August 2017

Kwame Alexander

The ambassador for cool books

Since Kwame Alexander won the 2015 Newbery Medal for The Crossover, he’s been traveling far and wide in a whirl of evangelism for reading, poetry, friendship, self-expression, sports, music and love.

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Since Kwame Alexander won the 2015 Newbery Medal for The Crossover, he’s been traveling far and wide in a whirl of evangelism for reading, poetry, friendship, self-expression, sports, music and love.

During a call to his Virginia home (where he was resting before lighting out for Ohio, Texas and beyond), Alexander says, “When I won the Newbery, I committed myself to being an ambassador of poetry and literature. Nobody asked me to. I just decided I’d give it two years and go everywhere.”

And so he has, from schools to TED talks, connecting with kids, teachers and librarians. He also continued writing, and his latest YA novel-in-verse, Solo, co-written with Mary Rand Hess, weaves poetry, music and text conversations into a coming-of-age tale.

Seventeen-year-old Blade is a talented musician in Hollywood and the son of a former rock star who’s a longtime addict. His teasingly sarcastic sister, Storm, and secret girlfriend, Chapel (her parents don’t approve), help make life fun sometimes, despite persistently cruel tabloid stories and long-simmering anger at his dad, who’s been emotionally checked out since Blade’s mom died 10 years earlier.

Blade’s mentor, Robert, “a magician / who turns worries / into songs,” is a haven for the teen. Their conversations are a call-and-response rhythm of wisdom and calm that culminates in music. But Blade’s still having a hard time finding serenity, and just as family conflict reaches yet another crescendo, a secret is revealed that has him questioning his very identity.

Thanks to Blade’s songwriting, Storm’s efforts to become a singer and Robert’s improvising, plus name-checks of musicians as varied as Meghan Trainor, Lenny Kravitz and Metallica, there’s plenty of music sounding through Solo.

Alexander says a mutual love of music helped him and Hess find their way from disparate tastes to their own perfectly tailored collection of influences. “Mary’s a hard rock fan, and I’m the 1980s Lloyd Dobler type, the Genesis guy. . . . But there were no arguments, just a frustration and sadness when we had to leave certain people out.”

He jokes, “Whenever it got to a point where there was gonna be a disagreement, I brought out my Newbery Medal,” then says, “No—there were certain things I knew that were not up for discussion, and certain things I trusted that she knew that weren’t up for discussion. You need that level of trust when you’re writing together. And it’s poetry! You’ve got to follow the rules, rhythm, emotion, metaphors, and distill powerful moments into very few words.”

Some of Solo’s most powerful moments take place in Africa, where Blade flees in pursuit of more information about that shocking family secret. Alexander says he chose Ghana for the book because of his own feelings for the place: “In 2012, a friend was becoming a queen in a village, and she wanted me to document it. I went to Konko and fell in love with the people and the children, the possibilities and hope and history.”

Since then, he’s founded LEAP for Ghana, which has provided books, literacy training and more. Last year, when Hess asked if he wanted to team up on a book, he knew the time was right: “I’d always wanted to write about Ghana but hadn’t figured out the story. Mary’s novel-in-progress was set in Kenya, but she’d never been there. I said, let’s put my ideas with yours, and a year later, we were finished.”

In Solo, when Blade goes to Konko, he falls for the place and the people, too, even though he’s nervous about what it might mean for his future. And of course, there’s the culture shock: It’s quite different from what he’s used to in Hollywood.

“I was excited by the concise, rhythmic. . . language that captured the emotional woes and wonders of my world in a few words.”

“This is a kid who has everything, and that’s juxtaposed with the complete opposite, with people and a country that have very little materially,” Alexander says. “Would it be realistic, would people care? That was a challenge, and I think we met it. The readers will tell us.”

They really will, too; for Alexander, an important part of his writing and his travels is the back-and-forth with his enthusiastic and vocal young readers.

“I’ve heard way too many times that boys don’t read,” he says. “I never believed that. You’ve just got to give boys a book they’re interested in reading.”

Alexander’s parents were avid readers and educators, so books were big in his home. But “in middle school, I wasn’t interested in books. . . . I was well-read, intelligent . . . but nobody made the connection that I should be given books I was interested in reading.”

In college, “I found my way back to reading through love poems. . . . I began to write poetry as a way to communicate with girls. I was excited by the concise, rhythmic, figurative, sparse language that captured the emotional woes and wonders of my world in a few words. I knew from college on [that poetry] can transform your life. It transformed mine, and I thought, I’ve got to find a way to share it with the world.”

And now he does, through Solo and his other books, his speaking engagements and his work in Ghana, where this summer LEAP for Ghana will finish building a library. There will be plenty more Alexander books, too, including novels-in-verse Swing (about baseball and jazz, written with Hess) and Rebound, the prequel to The Crossover.

“Most of us have forgotten that we love poetry, but it’s how we learn to communicate as children, in rhythm and rhyme and verse,” Alexander says. “It’s my job to remind us how powerful it is, to help us become more confident, find and raise our voices, become more human. . . . I want everyone to know words are cool, books are cool. They’re the most transformative things.”


This article was originally published in the August 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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By Rana Dasgupta
ISBN 9780547397085

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