Poet, educator, and Newbery Medal-winner Kwame Alexander wasn’t quite sure what to say or how to confront the current political climate in the President’s Program speech he was scheduled to deliver at the Midwinter Meeting & Exhibits in Atlanta. So he called up a librarian friend for advice.
“He said, ‘One, we need you more than ever. Two, what would Martin Luther King Jr. do? Three, I need to know we’re not going backward. Four, I need someone to tell me what to do,’” said Alexander.
And like that, Alexander’s thoughtful, rhapsodic verse set to accomplishing these objectives, and then some. Introduced by ALA President Julie B. Todaro on Sunday as the “cool, calm, and cuddly Kwame Alexander”—a nod to the wildlife creatures featured in his latest book, Animal Ark: Celebrating Our Wild World in Poetry and Pictures (with Joel Sartore, National Geographic Children’s Books, 2017)—the author gave the audience some much-needed humor, historic perspective, and a sense of healing.
“This is not our country, I think, and yet it is,” Alexander said. “Excuse the metaphor, but remember we are the army. We overthrow ignorance with imagination, inspiration.”
Quoting Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, and a traditional Negro spiritual “that Martin Luther King, Jr., liked,” Alexander urged attendees to “remember, recognize, and resist” and stand up against the injustices of racism, sexism, and xenophobia. He recounted the impact of his dad, a school principal, taking him across the Brooklyn Bridge to march against police brutality when he was a kid, and how he took his own daughter to one of the women’s marches the day before.
Yet he also reminded us not to judge a book by its jacket—or in this case, people by their politics. “Perhaps we disagree about a fundamental thought or action, but that does not mean we have to disengage,” Alexander says. “Books themselves don’t discriminate—we do.”
Reluctant reader to renowned writer
Alexander described himself as a disinclined reader growing up. When tasked with reading Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry in school, his response was that he “didn’t care that it had a gold sticker.” Instead, poetry was the form that found its way to him.
Alexander praised the work of Nikki Giovanni, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Pablo Neruda, and suggested we should not underestimate the power of verse—even love poems—on young adults and, reflecting on personal experience, the reading and recitation they’ll do in the name of impressing their crushes and asking them to prom.
“In 15 lines, you get a beginning, middle, and end,” Alexander says, noting why verse resonates so well with the middle-grades.
Alexander’s Newbery Medal-winning book-in-verse about twins who play basketball, The Crossover, took him to a school in Lancaster, Texas. When Alexander heard that the students could not share his book fast enough—kids were raffling off their books for the next reader—he surprised the school by showing up with 150 copies. Alexander recounted his Oprah moment—“You get a book, and you get a book!”—to a laughing audience.
His career has also enabled him to do literacy advocacy in a small village in Ghana, where no girl has been to high school in 10 years. “I believe books have a job to do, and in this village in Ghana, the words planted the seeds.”
Alexander wanted attendees to see books’ power to connect us. “All the books for all the kids,” he said, maintaining that students are mostly the same everywhere when it comes to their interests and what they can relate to. “If you can’t travel, read,” he suggested.
Naturally, he ended his Q&A session with another plug for his favorite form of literature: “Poetry is the answer, whether you’re in Ghana, Pennsylvania, or the barber shop.”
Watch video from Alexander’s speech: