Series 11: For the Love of Books | Episode 03
Books as Mirrors and Windows: Kwame Alexander’s Identity Through Words
Our book series is in full swing, and we’re loving the conversations about reading and how words help us voice what really matters to us! This week’s guest is author, poet, and educator Kwame Alexander. And if you’ve never been into poetry, Kwame is here to change your view. He believes poetry is powerful enough to change the world, inspire our youth—even woo a spouse (He wrote his now-wife Stephanie a poem a day for a year. Let the collective swooning begin!). Kwame is the New York Times bestselling author of 28 books for children, teens, and young adults, but his path to becoming a published author wasn’t all flowers and love poems. Kwame shares how his Newbery-winning novel The Crossover faced 22 rejections before a publisher finally picked it up, and the tenacity it took to keep saying “yes” in a sea of “no’s.” Kwame reminds us that so much of our ability to develop an imagination and know our place in the world comes from the pages of a book. His love affair with words will ignite each of us to pursue stories that heal us, move us, and change us.
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Narrator: Hi everybody, my name is Remy. Welcome to the For the Love Podcast, with your host Jen Hatmaker, my mom. She writes books and speaks to crowds. But she mostly loves talking to amazing people, every week, on this podcast. Thanks for listening. We hope you enjoy the show.
Jen: Hey, everybody. It’s Jen Hatmaker, your host on the For the Love Podcast. Welcome, welcome.
We are in the middle of a dynamic series called For the Love of Books. I honestly can’t believe it took me one year to do For the Love of Books, my favorite subject.
So we’re talking to writers of really all stripes: fiction, nonfiction, kids. It’s been so fun to learn about what makes writers tech and how they go from an idea in their head to holding a finished book in their hands.
So listen, you are going to be so delighted that you decided to have a listen to this episode because our next guest is so great, you guys. I just had the best hour talking to him. He is a prolific, brilliant writer that you and your kids will positively want to know about, if you don’t already, and you probably do. So I’m so glad to welcome today Kwame Alexander.
Kwame is a poet, an educator. He is the New York Times bestselling author of 28 books, including his Newbery-winning middle-grade novel The Crossover, his National Book Award nominated novel Booked, along with tons of other books for children, for teens, and for young adults.
So besides being an amazing, award-winning writer, Kwame is also a regular contributor to NPR’s Morning Edition, and he has literally received just all the awards. Coretta Scott King Author Honor book. Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Prize. 2017 Pat Conroy Legacy Award. He has had three NAACP Image Award nominations. I mean, he’s the real deal.
I can’t wait for you to hear him talk about how he thinks about poetry and how it can change the world and be used to inspire young people all around the world. He’s also the founder of Versify, which is his a new imprint that we’re going to talk about. On top of all this, Kwame is married to his lovely wife Stephanie. And I’m not joking when I tell you he wooed her by writing her a poem a day, every day, for a year. So do you see what I’m getting at here? He’s the dad of two daughters.
And I just, you’re going to love this guy. You’re going to love his work. He is unique, and he is original, and what he does is really extraordinary. And your kids will love what he is putting out into the world.
We’ll have everything linked over on my website at jenhatmaker.com under the Podcast tab, so we’ll link to his books and his sites and his talks, he has an amazing TED talk that we’re talking about too.
So anyhow, I’m thrilled to introduce him to you, if you don’t already know him. And you are going to enjoy him, and you’re going to want him to be your friend, and you for sure are going to want to follow him everywhere.
So guys, help me welcome Kwame Alexander.
Jen: Okay, so, Kwame Alexander, welcome to the For the Love Podcast. I’m so excited you’re here.
Kwame: Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Jen: Listen, I’ve been paying attention to you for a long time, and I think your work is so special and it’s so interesting, and you are so original and unique. So I’m really excited for my listeners to . . . some of them are going to meet you for the first time today, and they’re going to be so glad that they did.
I don’t even know if you know this, but I was also speaking at the Festival of Faith and Writing this year where you were keynoting.
Kwame: Oh, really?
Jen: Yeah, I was up there. I came in a day after you, and I was so mad that I missed your talk. And I told the event coordinators, I’m like, “I blew it.” I mean, I just absolutely blew it.
Jen: Did you get stuck at that conference like I did?
Kwame: No, I didn’t. I had to get in and out because I was in the middle of a book tour, on a bus, 30 cities, 32 days.
Jen: Oh, my gosh, are you kidding? That’s an intense tour.
Kwame: It was.
Jen: Did you say 30? What did you say?
Kwame: It was 32 cities in about 30 days.
Jen: Dang. Oh, my gosh.
Kwame: We had a tour bus, and it was the tour bus that was wrapped in the cover of Rebound. We had four bunk beds, a living room, a kitchen, a master bedroom, two bathrooms, a shower and seven flat screen TVs. We were on the road for the entire month of April, and it was pretty incredible.
Jen: That’s fun. Your whole family?
