Voracious readers, young and old and in-between, there’s a local author whose work requires your attention. Kwame Alexander took his great loves, basketball and poetry, and combined them for the Newbery Medal-winning children’s book The Crossover, about basketball playing twins, written in verse (and yes, Alexander is a LeBron fan). He’s gone on to publish more children’s books, including Booked and Swing, written with Mary Rand Hess. In April, he will publish, under his own Versify imprint, his collaboration with illustrator and author Kadir Nelson called The Undefeated—a love letter to black life in the United States. He’ll be speaking at MahoganyBooks tonight at 6:30 p.m., the National Gallery of Art on April 6 at 10:30 a.m., and at Politics and Prose on April 6 at 1 p.m. Originally from Brooklyn and now living in Herndon, Alexander spoke with City Paper about how he got his start, why he writes what he writes, and what it was like winning that Newbery Medal.
WCP: How did you come to writing and realize it could be your profession?
Kwame Alexander: Writing in earnest and trying to write intentionally began in college. It was a way to sort of be an activist on the campus of Virginia Tech. It was my way to raise my voice about the things that were happening in our world, in particular apartheid, and on our campus, the lack of a black studies program. I used my writing as a way to say these things have to change. That evolved into me writing love poems, because I found that people were listening to me and requesting that I write for a rally we were having on campus. Then Nikki Giovanni became a professor at Virginia Tech and I had enough sense to realize, well, I really enjoy writing and the writing I’m doing is having some sort of impact on campus, publicly and personally, now let me see if I can learn how to do it right. Taking her classes for three years and watching her live this writerly life, I said well maybe this is something I want to do. I want to make a living in doing this. After college, I moved to the D.C. area and that was ’91. I began this journey to becoming a writer. I was on this mission day and night to become a full-time writer, to make a living at it.
WCP: Do you feel like you write with intention now, like you did in college?
KA: My intention is to write as authentically as possible, to tell the kind of stories I want to tell, to talk about what I’m interested in. My intention with writing is just to be me. To the degree that I can do that, I feel like I’ve accomplished something. Whether it be love poems, social protest poetry, a picture book about jazz music, it’s what I need to write about at that particular time that informs the writing. I walk through life as a willing participant. Whatever inspires me or moves me, that’s what I’m going to tackle through the writing. I like to embrace the full humanity of our blackness. I don’t want to put it in a box, I don’t want to pigeonhole it. I want to keep it as universal as it feels to me. I want to keep it like that on the page. I think that good literature can connect with anyone. A book can be a mirror and it can be a window. I try to write books that are going to connect with young people, that can engage them, excite them, and empower them. If I’ve been engaged with the writing, I feel like as the reader, there’s a strong chance you will be, too.
WCP: You’re a successful writer now, but did you ever feel like giving up?
KA: I’ve wanted to give up so much. I’ve been asked to give up. I think two things saved me. Number one, I knew it was my calling. It was like breathing. It was something I loved doing. The second thing is, you surround yourself with people who are going to uplift you, who are going to encourage and embrace you.
WCP: Your work is often labeled as children’s literature or literature for young people. How do you feel about that?
KA: I’m cool with it. Ultimately, I’m trying to help kids imagine a better world, so it works. I do think, though, that I write about kids for everyone. I’m going to do everything I can in my power to reach the audiences, young and old, that I need to reach. From a business perspective, I understand the need to categorize it and I’m cool with it.
WCP: Do you think about how children, specifically, will interact with your work?
KA: All the time. I feel like I have a certain level of responsibility. When I’m writing, I think about myself as a kid. I think about the kid in me, I think about my daughter, I think about all the kids I interact with.
WCP: What did it feel like to win a Newbery Medal in 2015 for The Crossover?
KA: I know it happened, but it’s still surreal. I will say for all those years living on Columbia Pike, going to open mics and writing love poems, living in Baltimore and then moving to Alexandria, and wondering when is my big break going to come and if it was ever going to come, it felt like I was a jet plane. I always on the runway, I never took off. This was year and years—from 1991 to 2015, that’s 24 years. When I got the call about the Newbery, the plane took off and I haven’t come down since.
Kwame Alexander speaks tonight at MahoganyBooks at 6:30 p.m. Free–$35. 1231 Good Hope Road SE.