An interview with Kwame Alexander

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Kwame Alexander (@kwamealexander) is a poet, children’s book author, playwright, producer, public speaker, performer, and winner of the US ‘Oscar’ for children’s literature, the Newbery Medal, for his book The Crossover. Like The Crossover, Booked is also a novel in verse, about sport and it has been shortlisted for this year’s CLiPPA, the Centre for Literacy in Primary Poetry Award.

Booked was one of my favourite reads last year, giving me an experience like that I had when I read Mal Peet’s Keeper for the first time; suddenly scales fell from my eyes and something I thought I had absolutely no interest in became fascinating and all I wanted was more, more and more.

Whilst for me, this feeling was about football, I know that there are too many young people who feel the same way about reading as I did about football. However, I could see a powerful parallel; I immediately sensed that Booked has the power to be a light switch for many, the book that could turn experience on its head and change a young person from reluctantly picking up a book to wanting more, more and more.

Booked is an unpatronising, imaginative, not-afraid-to-challenge-you tale of a boy on the cusp of teendom learning about the startings and endings of romantic relationships. Packed with reflections on relationships between friends and enemies and parent and child, it’s sharp, funny, inspiring and…. about, yes, about football. And to celebrate its shortlisting for CLiPPA 2017 I was delighted to have a quick-fire exchange of thoughts and ideas with Kwame. Here’s how our conversation went…

Playing by the book: Many congratulations on being shortlisted for the UK’s only award for published poetry for children, the CLiPPA. I’m really thrilled that your work will now get known by a wider UK audience.

Kwame Alexander: This is a huge honor. First the Carnegie nomination, then this. I couldn’t be more thrilled. Well, I could be, but that would involve cupcakes.
 
Playing by the book: Duly noted. I’ll see if I can rustle some up… but before the sugar rush, let’s talk about books and reading. Booked is partly about a young person who doesn’t enjoy reading. I understand that as a young child you were surrounded by books and really enjoyed being read to. What were some of your favourite books back then?

Kwame Alexander: The Greatest: Autobiography of Muhammad Ali because it was about the greatest boxer ever, Muhammad Ali.

Pretty much everything by Dr. Seuss, cause I was, and remain, a poetry fanatic.

Pele, because it was about the greatest soccer player ever. Also, because it had a lot of pictures of him as a kid and a professional

  

 
Playing by the book: I spot a passion for sport and playing with words! It looks like some seeds got sown very early 😉 That said, I’ve read that everything changed for you around the age of 11. You turned into someone who “loathed” writing and words and as a teen and young adult you didn’t want anything to do with creating books. Instead you wanted to be a doctor. So tell me, what happened around the age of 11 and what, if anything, could have been done differently?
 
Kwame Alexander: My parents started forcing me to read the books that they thought I should read. Not cool. Parents, give kids books that THEY want to read. Once they get hooked, they’ll read the other stuff.
 
Playing by the book: I’m definitely with you on letting kids choose their own books, but I think something else helped you return to reading, didn’t it? You fell back in love with words when you fell in love with a person, turning to poetry to woo them. Falling in love isn’t something we can be sure will happen to everyone so…What can we do to boost other’s chances of getting excited by words and stories and poetry?
 
Kwame Alexander: We don’t have to do anything but share words and stories and poetry that is interesting and accessible and cool. Let the poetry do the work. I try to write books that follow this missive.
 
Playing by the book: Talking of ‘cool’ (although maybe I really mean ‘nerdy’, though perhaps they can be one and the same), I’m rather partial to book-y T-shirts, and book T-shirts feature wonderfully in Booked, with the librarian wearing them and using them as starting points for conversation. I believe your first book slogan T-shirt was “I READ 100 BOOKS THIS SUMMER”, a reward for completing a summer reading challenge when you were a kid. What book t-shirts do you own now?

Kwame Alexander: My fave is “Read, or Else.” I just love that. I get stopped in airports and grocery stores and at school visits and everyone asks the same thing: Or else, what? I always answer, EXACTLY!

Photo source: http://www.readorelse.com/

 
Playing by the book: I like it! Although I’m still amazed by your first book t-shirt. 100 book over the summer? The UK’s national summer reading challenge for kids is to read 6 books. Not 10, let along 100 and this got me thinking about how one theme in Booked is aiming high and having expectations of our children. What role do you believe setting high expectations have in encouraging kids to read? (or indeed enjoy anything else in life?)
 
Kwame Alexander: Ha! Tell a kid you think she can enough, and she’ll believe it. Tell a kid he can’t enough, and he’ll believe it.
 
Playing by the book: So… continuing the theme of aiming high, I think it is fair to say that Booked celebrates some words not often found in books for 10-12 year olds. What delicious and exciting words which you didn’t get to include in Booked should we go and look up now?
 
Kwame Alexander: Well, you could look up my favorite word of all time, from The Crossover: Pulchritudinous.

Also, the word I lost the 4th grade spelling bee with: Malignant. Also, Malignant isn’t delicious at all. 
 
Playing by the book: Nope. I’ve got to agree with you on that one. Ok, what about your favourite words which we won’t find in a dictionary, because, after all, as a word smith you can break all the rules and use words which don’t even exist!
 
Flicted. 
Baaaad.
Writerly (Hmmm, that may be in the dictionary, but I LOVE IT!)

 
Playing by the book: I’ll let you get away with that last one because you love it so 😉 Now, some say that the US and the UK are two countries divided by a common language. To what extent, if at all, did you have to edit the UK version of Booked at all to take into account the different version of English spoken here? (it doesn’t feel like it’s been edited for a UK audience to me, but I’m curious to know if any discussions were had around different varieties of English)..
 