Kwame: No. No. My family, I brought my daughter and wife and some of my daughter’s friends—they’re 10-year-olds—on the bus for about four days, and they were like mini rock stars.
But for the duration of the tour, it was me, it was Randy—Randy usually performs with me, he’s the guitarist, and he travels with me to schools—and it was our tour manager. It was three of us and the drivers.
Jen: It’s an adventure.
Kwame: It’s a wonderful adventure, and so uncovering and discovering the beauty between the pages of a book.
Jen: Yeah, that’s exactly right. I do a bus tour with my partner, Nichole Nordeman, and our crew. We have a tour that we run in the fall and spring, and it’s a blast.
Jen: I mean, I wouldn’t want to do it for much longer than a month because the bus gets a little cramped, but we put nine people on the bus, and it’s shenanigans.
Kwame: Oh my goodness.
Jen: Shenanigans. I can’t even.
Kwame: I don’t even want to fly anymore. Whenever I tour, I just want buses now. From now on, that’s my life.
Jen: I’m with you. That was my first time to ever do it, and I’m like, I don’t ever want to see an airport for the rest of my life.
Kwame: Right. Exactly.
Jen: This is terrible, terrible. This is embarrassing. Gosh, we haven’t gotten into my million questions for you.
My friend, Nichole, is an artist. She’s a musician. She’s been on lots of bus tours. So she’s telling me what’s amazing about it, and she’s like, “You know, you’re in your little bed cave, and it’s pitch black, and there’s kind of the hum of the road, and you sleep good.”
Kwame: Right. Right
Jen: You sleep good, and it’s dark and you can’t see anything. You pull the curtain. She’s like, “You know, when I’m on a bus tour, I’ll sleep until 8:30 or nine o’clock.” She’s telling me this the night before we leave for the tour.
And I’m like, “Come on.” I’m like, “I’m not going to sleep till nine o’clock. I’m not in college. I mean, that is ridiculous.”
The first morning that we get to where we’re going, and we’ve been on the bus all night long sleeping. I mean, I think it’s the middle of the night and I don’t know what time it is, I can’t hear anything, I have earplugs in.
I look at my phone. It is 11:00 a.m. 11:00.
The whole bus is empty. My whole team is in the hotel, and I look at my phone. I’ve turned it off. There’s all these texts. “We’re inside when you wake up.”
Anyway, I’m with you on the bus.
Kwame: I must have taken about three naps a day, Jen, on the bus. I had events in the morning. I’d take a nap, events in the afternoon, take a nap, I have to do a little reception, dinner event at night, and then sleep on the way to the hotel, and I was good to go.
Jen: It’s amazing. I could never go backwards.
Listen, I’ve told our listeners a little bit about you and your background. But we do need to talk first about your style, because you just need to tell us how many of those awesome pairs of glasses do you have and where do you get them. And it’s your signature move, and I’m all the way here for it. I love it. I love your glasses.
Kwame: Thank you, Jen. The thing about it is I’ve been thinking about getting LASIK and . . .
Jen: Oh, no.
Kwame: But the only issue is then I won’t be able to wear my glasses.
Jen: I know. It’s your move.
Kwame: I love my glasses. I got some glasses from this really cool spot in SoHo, in New York. They are really expensive, but I was like, “I got to splurge because I love these glasses.”
I was in Shanghai on tour, and I was in the marketplace negotiating and doing my thing.
Kwame: Because I love haggling. And I saw this pair of white-framed glasses, and I was like, I got to get these. They just looked so cool.
And the guy was like, ‘It’s $10.”
I was like, “What?”
He’s like, “It’s $10.” He said, “If you want prescription, it’s 20.”
I was like, “How long does prescription take?”
He says, “About 20 minutes.”
Jen: Oh my gosh.
Kwame: I bought those, and I wore those for like a year or two. Man, I’m a glasses . . . like that’s my thing, Jen. That’s my thing.
Jen: Yeah, it is, and I forbid you to get LASIK. I just forbid it.
Kwame: Oh no, I can’t.
Jen: We need to see those glasses. They’re amazing, and you look awesome in them.
So let me ask you this. I don’t know if you have this in front of you, but I want everyone listening to have a real sense of the way that you write, if they’ve not been familiar with your style. So, if you don’t mind, I wonder if you could read for my listeners?
Jen: Yeah, and I’ve got a request, if you’ve got it near you?
Kwame: A request.
Jen: I wonder if you could read page three of The Crossover. It’s the section called “Dribbling,” and it is so, so good.
Kwame: “Dribbling at the top of the key, I’m moving and grooving, popping and rocking. Why you bumping? Why you locking, man? Take this thumping. Be careful though because now I’m crunking, crisscrossing, flossing, flipping, and my dipping will leave you slipping on the floor, while I swoop in to the finish with a fierce finger roll straight in the hole. Swoosh.”
Jen: It’s so—and it’s written like the literary devices you use are so compelling. It’s so interesting, and I’m just convinced that if more books were written this way, kind of in your fresh style, that more kids would not only read poetry, would just read, period. Because you’re capturing their imagination in such a new and a unique way.
