The Transylvania Times -

By John Lanier

Poet Kwame Alexander Reveals The Power Of Words


May 6, 2019

A crowd of all ages filled Transylvania County Library’s Rogow Room Monday afternoon, April 29, to hear Newbery Medal Winner Kwame Alexander discuss poetry and the power of words.

Alexander was accompanied by Randy Preston, who put Alexander’s words to music during the event, which also included audience participation.

Alexander said his mother was his first librarian: “My Mom was my first librarian. She was the first person that got me immersed in books. She taught me the power and the value of words.”

As a child, his favorite book was Dr. Suess’ “Fox in Socks.” When he was in preschool, one of his classmates knocked down a house he had made of building blocks. Alexander responded with a rhyme that intimidated the child who had knocked down his blocks.

That early love of words manifested itself in a desire to write.

“I knew I wanted to be a fulltime writer,” said Alexander, who started by writing love poems.

Very few people begin their careers as full-time writers, so Alexander held various jobs from working at the Department of Housing and Urban Development to being a graphic designer, but his goal was always to be a writer.

While living in Arlington, Va., he saw a classified ad that would pay a person $25 an hour to read poetry. He later found out the work was for only one hour a day, but he did it anyway. One of his first assignments was to read poetry at a high school. When he entered the classroom, the students were sleeping or listening to music and the teacher was reading a newspaper. In order to get the students’ attention, he stood up on a chair and recited a poem. Through the poem and his delivery, Alexander connected with the students. An hour later when he had finished his poetry recitations, the formerly inattentive students requested that he come back again.

After that successful experience, Alexander continued recitations before students, ranging from elementary to high school, while writing books and poetry of his own.

Alexander has used his personal experiences in his writing. He wrote “Ten Reasons Why Fathers Cry At Night” when one of his daughters began dating. When his second daughter was born, one thing that soothed her was music by Ella Fitzgerald. As result, he wrote “Acoustic Rooster,” the story of a rooster and his jazz band with Mules Davis leading the orchestra.

“I wrote this book and got a book deal,” said Alexander.

Since he did not make much money from the book initially, his wife suggested he go to the local farmers’ market and sell his books. One Saturday he took 100 copies of “Acoustic Rooster” with him to the local farmers’ market and by 10:40 a.m. he had sold them all. He then went up and down the East Coast selling his book at farmers’ market.

In March of 2014, Alexander’s “The Crossover” was published.

“Kids who weren’t reading started reading this book,” said Alexander.

He said one teacher in Dallas, Texas, had to lock up the book because kids were stealing it to read it.

After “The Crossover” received the prestigious Newbery Medal, Alexander thought he no longer wanted to go on the road to make presentations.

“I was burned out,” he said.

Once he began working with his longtime friend Prescott to present his poetry with background music, however, his passion to get back on the road to present his poetry and books returned. In the past three-and-a-half years, Alexander and Prescott have visited more than 1,000 schools.

Not all of those schools are in the U.S. In 2012, he visited a small village in Ghana where he read to 200 children.

The school had no walls, no ceiling and no floor. Ironically, when he was reading from “Acoustic Rooster,” a rooster walked up beside him. Since the only other book available to the children was about computer technology, he engaged in efforts to bring more books to the village and eventually build a library.

The library was supposed to have been completed in summer of 2017. When he and some of those who supported the effort to build the library went there to celebrate its opening, the library had not been built. Since he had gotten people to donate money for the library, Alexander asked the village elders why it had not been built.

They told him they could have used a health clinic.

“I never asked what they wanted,” said Alexander. “There is no writing that is going to save your life.”

Alexander said “health is a literacy issue” because people who are sick or dying are not interested in learning to read.

In 2018, he returned to the same village in Ghana and they opened up a combination library/health clinic.”

Alexander has had 32 books published. His stories are in the form of verse and the type of verse changes to accommodate the character and theme. Many of his books’ characters are involved in sports and dislike reading.

Alexander said his next book is about 12-year-old girl who plays football.

“I’m excited about that,” he said.

He said the two books he favors that he has written are “The Undefeated” and “Surf’s Up.” The former is a tribute to the heroic struggle and perseverance of African Americans while the latter is a lighthearted story of two frogs, Bro and Dude, at the beach.

Alexander’s literary efforts have now expanded to publishing. His company, Versify, focuses on books for children that “inform and inspire” and open the world of publishing to more authors.

Alexander said his goal and that of Versify is “to change the world one word at a time.”


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