Kwame Alexander: We added some “u’s” here and there, and changed soccer to futbol. Everything is pretty much the same.
 
Playing by the book: I’d like to know more about why ‘futbol’ and not ‘football’…interesting nuances there. But I know our time is short, so instead I’m going to ask you about changing the world. (!)

I’ve read that you believe poetry can change the world. In one interview you said, “Yeah, I wanna change the world” and some of your recent work has had powerful political messages – your theme of ‘Build a Better World’, for the US summer library programme, you new book Animal Ark, about our responsibility as humans and our role in damaging the planet, and your video of The Undefeated come to mind in particular. How can I, how can your readers change the world with poetry? Where do we begin?
 
Kwame Alexander: Here’s what I know: the beauty and power of poetry is that it allows us to become more human, it connects us to our better selves, to each other. That’s kinda world changing, don’t you think?


Kwame’s ESPN Video Poem: The Undefeated

 
Playing by the book: It is indeed, Kwame.

Ok, another not-so-straight-forward question: In response to a question put to you about the mum’s occupation in Booked, an occupation you admit you know little about, you commented “I know they say you’re supposed to write what you know, but I agree with Toni Morrison, who says sometimes you got to write what you don’t know.” Writing about horses (as is the case in Booked) is one thing but where, if anywhere do we draw the line on writing outside our experience? Soon we potentially get into issues of cultural appropriation. This is a huge topic for writers in the UK, as well as the US so…what are your thoughts on cultural appropriation?
 
Kwame Alexander: I am not a fan of cultural appropriation. I think if you’re gonna write about something you should have some authentic relationship with it, either from experience, inspiration, research, interaction, observation, or all of the above. 
 
Playing by the book: Thanks, Kwame. More food for thought.

Now, we’ve got this far into the interview and haven’t talked much specifically about poetry, so I’ll ask straight out: What is a poet?

Kwame Alexander: Someone who takes the human soul entire, squeezes it like a lemon or a lime, drop by drop into atomic words.

That was genius answer right? Wish I’d come up with it. Alas, it was Langston Hughes. But, I concur.

Playing by the book: Genius indeed. I wanted to ask this question because of a discussion I listened to between you and Nikki Giovanni. Even though that interview is several years old it seemed very relevant given the most recent Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Bob Dylan. Some say he is a poet. Others say, no way! So where do you stand in the discussion about the boundaries between music lyrics and poetry? What do they share and where do they differ?

Kwame Alexander: Poetry is oral and written.

Lyrics are meant to be oral.

They are similar. Not like siblings, but like cousins.

Playing by the book: You make it seem so straight forward! Ok, so another question about definitions and mixing things up. Booked, The Crossover, your new book Solo, they are all novels in verse. This is a format this isn’t very well known in the UK. Sarah Crossan (last year’s joint winner of the CLiPPA award) is writing amazing verse novels that are introducing UK children to this format, but…

Kwame Alexander: SARAH ROCKS! (So does J. K. Rowling, who I’d love to see write a novel in verse with Sarah, and Me: Harry Crosses Over the Weight of Water. See what I did there?)

Playing by the book: Brilliant, Kwame. I’ll put in a word with JK and Sarah, just as soon as we’ve finished chatting 😉 I’d DEFINITELY buy that book. But… what I was trying to ask was whether you could give us 5 recommendations of US verse novels that we could go and try out?

Kwame Alexander: In no particular order:

Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
Rhyme Schemer by K.A. Holt
Inside out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai
Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes
and
Rebound, which I heard is excellent, but it doesn’t come out until April 2018, and I also heard the author is pretty handsome, and I know this, because I am him.

Playing by the book: Great suggestions, and thanks for the clarification there, Kwame. Good to know I’m interviewing the handsome poet I wanted to interview. By the way, look what I’ve managed to prepare whilst we’ve been talking:


 
Kwame Alexander: Red Velvet cupcakes!
 
Playing by the book: Yup, just for you. Poetry in cake form.

Kwame Alexander: Thanks Dude!
 
Playing by the book: My pleasure, Kwame! My pleasure 🙂
 

*******************

And indeed it was a great pleasure to chat with Kwame Alexander. Do check out all of his books (you can find a full list here). The next one I’ll be picking up his is picture book Surf’s Up, illustrated by Daniel Miyares.

Here’s the full shortlist for CLiPPA 2017:

Booked by Kwame Alexander

Wonderland: Alice in Poetry Ed. Michaela Morgan

Moon Juice by Kate Wakeling, illus. Elina Braslina

Jelly Boots, Smelly Boots by Michael Rosen, illus. David Tazzyman

Zim Zam Zoom! by James Carter, illus. Nicola Colton

Resources to support each of these books can be found the the CLPE website. The winner of CLiPPA 2017 will be announced on 14 July at the National Theatre, London.

Thanks to F_A for helping me out with the cupcakes at short notice.

One Response

  1. What a great interview, Kwame comes across as such a fun, warm character!
    One of my all time favourite novels (for adults) is a novel in verse called The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth. I had no idea how many there were also for children out there, I will definitely look up some of these recommendations. Kwame’s own books really sound inspiring too, particularly for boys of a certain age. I will try and get a copy in for the school library. Thanks for a very good interview!
    Rebecca Narracott recently posted..Part 3 of my Self-Publishing Journey: The other side of the tunnel

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