I wonder, are you writing the books that you wanted to read when you were a kid?
Kwame: Absolutely. I’m writing like me and my friends talked. I’m writing like I hear kids talk. And I’m trying to use rhythm, repetition, rhyme, alliteration, visual, making the sure the words jump off the page so that the words can come alive for kids, because that’s what I needed to happen for me when I was a kid.
Nobody was giving books that I was interested in or excited about, and yet they said I was reluctant. It wasn’t that I was reluctant, I just wasn’t interested.
Kwame: I’ve spent my career trying to write really good stuff, but trying to write interesting. What’s going to be compelling to me, ultimately, I think, at the very least, stands a chance of being compelling and interesting to you, the reader.
Jen: Your instincts are right. And you come from a family of artists. You’ve got a photographer, a model, a musician in the family. Tell us a little bit about growing up in your house. Where do you fall in the line of siblings, and were you inspired by their abilities and your parents, and were you the kid who stayed in your room for hours at a time to create? Were you always creative?
Kwame: No. I was the kid who created in life. I was living a life that was, again, interesting.
We grew up in a house where our parents surrounded us with books. I was the oldest, and so I was the one who had to read my father’s dissertations. I was the one who had to sit down and have these conversations and discussions with my father around different literary topics, and I loathed that. I did not like—
Jen: Did you?
Kwame: I mean, come on, what 12-year-old wants to have to read your father’s PhD dissertation?
Kwame: Exactly. When my father showed up as my social studies substitute teacher one day, like, that was horrible. My dad was the headmaster of my school.
Kwame: Those were sort of the way we grew up. We grew up immersed in language and literature. My father may have been more functional with his treatment of literature and academics.
My mother was more fun. She told us stories, she sang us songs. So we had this really interesting balance of words as being powerful and words as being something you have to respect, and words as being fun and exciting and cool.
And so we had this really interesting balance, and I think all of us grew up with that, understanding how to, one, use our words; two, how to lift our voices about the things that matter to us; and three, to have confidence to walk through life feeling like we were confident.
That stuff came through from the pages of a book. It came from developing an imagination of what’s possible and knowing our place in the world. That came from literature that we were exposed to, from Dr. Seuss as a two-year-old, Fox in Socks, to my dad’s dissertations, to the book that changed my life and made me realize that books were cool as a middle school student, and that was Muhammad Ali’s autobiography, to the love poems I wrote in college and after college. I have a love affair with words. I know their power. I know their joy. And I think all of my siblings got that as well and decided to express it in different ways.
Jen: I love this. And I like hearing it as a mom, and I bet my listeners do, too, because there’s just something very powerful and irreplaceable to just raise our kids in homes where books are precious, where stories are read, where literature matters, where we read a lot, and they see us reading and we’re reading to them. And so much of that is caught and not taught, I think. And it is true that when you grow up in a literature-rich home, you experience the magic and power of words in a way that you really just can’t force in any other capacity.
I read that you wrote your first poem when you were 12, and I wonder if you will tell us the title and, if you dare, could you speak it aloud to us?
Kwame: I gave it to my mother on Mother’s Day when I was 12.
“Dear Mommy, I hate Mother’s Day because, in my heart, every day is Mother’s Day and I love you, dear Mommy.”
Jen: Oh, quit it!
Kwame: That was corny. Make sure you edit that part out, Jen.
Jen: I will not edit it out. I will not. Oh my gosh!
Kwame: That was my first foray into poetry, and the thing is she thought it was wonderful. She cried. She loved it.
Jen: Of course, she did.
Kwame: It was a horrible poem, but the idea is that poetry can have this immediate emotional connection with us as readers, as listeners, as human beings. I think that’s the beauty of poetry is that it can allow us to become more human in that moment.
Jen: You mentioned this a second ago, but you began your poetry career with, as you mentioned, suggestive love poems, which I love, and . . . fantastic, and you tell some really funny stories about that. By the way, but how did the love poem guy transition a little bit into the guy who writes for teens and young adults?
Kwame: I guess it’s two things. Number one, isn’t everything, really everything that’s written, everything we write, isn’t it ultimately about relationships?
Jen: I think you can make that argument.
Kwame: To yourself, to someone else, to the world, to your life, to the things that are . . . I mean, I feel like it’s all about love. And then, the books I write, they’re all, in their own way, they’re all love stories.
But the second thing, to really answer your question as to how did I go from writing these love poems, “Lips like yours ought to be worshiped. See, I ain’t never been too religious, but you can baptize me anytime.”
Jen: I mean, dang.
Kwame: How do you go from stuff like that, I get it, to writing children’s literature?
I think probably it happened, Jen, when my . . . I have two daughters. When my oldest daughter was 15 and she said she wanted to go on a date, and I thought, That that probably is something that can happen when you turn 30, but not now.
Jen: That feels fair.
