Kwame Alexander wants kids to love reading — and not just the 18 books he's written, including "The Crossover," which won the prestigious Newbery Medal this year.
The author, poet and teacher — and father to two daughters, ages 6 and 24 — is celebrating National Reading Month by encouraging kids to read through the PTA Family Reading Experience, Powered by Kindle, a program that encourages families to make reading fun at home.
Mom.me caught up with Alexander, who revealed what it felt like to win the literary award, tips for getting teens and tweens to read more, and playing dress-up with his daughter.
Mom.me: Congrats on your Newbery Medal!
Kwame Alexander: Woo-hoo!
How did it feel — and what did you do first — when you learned that "The Crossover" had won?
When I got the call that "The Crossover" had won the Newbery Medal, it was as if I was all of a sudden in a jet, taking off. So, for the next couple of hours, for the next couple weeks, I was soaring up to 30,000 feet. I've sort of leveled off now, and, of course, folks often ask me, "How does it feel now?" and I tell them, "It's no longer the rush of the takeoff, but I'm still at 30,000 feet because it's such a remarkable honor." And it's very humbling, and the opportunity to be able to have this book that I've written impact young people on a much larger level is just the world to me.
Which authors have been influential to you in your life?
I think probably initially my parents. My parents are both writers. My father wrote these huge historical tomes. It's exciting now to be able to talk about it, but can you imagine a 10-year-old boy having to read these huge historical books?
And, of course, growing up, writers like Lucille Clifton and Nikki Giovanni were very important to my reading experience. I think as I grew up, and as I became more of an earnest writer, I began to be excited about all different forms of writing, all different genres, and many different writers, from Nikki Giovanni to Dean Koontz to Pablo Neruda to just so many different authors.
How did you get involved with the PTA Family Reading Experience?
I'm a writer; I've written 18 books, and I've always been an avid proponent of parents reading to their children. I have two daughters. I have a 6-year-old who loves to read, and she loves to read because we started reading with her, reading to her, at a very early age. The PTA Family Reading Experience, which is powered by Kindle — it just seems like it's a natural fit for the kinds of literacy things that I'm about.
When I'm at home, my daughter wants to play dress-up. I find myself in dresses and scarves and hats, so I really need to be elsewhere to be able to write.
What are your tips for getting tweens and teens to read more after they're more independent from their parents?
That's why I wrote "The Crossover" because I wanted to go after that audience of tweens and teens who weren't interested in reading, who were labeled as reluctant readers, and so "The Crossover" is a novel but it's a novel in verse. There's not a lot of ink on the page; there's quite a bit of white space, and so children, in particular boys, aren't intimidated by it because it looks like, "Oh, this is easy." And, of course, when they read it, it becomes an easy, rhythmic, fluid read, but it's heavy stuff. It's family, it's relationships, it's love, it's friendship — it's all the things that are important to us as human beings. I've seen young people embrace the book, which they initially thought was about basketball, which of course ends up being about more than that. Basketball becomes a metaphor for their lives.
How has fatherhood affected your writing?
On a very concrete level, for the first 14 books of my career, I wrote primarily poetry for adults, and so having [my youngest daughter] six years ago, I think I became a little more interested in writing for children because I wanted to have books for her that were a) diverse and b) topics that I knew I wanted to convey to her that I didn't see in the marketplace. So my first children's book ["Acoustic Rooster and His Barnyard Band"] was about a rooster that started a jazz band with Duck Ellington and Mules Davis. I wrote that to teach my daughter about the history of jazz music, so I think my daughter definitely had and has an impact on what I write, why I write and how I write.
How do you, as a dad of girls, encourage your daughters to chase their talents and challenge themselves?
We need a whole show for that. I talked about how my daughter has influenced how I write, but it's because I don't get to write at home as much as I'd like to because when I'm at home, my daughter wants to play dress-up. I find myself in dresses and scarves and hats, so I really need to be elsewhere to be able to write. The idea of writing books, and her seeing her father write, I think that is a great confidence builder for her in that, "Ooh, well maybe I can write a book." Or maybe, "My dad is living his dreams — well, maybe I can live my dreams." I try to encourage her to do those kinds of things as much as possible. A lot of that may be to my detriment, because she is probably the most independent person I've ever met.