As a kid, Kwame Alexander never wanted for books. His father was a publisher, and his mother was an English teacher.
“I lived in a Wal-Mart of books,” the author and poet said with a laugh. “It wasn’t just books as holiday gifts. Christmas was every day. Books were stacked on the floors. They were on our walls.”
Alexander said he read everything he could get his hands on while growing up in Brooklyn, New York. Favorite authors included Eric Carle, Lee Bennett Hopkins and Eloise Greenfield.
But by fourth or fifth grade, he hated books.
“The books that you were being forced to read, you weren’t interested in,” he said.
So he focused on what did interest him: playing sports, including football and basketball.
A year or two later, it was sports that lured him back to books. He opened boxer Muhammed Ali’s autobiography,“The Greatest: My Story,” and couldn’t put it down. He read all 400 pages in one night.
“That sort of restored my love and my joy of reading in middle school,” Alexander said.
Becoming a writer, however, wasn’t something he considered. That was his dad’s business.
“I wanted to get as far away from writing and publishing as possible,” he said.
While studying medicine at Virginia Tech, Alexander wrote poetry as a hobby. Nikki Giovanni, a respected poet and professor, urged him to pursue it seriously. He took the advice and started his own publishing company. Ten volumes of poetry and two well-received picture books followed. Then came an offbeat idea: a sports-themed childen’s novel written in verse.
“The Crossover,” a story of ’tween brothers and basketball, resonated with middle schoolers the way Ali’s book had for Alexander. It won the 2015 Newbery Medal, the highest prize in children’s literature.
With that book, Alexander said he found his calling writing poetry that appeals to the middle grades.
“You can’t go from Shel Silverstein to Shakespeare,” he said. “There has to be something in the middle. I think it’s my job to do that.”
So when he’s not talking about poetry at schools and book festivals, he’s writing at home in Reston, Virginia.
His next novel, which will be published in April, is also sports-related and written in verse. “Booked” follows a 12-year-old soccer player who is dealing with a bully and his parents’ divorce.
Alexander said he hopes the success of “The Crossover” and Jacqueline Woodson’s “Brown Girl Dreaming” will convince publishers and parents that kids aren’t afraid of poetry.
“The kids see all that white space. They’re thinking, ‘I can get through this pretty quickly.’ Plus they’re getting . . . that energy, that rhythm, that movement. . . . It’s all in the power of poetry.”
Kwame Alexander shares five books he thinks kids — from preschoolers to high schoolers — will enjoy receiving this holiday season. Find KidsPost book reviewers’ picks for the best fiction, nonfiction and picture books of 2015.
By Langston Hughes. Illustrations by Ashley Bryan.
40 pages. Ages 4 to 8. $17.99.
The big sea, mermaids and all things oceanic populate the majestic poems of Langston Hughes, the Shakespeare of Harlem, and colorful companion illustrations of Ashley Bryan in this extraordinary collection for young and old.
By K.A. Holt
176 pages. Ages 10 to 14. $15.99.
This novel in verse is about a boy, but it’s for all of us. Bullying, poetry, rock-and-roll and family tension all come together very nicely in this heartwarming and hilarious coming-of-age story that introduces a new kind of poem.
“Words With Wings”
By Nikki Grimes
96 pages. Age 8 and older. $15.95.
One of the beauties of poetry is that it can take the human soul and distill into concise, power-packed words, rhythms and sounds. Grimes is at her best in this novella in verse about a daydreaming girl named Gabby who navigates the woes and wonder of her young life by soaring between the lines and finding her voice.
“The Truth About Twinkie Pie”
By Kat Yeh
352 pages. Ages 8 to 13. $17.
Two sisters, braniac Gigi and dropout-turned-millionaire Didi, move from the trailer parks of South Carolina to the Gold Coast of Long Island, where friendships, crushes and family secrets threaten to turn their new lives upside down.
“The Game of Love and Death”
By Martha Brockenbrough
336 pages. Age 14 and older. $17.99.
This novel is about jazz, romance and get this, flying. There’s a supernatural twist, too, which is quite msyterious and fun. What if Love was an actual person? Death, too? And what if we’re all just actors playing a game they’re directing? The idea is fascinating. The execution here is flawless. And the outcome of Flora and Henry’s game of love and death is elegantly magical. As a bonus, Brockenbrough sheds light on Bessie Coleman, an aviation pioneer children should know.