Kwame: I ended up writing a poem about it to try to understand what she was going through, to try to remember what it was like to be in like or in love in high school. And so I wrote this poem for her called “10 Reasons Why Fathers Cry at Night.”
One, because 15-year-olds don’t like park swings or long walks anymore unless you’re in the mall.
Two, because holding her hand is forbidden and kisses are lethal.
Three, because school was fine, her day was fine, and yes, she’s fine, so why is she weeping?
Four, because you want to help, but you can’t read minds.
Five, because she is in love and that’s cute, until you find his note asking her to prove it.
Six, because she didn’t prove it.
Seven, because next week she is in love again, and this time it’s real. She says her heart is heavy.
Eight, because she yearns to take long walks in the park with him.
Nine, because you remember the myriad woes and wonders of spring desire.
And ten, because with trepidation and thrill, you watch your teenage daughter who suddenly wants to swing all by herself.
Kwame: Writing that poem put me in the sensibility of young love and remembering what it was like and trying to relate and understand her better, and we survived her teenage years.
Jen: Yep. How old is she now?
Kwame: She’s 27.
Kwame: So writing that poem, having a teenage daughter changed my sensibilities in writing. And I began to identify more with writing that experience and trying to understand it.
Then I had another daughter, and I began writing picture books to read to her. So having the two girls come of age really impacted my writing, and I found that I enjoyed being able to connect with them through the writing.
Jen: So in your TED Talk, which I loved and I cried at the end—so for all my listeners, we’ll have the link to this. If you haven’t seen it, you’re going to want to Google it right after this.
Kwame: Wait. You cried? Why’d you cry?
Jen: Yes. When you won the award.
Kwame: Oh, right. Right. Yeah. You and everybody else.
Jen: You got me.
Kwame: Me too.
Jen: You got me. I was like, “Yeah! He did it!” I even knew the ending. I already knew you won the award and I was like . . . It was so good. I loved the whole entire TED Talk.
So in it, you talked a little bit about the moment that you found your voice and decided you were going to use it. I think that’s a really important discovery in a kid’s life. A lot of times, our kids are just marginalized and we don’t think they have anything important to say and we don’t think their voices have value yet and they’re too young and they’re too inexperienced. But that’s not been my story with my kids. I have five kids, if you can imagine.
Jen: They’re all late teens, and I’ve got a 20-year-old. Them finding their own voices has been monumental to their own development, when they realized, like you did, how powerful it is to channel your conviction into words and actions. So I wonder if you can talk about that just a little bit.
Kwame: Yeah. My parents spent a great deal of time trying to make sure that we were all equipped to move through this world feeling confident, feeling assured, almost arrogant in our . . . Not arrogant in the sense that someone else wasn’t good, but arrogant in our own sense of who we were and not allowing the world to lower our goals. They were like, “Shoot for the sun, and you will shine.”
When I was two years old, my dad took me to a playground at Columbia University where he was getting his doctorate. He gave me a basketball and the basketball was bigger than me. He had me shoot foul shots from the free throw line, which of course, it’s no way I’m going to make that.
There was a facilities manager at the playground who came over and started lowering the goal so that I could reach it. And my dad said, “No.”
The guy said, “Man, he’s too small. He’s not going to make that.”
And my dad said, “He doesn’t know he can’t make it.”
Kwame: That’s pretty powerful.
Jen: Sure is.
Kwame: Our kids become who we expect them to be. The way we prepare them to face the world is who they’re going to become, I think, in many ways. So I’m not even sure if I’m answering the question.
Jen: Yeah. I love it. I love that answer.
Kwame: But how do you find, finding your voice? Again, I think it goes back to the words. I think it goes back to the books. The books can do the heavy lifting for us.
Jen: Yes, they can.
Kwame: But you’ve got to create an environment. You’ve got to create a space where your children feel that books are fun, that books are cool, that books can be something that they look forward to and get excited about and become engaged with. Of course, what that requires, Jen, is for a kid to find that book that’s going to engage and empower them. For you to help the kid find that book, you got to know the kid.
Jen: Yeah. That’s a great point.
Kwame: Whether you’re a teacher or a parent or a librarian, you got to know that kid so that you can help guide them to that book.
I hear people all the time, they try to make that a superficial thing. Well, if it’s a black kid, give him a book with a black character. If it’s a white kid, give him a book with a white character. It’s bigger than that. It’s bigger than that.
Books are mirrors and they’re windows. Yeah, we got to have books, Jen, that we’re able to see ourselves in physically, culturally. But we also got to have windows. We got to have books where we see other people who don’t necessarily look or act or go to church like us or what have you, because it helps us become more human.
Jen: That’s right, it does.
Kwame: It helps us become more connected. So how do you find your voice? How do you feel that confidence, that arrogance in your place in this world? Again, not to the detriment of other people, but to your own way of being? I think it starts with books.
