This spring, Kwame Alexander spoke to a rapt audience of fourth and fifth graders at PS 48 in Queens as part of a program that Queens Public Library organized through South Jamaica Reads to bring authors to schools.
Bestselling author Alexander says he owes his success to librarians. Alexander won the Newbery Medal in 2015 for his first novel-in-verse The Crossover. He describes his parents as his first librarians, saying there were books everywhere in the house he grew up in, where “books were reward and punishment. Books were places we could discover who we wanted to be, discover faraway places we haven’t been.” Libraries, he says, “were churches almost, temples of possibilities.”
To Alexander, reading means “entertainment, fun, thrill, fantasy. And it means information. Reading is intelligent entertainment.” In a new role, he’s now publishing an imprint called Versify. “I look for books that are going to help young people imagine a better world,” he says. “I look for books that are going to be page turners and books that are going to inspire.”
Alexander believes in the power of poetry to change lives—and tells a story about how it impacted him: “It got me married. I wrote a poem a day for this woman and she ended up marrying me. That was how I courted her. That’s how poetry changed my life on a very personal level. I’ve seen how it can transform and connect with people and ultimately allow people to be more human. I’ve seen it in kids around the world and I’ve seen it in my own household.”
He says, “A lifetime of experience and observation and books and travel inspired me to want to be a writer.” Muhammad Ali’s autobiography made reading cool for him, and he thinks he can make literature and poetry cool for kids: “I want to impart and share that with young people. I feel that I’m the guy to do that because I’m a cool dude.”