Newbery award winner and New York Times bestselling author

Posts tagged ‘Kwame Alexander’

When Reading Across Generations Works

A few photos for you from my wonderful time in Herndon Virginia as part of their Big Read event.  Thank you Signe Fredrich’s and all of Arts Herndon for the kind invitation!

The highlight, by far, was my time with the students – of every age. I visited Herndon High School and Herndon Elementary, plus a special off-site program that stole my heart. It’s called All Ages Read Together, which is housed at the Herndon Senior Center. It pairs senior volunteers with a group of off-the-chart adorable preschoolers. (See for yourself.) It seems like such a smart way to help little ones get ready for kindergarten, while also engaging our seniors meaningfully so that isolation doesn’t creep up on them.

I am so grateful for the welcome I received everywhere. (I’m looking at you, too, library staff at Fortnightly!) Special thanks to Julie Brunson for all the preparation she did to help bring Mango, Abuela and Me to life for both the students and the volunteers.

The students worked on parrot projects before I came to visit them.

The students worked on parrot projects before I came to visit them.

Adorable beyond belief.

Adorable beyond belief.

Kids run the range from readers, like this young lady, to children who are learning to hear the sound of their voice and the names of letters

Kids run the range from readers, like this young lady, to children who are learning to hear the sound of their voice and the names of letters

Telling us about the picture they drew of themselves and their families

Telling us about the picture they drew of themselves and their families

Just back from El Salvador, where he visited his abuela and ate pupusas!

Just back from El Salvador, where he visited his abuela and ate pupusas!

The senior volunteers who work with the children in ALL AGEES READ TOGETHER. (Lead teacher Julie Brunson second from the right, top)

The senior volunteers who work with the children in ALL AGES READ TOGETHER. (Lead teacher Julie Brunson second from the right, top)

Mango slices anyone?

Mango slices anyone?

Miss Olivia made us empanadas., just like Abuela did in the book

Miss Olivia made us empanadas. (Abuela would approve!)

And Carmine helped us label things in Spanish and English, just like in the book

And Carine helped us label things in Spanish and English, just like in the book

The beautiful students at Herndon High School, about to finish their years as ESL students. These students were funny, charming, and so sweet. Great questions about Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, which they all read in English.

The beautiful students at Herndon High School, about to finish their years as ESL students. These students had great questions about Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, which they all read in English. Such a charming and loving bunch…

It's always a party when you get to talk with Kwame Alexander, who is basically a treasure to Virginia.

It’s always a party when you get to talk with Kwame Alexander, who is basically a treasure to Virginia. (Photo by Kim Dare)


Poets, Hope, and the Writers at the Furious Flower

The Furious Flower Mirror and Windows Conference2016

The Furious Flower Mirror and Windows Conference 2016

I’m back from the Furious Flower where I had the honor of sitting in on a poetry slam as part of the Mirrors and Windows Conference.  It was a collegiate summit, so the attendees were all college undergrads and grads – MFA’ers and prospects, alongside other writers who haven’t yet identified as poets. They came from Howard University, JMU, Lincoln, Salisbury, Blue Ridge Community – all hungry for time with other young artists who have discovered the power and healing that is found inside the hard shell of poetry.

Dereck Rodriguez and Gabriel Ramirez with the fab Dr. Joanne Gabbin (photo by Tony Medina)

Dereck Rodriguez and Gabriel Ramirez with the Executive Director Dr. Joanne Gabbin (photo by Tony Medina)

It was, of course, an honor to be part of the faculty with Mahogany Brown, Tony Medina, and Kwame Alexander. But to me, the true stars of this weekend were the young poets.

The poetry slam was our culminating gathering, and it was, for me, one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve had as an author. These young scholars brought it all, and as I watched each one take a turn at the mic, I found myself hanging on words that named their experience, their fears, their strengths, their reality. Whether the poem was about turning to Payless sneakers, life with a brother suffering from mental illness or about shaming a girl who has been raped, they rang true.

I’ll tell you straight: It has been a season of despair for me as we inch toward November. The ugly, racist and bullying pitch of our presidential election has left me disgusted about what’s ahead unless we collectively step forward to change the path.

Dr. Gabbin and Tony Medina during the reading of Dr. Gabbin's picture book, Sugar Plum

Dr. Gabbin and Tony Medina during the reading of Dr. Gabbin’s picture book, Sugar Plum

But Saturday night and again at our tearful closing session, I found respite in the company of these brilliant young poets and the professors and mentors who had journeyed there with them. Their spoken performances reminded me again of the power of poetry to help us not only make sense of what we live, but also to give us a way to form a response. In their determined faces and blinding talent I saw that they already know the most important thing about art and activism: Nothing stops a poet from the truth.