Jen: I do too. I do too. I even think about my experience as an adult reader, which is identical. It’s books that have given me the world, and books have given me perspective. Books have given me empathy and books have given me stories that are not my own, but that I get to peek into. All of those things, the cumulative effect, I’m changed. I’m a different adult. I’m a different leader, I’m a different mom, I’m a different writer. So that is exactly the same experience that we can give our kids.
I think this is one reason why I love your unique style so much because, to your very salient point, I’m convinced there is no kid who would hate reading if they had the right book in their hands, that sometimes we’re just putting the wrong genre in front of them because it’s the one other kids like, or it’s the one that everybody else likes. But I found even with my kids that if I can find the right story that captures their imagination that they are, all of a sudden, all in.
So earlier, when you read a little bit, that was from one of your best-loved books, The Crossover. This is the one that won the Newbery Award that made me cry.
Listeners, if you don’t know what Newbery is, Newbery is like the Oscars of children’s books. It’s a huge deal.
Did you even know you were up for that, by the way? Because when you told the story in your TED Talk, I didn’t even get the impression that you knew you were nominated.
Kwame: There is no nomination.
Kwame: You only find out if you won. There’s no letting you know you’re on a list. You get a call at 6:00 in the morning.
Jen: So you had no idea that was coming.
Kwame: None whatsoever. You hear a lot of chatter. There’s rumors. There’s blogs where people are doing mock Newberrys and you hear a lot of that stuff. But no there’s no official nomination. So you really have no idea.
Jen: That’s so fascinating.
Listen. My favorite thing about The Crossover, besides just its obvious merit, is its story because that book had quite a little journey before it reached the Newbery medal. So I wonder if you can tell us a little bit about the path of that project.
Kwame: Yeah. So I started writing it in 2008. An editor had read some of my poetry and had heard me read that particular poem about my daughter, “10 Reasons Why Fathers Cry at Night.” She felt like I had a voice and she suggested that I try writing for young people—middle grade, in particular—a novel about basketball, in verse. So she essentially gave me this idea and said, “Now, go do it.” And I did it.
Between 2008 and 2013, five years, just constant rejections.
Jen: Even from her. It was her idea.
Kwame: It was her idea. She rejected it three times. About 22 different rejections, and certainly disappointed, frustrated, doubtful along the path. But could not give it up. Just kept rewriting it because I really felt good about the story. And eventually just decided I was going to publish it myself.
Jen, within one week, I had gotten the 23rd email saying that Houghton Mifflin loved the book and they wanted to publish it.
So it had been a five-year journey, but it was so worth it. It was supposed to happen like that. I tell people all the time that it’s a great metaphor for this idea that the nos are a part of life.
Jen: Yeah. That’s good.
Kwame: You’re going to be told no a lot. But how can you say yes to yourself amidst a sea of nos? How can you create a yes out of that?
I think the universe is conspiring—the Creator, God, whomever you decide is your higher power—it’s conspiring to prepare you for all the blessings that you deserve and need. Are you open to that? But see, all that can’t happen unless you put in the work.
Jen: Oh, that’s right.
Kwame: All that can’t happen unless you claim it, unless you believe, unless you have that faith. You got to have all of that stuff. It’s not going to work on its own.
Jen: That’s right. I love that story. I love it in long form, and I respect it so much because I say this a lot in leadership. But I worry that our generation, and you and I are close to the same age, can be just—
Kwame: Wait. You’re 27 too?
Jen: Uh-huh. You got it. Nailed it.
Kwame: I love it.
Jen: I worry that our generation’s a little bit too precious. You know what I mean? Too tender, too thin skinned, too unable to persevere, too fragile with every no and every rejection. Just so likely to throw our hands up and say, “Well, it’s not meant to be. They said no, and they must be right.”
But what’s interesting about your story, specifically on The Crossover, is that all 22 of those editors that said no to you, they were wrong. They were wrong. Your book is a raging success, children adore it, it won the highest prize in its category. They were wrong, and your instincts were right.
So I don’t know why we assign such weight to other people’s rejections when we know in our heart and we know in our gut that we have something special. I just find a lot of inspiration in your determination to see that thing through. Thank goodness you did. We’d all be less without having that book among us in the hands of our kids. I’m deriving so much inspiration from that story.
Jen: I want to talk about your new book. You’ve written a new young adult novel. It’s coming out October 2nd, right?
Jen: It’s called Swing. And obviously, you’re a smart guy. This is a very, very timely book because it’s about learning to raise your voice, which in this past year, we’ve seen kids in some cases do extraordinarily better than adults at this. I’m thinking of the kids in Parkland and how important and influential their sort of courageous voices have been in our culture.
Can you talk a little bit about Swing and why you decided to write it?
Kwame: Swing is probably the most challenging book I’ve ever written. I wrote it with a writing partner. Her name is Mary Rand Hess. We wrote another novel together called Solo, which was about rock and roll music and in relationship between family members and a little bit of love.
Swing is about baseball, it’s about jazz music, which I’ve been in love with most of my life, and it’s about social justice.
