How Novelist Kwame Alexander Hooks Teens on Poetry – Michael Mechanic July/August 2017 Issue


He turns it into a great story—about them.

Portia Wiggins Portraiture

When Kwame Alexander talks, you can sense something irrepressible just under the surface—laughter, maybe, or swagger—dying to burst forth. It’s the same vibe the 12-year-old protagonist of his Newbery Medal-winning 2014 novel-in-verse, The Crossover, exudes on the basketball court. Alexander, 48, was a baller himself: “I was No. 1 on the tennis team,” he says. “I beat everybody.”

Raised in New York City and later Virginia by literary types—publisher dad, English teacher mom—Alexander has produced two dozen titles to date, from a collection of Tupac essays he edited to poetry volumes and children’s picture books. Solo, out August 1, is a young-adult novel co-written with the children’s author and editor Mary Rand Hess. Using poems as their vehicle, Alexander and Hess follow the travails of 17-year-old Blade Morrison, the scion of a profligate Los Angeles rock star, as he stumbles along a path of self-discovery that takes him to Ghana—to the same remote village, in fact, where Alexander co-founded a real-life nonprofit that provides books, teacher training, and literacy programs for children.

Mother Jones: Many Americans these days think of poems as something to pull out for birthdays, weddings, and funerals. Were you surprised The Crossover was such a slam dunk?

Kwame Alexander: I wasn’t. I spent the last 20 to 30 years reciting poetry in schools or performing at open mics in churches and universities. I got firsthand feedback in the form of standing ovations, or fourth-graders asking me to autograph their hands, or people in church saying, “Amen. Hallelujah!” I courted my girlfriend back in 1998 by writing her a poem a day for a year—and she married me!

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