks. The teacher called Kwame's mother and told her: "Your son is arrogant -- he intimidates other children with his words." Kwame's mother responded by asking what book he had quoted.

Despite such a bookish upbringing -- or perhaps because of it -- Kwame fell out of love with reading for some time. But his literary love affair blossomed anew when he discovered poetry, specifically the poetry of Nikki Giovanni, who has said she taught him one thing: "The Answer is Yes." Kwame also found poetry a perfect way to woo the woman who became his wife, saying: "I ended up writing her a poem a day for a year so she would marry me. She did."

Kwame continued to write poetry and other types of creative writing over the years, even as he did other jobs, including teaching high school, producing jazz and book festivals, owning several publishing companies, and hosting a weekly radio. He's published nearly 20 books, including another picture book, Accoustic Rooster and His Barnyard Band. But it was The Crossover that has made him a star in the children's book world, and has given Kwame an international platform from which he can spread his special brand of dynamic inspiration. Written in free verse, The Crossover tells the story of twin middle school boys who are superb basketball players, thanks in large part to their basketball-obsessed father. The boys' close bond is tested when one of them falls in love, but the real worry is over their father's increasingly poor health. As Publishers Weekly noted: "This verse novel delivers a real emotional punch before the final buzzer."

Winning the Newbery also led directly to the second book that Kwame wrote last year. After winning the Newbery, Kwame had a meeting with Dick Robinson, the president of Scholastic, who asked Kwame: "What can we do for you?" Kwame, who had been trying for some time to make the materials he uses in his popular "Book-in-a-Day" programs at schools more readily available, realized that here was his opportunity. The result is Kwame Alexander's Page-to-Stage Writing Workshop: Awakening the Writer, Publisher and Presenter in Every K-8 Student, which will be published in March.  

Kwame shows a copy of Page-to-Stage

The third and final book that Kwame wrote during his Newbery year will be published in April. Titled Booked, it is, like The Crossover, a novel written in verse, and tells the story of a star soccer player named Nick whose father has written a dictionary and pushes reading on his son. But Nick is a daydreamer who is averse to reading until an injury sidelines him. In a starred review, Kirkus praised Booked for its "likable protagonist, great wordplay, solid teen and adult secondary characters and ... clear picture of the challenges young people face when self-identity clashes with parental expectations."

Kwame and fans with The Crossover and an advanced copy of Booked

Now that he's set a new standard for what can be done during a "Newbery Year," it's going to be interesting to see what Kwame will do next. But one thing is sure: Kwame will continue to work his magic to inspire young readers. As he put it at a recent appearance in Denver: "I'm the 'Say Yes Guy', the inspiration guy." And I say yes to that!

Kwame and I, with two of the books He wrote during his Newbery year.

End Notes: Thanks to Kwame for a truly inspiring evening! Thanks also to Heather Lennon of NorthSouth Books for the review copy of Surf's Up!. Thanks to Bruce Guthrie for taking such wonderful photos. And thanks, as always, to Kerri Poore and the other folks at Politics & Prose, Washington's great independent bookstore, for "booking" Kwame's event at my library.

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