So it’s about two boys, Walt and Noah, who are trying to find cool. They’re uncool, and they want to be cool. They want the girls to like them. They want to be popular, but they aren’t. So they feel like baseball and perhaps jazz music can help them get there.
The book is about their journey to finding cool.
There’s a twist that happens. There’s a twist that happens simultaneously while they’re searching for cool and love, there are American flags popping up all around town and people are wondering, Is it patriotism or is it terrorism? So that gets resolved. The cool, the love gets resolved. And we find out what it means when the world is not so beautiful.
Jen: Yeah. That’s good.
Kwame: What can we do as young people to help make it a better place?
Jen: I appreciate that you treat your young readers with respect, that you are acknowledging their capacity to handle really complicated topics like that, and to really consider it with intelligence. I’m grateful that you didn’t write condescendingly, that you said, “This is important, this is happening, this is in your peer group, this is happening in your schools, this is what you’re seeing, this is what you’re feeling.”
I think that’s why you’re so popular. I think you treat your young readers with a lot of admiration by giving them things they’re not used to. Poetry, for example, about basketball. Who told you you could do that? You made up a genre! You just did it.
You must listen a lot to your readers. You obviously hear from them often, don’t you? Do they write you? Do they speak to you? Is this where your ideas come from? Are you crowdsourcing them from your fans?
Kwame: Not intentionally, but I think that’s exactly what is happening inadvertently. I probably visited 150 schools last year.
Jen: Wow. Gosh.
Kwame: So I’m interacting with thousands of kids every week. And I’m not just going to speak to them or speak at them. I’m having these interactive moments of inspiration and engagement and empowerment—and not just from me to them, but from them to me, and I love it.
Like we talked about at the beginning of the show, I’m not a huge fan of the airports and the travel and getting to these places. But once I get there, it’s like church.
Jen: Yeah. That’s good.
Kwame: It’s like church. And we’re all fellowshipping and we’re all coming together and we’re all surrounded by the joy and, again, the power and the beauty and the transformation that takes place when the right words are in the right order, the power of storytelling, to connect us. And I feel connected to these kids in a really profound way, and it’s a blast.
Jen: It is. And I think kids are smarter than they get credit for, and I think they see more than we think they see. What a wonderful resource for you, to really have your finger on the pulse of what’s going on in their heads and in their hearts.
Poetry seems like it would be a really approachable place for kids to get into reading, but sometimes it doesn’t appear that way.
I think a lot of kids hear “poetry” and they think it’s too complicated or it’s too high-brow or they’re going to struggle sort of with the meaning. So along with writing all these books for kids and teens, you have several reading initiatives that I love. You obviously given this a lot of thought.
Can you talk about those a little bit, and then how do you feel we should lay the groundwork to draw our kids into reading in general and even poetry specifically?
Kwame: Well, I think that the reason that kids feel intimidated by poetry or don’t really feel enticed by it is because we don’t. As their teachers and their parents, we have a relationship with poetry that is less than favorable. We think it’s staying incomprehensible and boring, and we’re afraid of it. So how can we expect our kids not to be if we are?
I think part of this is, we have to sort of find our way back to an appreciation of the rhythm and the rhyme that we loved growing up as children, you know? The Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein, you know?
We went from Shel Silverstein to Shakespeare and expected everybody to still feel the same excitement. It can’t happen. There needs to be a bridge to get us over.
Jen: That is a great point.
Kwame: So I’ve tried to create some initiatives and projects and programs and write books that sort of serve as that bridge to keep parents, kids, to show us that we do actually love poetry.
I started this program called Book in a Day, where I taught elementary, middle and high school kids how to write and publish a book of poetry in one day. We did it in 76 schools. Created 4,500 student authors. And the kids, they wrote, they designed the cover, they proofread the text. You know, they published a book of poems. And ultimately they felt like they were writers. They felt like they were now understood the importance of reading because they wanted people to read their books. But more important, they felt like they had a voice and they could accomplish, where they had the confidence and the tools to accomplish what they will.
I think poetry is the great equalizer. I think we’ve got to find our way back to it. And so for most people, especially adults and parents and teachers, I say find that poem that’s going to excite and engage you. Find your way back to a passion of poetry that you can then convey to your kids and your students. And I think a way to do that is to love poems.
We all, again, we all have some facet aspect of love in our life. I wrote my girlfriend a poem every day for a year and—
Jen: I read that.
Kwame: You read that? I wrote her a poem every day for a year.
“I am not a painter. Browns and blues, we get along, but we are not close. I am no Van Gogh, but give me plain paper, a dull pencil, and I will hijack your curves. Take your soul hostage. Paint a portrait so colorful and delicate, you just may have to cut off my ear.”
And she married me.
Jen: Of course she did! That’s how you turn a girlfriend into a wife, just like that.
Kwame: And that’s how you turn a not so avid reader into a reader through poetry.
Jen: That’s so good.
