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Q and A: Kwame Alexander, YA author

Critical Care

 

New York Times Best-selling author, poet, and educator Kwame Alexander is a master of tackling issues that impact the lives of middle school and Young Adult readers—such as bullying, divorce, illness, and fitting in. In his latest, Swing (written with Mary Rand Hess), music, crushes, and issues of social justice confront two baseball-playing best friends, one black, one white. Like the sports-loving protagonists that he often writes about, many of Alexander’s biggest fans are adolescent boys, a notoriously challenging group of readers.

The author of 28 books, including The Crossover, winner of the 2015 Newbery Medal for outstanding contribution to children’s literature, Alexander is a 2018 NEA Read Across America Ambassador. He spoke with ASBJ Associate Editor Michelle Healy about engaging students in reading and writing, and the power of poetry.

 

What have you learned about young people and reading that educators and school leaders should know?

That books are amusement parks and kids need to be able to choose their rides sometimes. Often, we want to force-feed books to kids and then we don’t understand why they’re not excited about reading. We must remember that in the same way that adults feel about books, movies, or music that don’t inspire us, we don’t want someone forcing them on us. It’s the same for kids. We must help kids find that book or subject matter that they are going to be excited about. That, of course, requires us to know those kids, so that we can make recommendations and steer them to the right books. They are no different than us. If we want them to want to read, we must give them books that are going to thrill them, that are going to edify them, electrify them, and galvanize them.

Were you a reluctant reader?

I wasn’t a reluctant reader. My teachers said I was, but I was well read. My parents were writers and educators. I wasn’t, however, interested in reading Tuck Everlasting or Wuthering Heights, or some of the other books my teachers were making us read. I was an uninterested reader. No one understood that they should help me find books I wanted to read. We get so caught up in what books we think kids should read. Yes, there’s value in these books that are in the traditional canon, but sometimes we need to find books that are going to be bridges that will make kids want to read those books. Those are the books I try to write.

How does poetry transform students’ reading?

It’s a surefire way to get all kids engaged because it sets sparse, concise text. Students can get through a poem and feel some confidence because they completed it. I think the white space is great for the reader to take journeys that are on the page. Ultimately, poetry can be a bridge. It can allow kids an entry point into an appreciation of literature, and it’s immediate. You don’t have to wait a long time. 

Why the political and social tensions in Swing?

How do you live in America in 2018 and not feel some sadness and pain and frustration when you turn on the news and hear that another police officer has killed another black man? We don’t change behavior unless we feel something. I wanted to write a book that made readers feel something, that would impact their minds. I’m not preaching to the choir. In this book, [co-author] Mary [Rand Hess] and I are trying to change minds because we feel that’s the first step for us to all become more human.

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