My first encounter with Kwame Alexander was through his book Crossover. When a title wins several awards including the Coretta Scott King Award and the Newberry Award I felt the need to pay attention. I expected to find a novel about teenage angst set in a high school whose identity fit within the lined border of a basketball court. But what I got was a series of narrative poems that introduced me to Filthy McNasty and JB, twin brothers with a love of basketball and enough charm to thaw the heart of even the coldest middle school teacher.
Kwame’s words dribbled off the page. I loved his flowing descriptions of the intensity of basketball games and the competition between twin brothers who shared the same passion. The fact that one loves UNC while the other loves Duke sums up the relationship: two hard-nosed rivals searching for excellence while refusing to give any ground to his chief rival who, at times, can feel like his best friend. Their mother is an assistant principal while their father is a retired NBA star with a championship ring. Kwame tells the story of the family through the eyes of the teenage boys who put their own creative spin on family drama.
When Kwame released his second book in the same style titled Booked, I was not quite as enthusiastic. I am not a soccer fan. It’s not that I don’t like soccer (or football as it is known outside the United States); it’s that I don’t understand the nuances of the game. I worried that I wouldn’t relate to the main character and his love of the sport. Again, my prejudice showed its ugly head because what I read was a brilliant celebration of language through the eyes of a young man struggling with his parents’ divorce, daily challenges with his teachers and peers, and the pressure of being a part of the soccer team.
The appeal of these two volumes is clear: Kwame creates characters that appeal to their audience, the sense of realism without the trap of condescension connecting the reader to the lives of teenage boys in ways few writers can do. Although the stories are told through verse, we get a strong feel of flowing narration that has a clear beginning, middle, and end. The boys grow and change with each experience. The language beats from the mouths of the boys much like the free-style rapping of Eminem or Kanye without the controversial lyrics. Each word, each phrase serves its narrative purpose.
Kids can spot fakery from a mile away. Kwame’s characters aren’t stereotyped or the voice of a patronizing adult. They are living, breathing characters who can speak to the most reluctant of readers.
Kwame’s literary forays extend beyond middle school books. He is an accomplished picture book author whose titles include Acoustic Rooster, Surfs Up!, and Animal Ark.
His most recent release, Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets, is hard to peg. On the surface it’s a picture book of poems. Dig down a little deeper and it’s a celebration of some of the world’s greatest poets. Yet the core of this book is so much more. Rather than rehash the poems of masters like Maya Angelou, Robert Frost, Emily Dickenson, and Okot p’Bitek, Kwame along with co-writers Chris Colderly and Marjory Wentworth create odes to the works of twenty of the world’s greatest poets. Each poem is a celebration of the beauty of language and the masters who used it to create poetic art that defined our world.
Children will love the beauty of the art and the easily accessible language of the poems. But the real treasure here is for adults who know the works of the celebrated poets. References to their poems exude from the lines. For example, the words “phenomenal” and “free bird” are used to describe Maya Angelou. The poem celebration William Carlos Williams refers to plums. Most readers will not notice these references, but lovers of poetry will sop up the words like sorghum molasses on a buttermilk biscuit, sweet and decadent from beginning to end.
Kwame excites the English teacher in me. He’s young, so the world has only just begun to enjoy the fruits of his creativity. Kids in the current generation are blessed. They have an artist who speaks their language, who uses words in ways that teach lessons without being stuffy or pedantic. The world of children’s literature has suffered a quake and from the fissure stepped Kwame Alexander. Kid lit will never be the same.