This is a really interesting time for a lot of us who are raising young readers. Their generation is different then we were, you know. There is so much information coming at our kids at any given day. Thoughts and ideas and curated storylines have been shortened from book length to a 140 characters, come at them like a tsunami.
And so I’m just curious your opinion here. In this very tech-fueled information age that’s truncated and shortened and reduced and sensationalized and constant, how you think we help our kids become effective readers and thinkers? Like, how do we balance technology use—which obviously is not all bad, there’s so much good inside of it—but also ensure that our kids actually have attention span left by the time they’re 25? What do you think? How do we do this as parents?
Kwame: Well, here’s how I do it. I try to read with my kid. We read Harry Potter together. I try to take her to meet authors who are going to excite her and get her, you know, “Wow, that was cool! I want to read that author’s books.” So I try to have those experiences.
Again, I think you’ve got to find those opportunities. You know, a haiku is three lines and 17 syllables. A kid can finish a haiku.
I was in a high school in Niskayuna, New York. And there were a bunch of 17 and 18-year-olds in the audience, like 800 of them. And the department chair was like, “Our kids aren’t really readers of poetry. They aren’t really, you know, they’re more into social media, so don’t expect a whole lot.”
My thing was like, “Yeah, okay, no problem.”
So I stand up in front of all these 800 kids and I immediately tell them, “Okay guys, I’m going to begin this presentation by sharing a haiku about. . .”
And then I asked one of the kids’ names, and he tells me his name if Joe. And I say, “This is a Haiku, a series of haikus that Joe’s girlfriend wrote for him.”
And they’re like, “Oh, what’s this?”
And then I shared the haiku.
“‘It is not that I don’t love you,’ she says, ‘Indeed I do. I want to kiss you, to lasso your lips, tame them, rein them in to my stable. But first, Joe, you must agree to commit to a breath mint.’”
And they just started laughing. Even Joe is laughing. And for the next hour, they are enraptured and captivated.
Jen: Of course!
Kwame: They’re hanging on every word. After the event, the kids are coming up to buy copies of my love poems, especially the boys. And they’re walking out of the auditorium right past the department chair, and he’s flummoxed.
And I’m like, “It doesn’t take a whole lot. Let’s try to figure out how to share assessable, relatable, interesting verse with young people.”
It has never failed me, in my personal and professional life, and I think it can be the bridge that will allow our children to begin to appreciate literature and language in a really profound way.
Jen: It’s so great.
So you have your own publishing imprint, which is called Versify, which is a pretty big deal. I mean, having your own imprint is no small thing. So, congratulations.
Could you tell us about how Versify came about? And what kind of books you want to publish? What you want readers of Versify books to learn or to come away with when they finish?
Kwame: Thank you. I mean, Versify is, it’s a lifelong dream. I mean, back in the ’90s I had my own publishing company, it was a small press. And we did it for 10 years but it wasn’t sustainable, we weren’t able to make enough money to stay afloat. And I always said, Man, if I ever get the opportunity, I would love to get back into publishing. And that was back in 2005.
And then, after the success of The Crossover and Booked and some of the other projects and just my work out in the literacy world, my publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, approached me about starting my own imprint.
And there had been a few other imprints that have been started by authors, and their names were attached to it—Derek Jeter, Sarah Jessica Parker—but it was just in name.
And I told my editor Margaret, “Well, I would love to do this. I have a background in publishing, but I’m going to want it to be more than a name. I’m going to want to curate a list. I’m going to want to discover authors. I want to help other authors like me to have that opportunity to get their Crossover published. I don’t want to just rely on agented work, I want to find writers from the slush pile. I want to get out, travel around and meet writers who are trying to find their place.”
And so they loved it. We worked on it for about a year. And next year, April 2nd, the first list will publish.
We’ll publish four to seven books a year. Generally, it will be children’s literature: picture books, middle grade novels, young adult novels, nonfiction. We’ll probably do a little bit of adult, if we find like that book that represents our mission, our vision.
And when I think about what our mission is, Jen, it’s I want to publish good books. I feel like for so long publishing has been a dinner party. And you go the party, and there’s been the same four or five people at the table, and there are two or three seats that are empty. I just want to invite some more people to the party. I want to have a great dinner party, and I want books that are going to electrify and edify and engage and help kids imagine a better world, whatever that means. I want to publish good books.
I want to publish Jen Hatmaker’s first children’s book. That’s my goal. I said it here, folks, you heard it!
Jen: You heard it on the For the Love Podcast, everybody! I just think that’s so fabulous.
Is it too soon for you to tell any of the books coming down the pike?
Kwame: The covers for our new books are being revealed as we speak.
But yeah, the first four books that are coming out, one is a picture book called The Undefeated, which is a poem I wrote for ESPN about sort of the resilience, the grit of America through the eyes of black Americans.
Jen: Oh, I can’t wait to see that.
Kwame: It is illustrated by Kadir Nelson.
There’s a picture book called Vamos! Let’s Go to Market by Raúl the Third, who is an amazing illustrator and author. And it’s about sort of the everyday occurrences at the market in a Latino community.
