“Why I Write at Panera Bread” and More With Author Kwame Alexander
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Last summer, I had the great pleasure of watching award-winning children’s book author Kwame Alexander bring down the house at the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) annual conference in Los Angeles. Although I was not yet familiar with him or his work, after seeing Kwame speak, I knew he was someone I would not soon forget–not because he was tall (he’s 6’4″) and handsome, but because charisma and positivity oozed from his pores. He really had whatever “it” is that you need to draw in a crowd, and seeing him in action was uplifting and exciting. It was almost electric. You can only imagine how thrilled I was to interview Kwame at the fourth annual Yallfest, an amazing young adult book festival held in Charleston, South Carolina.
To prepare for the interview, I thought about how in his powerful presentation in Los Angeles he used “basketball rules” for life to discuss his career—both the highs and the lows—and to motivate a crowd of about 1,000. Knowing that a career as a writer is not necessarily (or usually) one that affords you the ability to bring home a reasonable amount of bacon, so to speak, Kwame revealed that at one point he was thisclose to giving up so he could get “a real job.” With the help of his wife and his unshakeable perseverance, he stayed on course. And, as they say in Hollywood, the rest is history. Kwame is writing book after book. So far, he has written 21 books. One of his latest, The Crossover, is even a bestseller that earned Kwame a 2015 Newbery Medal. Kwame also shares his knowledge and passion with children and at the same time empowering them to write. He not only fosters a love of reading in children by giving them great material, but he works directly with them both domestically and around the world, mostly through school visits and his Book in a Day program.
I recently read The Crossover and absolutely loved it. True, I am a mother of sons aged 17 and 13, both of whom play basketball. But you don’t have to love basketball or have sons to appreciate the book.
No matter who you are, The Crossover will likely break and warm your heart like it did mine. Although it’s only the second book written in verse that I’ve read (the first was Jacqueline Woodson’s raw and beautiful book, Brown Girl Dreaming), I’m so glad to have been exposed to such an interesting and unique style of writing, especially from a master of words like Kwame.
I won’t spoil the book for you because I’m hoping that you read it and share it with the children in your life. What I will say is that Kwame does a wonderful job telling the story of twin 8th grade boys with heart and soul. In The Crossover, Kwame uses poetry, basketball rules, and vocabulary words to tell a compelling story of life, love, loss, loyalty and so much more. Most interesting is how Kwame shows that a “crossover” is so much more than just a popular move in basketball.
Here’s a description of The Crossover from its jacket:
“A bolt of lightening on my kicks…the court is sizzling. My sweat is drizzling. Stop all that quivering. Cuz tonight I’m delivering,” raps Josh Bell. Thanks to his dad, he and his twin brother, Jordan, are kings on the court, with crossovers that make even the toughest ballers cry. But Josh has more than hoops in his blood. He’s got a river of rhymes flowing through him- a sick flow that helps him find his rhythm when everything’s on the line.
As their winning season unfolds, things begin to change. When Jordan meets the new girl in school, the twins tight-knit bond unravels. In this heartfelt novel, basketball and brotherhood intertwine to show Josh and Jordan that life doesn’t come with a playbook and, sometimes, it’s not about winning.
Although the book is a relatively quick read and therefore can easily be read in between studying for tests and doing homework or while commuting, don’t be fooled into thinking the book lacks substance or depth. It bursts with both.
I am thrilled to share the following highlights from my face-to-face interview with Kwame:
EZ: What is your favorite place to write?
KA: Panera Bread. They have a comfy chair that’s next to a fireplace. And their lemonade is real! And I’m an eavesdropper. I like listening to the conversations people have. And I like watching the expressions on people’s faces. I like seeing how parents interact with their kids and the fussing and the hugs. I just believe that to be a writer and write authentic stuff you have to live authentically and be a part of the world and immerse yourself in it. And so many characters come into Panera Bread, so why not borrow from the world? I also love being distracted while I’m writing. I do write listening with one earbud to instrumental jazz music, but I also like to know what’s going on around me and to participate in life while I write.
EZ: What do you do to stay fit?
KA: My wife teaches Zumba and Body Pump so when I’m at home and I take her classes regularly, I’m feeling good. Unfortunately I travel a lot and am on the road and I have to bring gym clothes and try to work out at hotel fitness centers. I also eat try to eat well. (Kwame jokingly called himself a part-time pesca-vega-meatatarian of sorts, or something like that lol.)
EZ: What makes you uncomfortable?
KA: To confront someone about something.
EZ: What is the best part of your job?
KA: The kids’ reactions to the books and being able to be with kids in the schools. Kids coming up to me and saying, “Mr. Alexander, I couldn’t put your book down. I love your book.” Just last week in Philadelphia, one kid came up to me and said, “Thank you so much. I needed that. Will you adopt me?” It’s being able to have that impact on children. And as children’s authors, we’re helping to shape young minds. We’re helping kids imagine and reimagine the world, and that world has to be better and more beautiful.
EZ: In The Crossover, you discuss 10 rules of basketball. Which is your favorite?
KA: Rule number 3. (I SWEAR, it’s mine too…see below.)
EZ: Do you have a mantra that you live by?
KA: Say yes.
EZ: Which children’s writers would you like to have a meal with?
KA: Virginia Hamilton, the first African American to win the Newbery Medal; Langston Hughes; and Dr. Seuss. I’d ask Dr. Seuss if he had a plan, how he started out and if he knew where he was going and what that process was like. When I think about what I want to do and where I want to go, I know I want to change the world, to do something really huge. So Dr. Seuss is the kind of person I want to sit down with because he changed how kid lit is done.
EZ: What advice would you give to a a new or aspiring writer?
KA: Read everything you can.
EZ: Was The Crossover a crossover for you in your career?
KA: I had written numerous books that I felt were original and had my swag and were on the cutting edge. But in the public’s eye, The Crossover was a crossover in my career.
About Kwame Alexander: He is a poet, educator, New York Times Bestselling author of 21 books, and recipient of the 2015 Newbery Medal for his novel, The Crossover. The founder of two organizations, Book-in-a-Day and LEAP for Ghana, Kwame regularly travels the world as a literacy advocate and expert. He has owned several publishing companies, written for stage and TV (TLC’s “Hip Hop Harry”), recorded a CD, produced jazz and book festivals, hosted a radio show, and taught high school English. In 2015, Kwame served as Bank Street College of Education’s first writer-in-residence. Visit him at his website here.
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