There is a novel in verse, a young adult novel in verse by Kip Wilson, which is about German teenagers who started a resistance called The White Rose to Hitler’s Nazi regime. It really resonates in this time with young people resisting and standing for what matters.
And then we have a fantasy novel in the tradition of The Phantom Tollbooth. It’s written by Lamar Giles, it’s called The Last, Last Day of Summer. And wouldn’t ever kid want to be able to freeze the last day of summer?
So, yeah, so those are our first four books, we’re really excited about it. And they all come out on April 2nd.
Jen: Fabulous. Oh, I’m excited for you.
All right, we’re going to wrap this up. These are—
Kwame: What? It’s over?!
Jen: I know.
Kwame: No, don’t do it to me!
Jen: That’s how I feel.
So listen, these are like kind of three quick questions we are asking everybody in the book series for the podcast.
So here’s the first one: what’s the first book that you ever read that you distinctly remember having like a boom impact on you?
Kwame: The Greatest, the autobiography of Muhammad Ali.
Jen: You did say that. How old were you when you read that?
Kwame: 11 or 12.
Jen: What’s one book in your life that you have read over and over again? Are you a re-reader? I’ve realized now where some readers are in two different camps. Not—
Jen: I’m a re-reader.
Kwame: Yeah, I am. Probably the poetry of Nikki Giovanni. The poetry of Pablo Neruda. His love poems, I could read those over and over again. Yeah, I’d probably say those two.
Jen: Okay. I’ll link those up on my transcript page so people can look those up too.
So, finally, this is a twist on a question that we ask every guest on this show: which book is saving your life right now?
Kwame: Which book is saving my life right now? Wow, that’s a great—
Jen: This world is better because this book is in it.
Kwame: Wow, that’s a great question.
There’s a picture book that Jacqueline Woodson wrote. It’s called The Day You Begin.
Jen: Oh, I’ve seen it.
Kwame: Yeah, and that book is just really powerful. It’s really beautiful. I would say kids, adults, everybody should read that book and it’s a picture book. Yeah, I think that may be it.
Jen: I think that’s a great answer. I literally came across that book yesterday and just thought, Oh, I’m happy that exists.
So, Kwame, I’m so happy to have met you on this little podcast. Can you tell everybody where to find you and all that good stuff?
Kwame: Yeah, you can find me at KwameAlexander.com.
You can find me on social media @kwamealexander.
And I host a weekly show on Facebook Live and YouTube, it’s called Bookish and it’s about all the stuff happening in kid’s books. And we’ve got music and it’s really sort of like, if you can imagine, Jimmy Fallon for kids.
Jen: That’s good. That’s a good description.
Kwame: Yes, it’s calledBookish with Kwame Alexander. And yeah, that’s where I am.
Jen: That’s awesome. Thank you for your time today Thank you for just bringing your very immense gifts to bear on the world, and for teaching our kids to love poetry and words and language and writing. And I’m so grateful for what you do, and I’m so happy to have met you.
So now we’re friends. Like, that’s how this works. You’re my friend now. I don’t know if you know that was part of the deal, but that’s part of the bargaining chip here.
Kwame: Jen, kudos to you for helping folks renovate their lives.
Jen: That’s nice. Thank you. Have a great week.
Kwame: You, too.
Jen: He’s so great, right? What a great guy. What an amazing author. I just love what he is putting out into the world.
So you guys, if Kwame is new to you, if you don’t already have his books on your shelves for your kids, I’m gonna have all of us linked over on my website, jenhatmaker.com, under the Podcast tab. We’ll have all his stuff over there.
And I really want you to look at his book, not just hear it, because he writes the words on the page with really interesting literary, like, moves—with the word “swooped” down the page—and he uses bolds and italics, and you know, you can feel what he is saying even just by looking at it before you even read it. And so he really, really is such a gifted, gifted writer.
So thank you for joining us on this really fun series. We are totally loving For the Love of Books. So much more to come. I cannot wait. I just cannot wait.
So appreciate you guys so much. Thank you for subscribing and listening, you guys. You have just pushed this little podcast so far. It’s gone over 8 million downloads this week, and you just are fabulous listeners who come in every single week. And you’re loyal, and you’re telling your friends about it, and we are so grateful. And when I say we, I mean my producer Laura and her team, and my assistant and partner Amanda. And together we do a ton of work to put this in your hands.
So thank you for listening. Thank you for subscribing. Absolutely subscribe, if you haven’t already. Thank you for reviewing and rating it, that is so good for podcasts.
Anyway, you guys, always happy to be here with you. Always happy to be your little host. And come back next week because we have more amazing guests for you that you’re going to love in this series, For the Love of Books.
Have a great one, you guys.
Narrator: That’s it for today’s show. Hope you enjoyed this chat. Be sure to subscribe to my mom’s podcast and give it a “thumbs up” rating if you like it. From the whole Hatmaker family, hope you have a great week and see you next time!