I’ll end by sharing, with her permission, a poem by Howard University student Angel Dye. It was one of my favorites of the night…

Untitled, by Angel Dye

Black is the new black
The old black
Always black to black
and back to black
It’s back to that

Blacker the black the sweeter the black
Not the deeper the lack or the cheaper the crack
Not the triller the trap but the iller the rap
Not the breaking of backs or the deafening of gats
Not bruises and slaps or sippin on yac
We be so black we much more than just that

We colorfully rainbow black
“MADE WITH MELANIN” and “HANDLE WITH CARE” inscribed in our tats

What a time to be black
History, mystery, present, future, past
We be that, that brown, down, cool, classic black
When the world ends we’ll still be around after that

True black, bold black, best black, so black
Don’t try black
Suntan, cornrows, or artificial dye black
Don’t lie on black, deny black, then when it’s convenient rely on black

You gotta be born black, not just adorned in black
Beneath phenotype or “you talk white” you be black because it’s on the inside

You can’t look at black and decide that only a wide nose and naps constitute black
There’s so much more to it than that
It’s bone deep and erected in our backs

So stop trying to show you black and get to know black
Like really sow into black, grow more spiritual and soulful black
Be noble black and don’t let no one control yo black

You say you’ve met God and she’s black
Well did she tell you that every color mixed together becomes black?
You should be proud and own that: no hue gets its name without paying homage to black, and within you…
you got all of that.

To learn more about Angel and to support her work, click here.

To support the Furious Flower, click here.

With Dr. Gabbin and Karen Rich Mott

With Dr. Gabbin and Karen Rich Mott

Spend a Weekend in VA with Poets – and, um, me

A blue 1973 Camaro - like the one Pablo drives in Burn Baby Burn. Wish I had these wheels for my travels!

A blue 1973 Camaro – like the one Pablo drives in Burn Baby Burn. Wish I had these wheels for my travels!

After a long rest at home this winter, which featured DIY painting several rooms of my neglected house, I’m getting ready to hit the road with Burn Baby Burn.  I won’t be in town for the official publication date, so I guess I’ll celebrate on the move this time.

On Wednesday, March 2, I’ll drive up to Bridgewater College to visit YA literature classes that have been reading Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, and then I’ll lecture that evening at their March convocation. (Details here.) My visit is made possible by the Alison Yowell Pazmino Memorial Fund, named for a young woman who had planned to dedicate her life to teaching children with challenges.

furious-flower-logo-172x215On Thursday night, March 3, I’ll drive up the road to James Madison University for the Mirrors and Windows Conference at the Furious Flower Center, which, if you don’t know, is our country’s first academic center devoted to African American poetry. It provides education, research, and publishing to JMU and the surrounding area of Harrisonburg. As a kid lit advocate, I like that it also offers summer poetry camp for kids and opportunities for slams – among much more.

When Dr. Joanne Gabbin, the FF’s executive director, invited me last year, I was sure she’d made a mistake. Me? I write novels and picture books, with only a few poems here and there. “You’re poetic,” she said to reassure me. “I hope you’ll come.” So, here I go – honored to be included in this powerhouse faculty. 2016-featured-writers

Anyway, if you write for young people – and if you’re truly interested in developing your ear and mind around writing about diverse people, this is the conference for you. It’s inexpensive ($75 includes two poetry readings, hands-on writing workshops, and a banquet.) And more important, you’ll work closely with Newbery-award winner Kwame Alexander, Mahogany Browne, Tony Medina (no relation) and me.

Check out the site here to read about us, see what we’re teaching, and to REGISTER.  

Now I just have to figure out how to split myself so I can sit in on other people’s sessions. Hmmm…

See you on campus!

Cariños de,


DIA events rule my world this week

image001-4Ah, breakfast at home.

I’m just back from Loudoun County Public Library in Northern Virginia, where I spoke at It’s All Write, their annual short story writing contest for teens.

With Bev and Wright Horton

With Bev and Wright Horton

It’s always amazing to me how many unexpected gifts are part of these visits. I got to see the work of young people coming up the ranks – always fun. This time around, too, I learned about how Loudoun has a book club for adults with developmental disabilities. (Guess what I’m interested in starting here in Richmond?) I met librarians who are secret playwrights and novelists. I met young people who want to study children’s book illustration. And, of course, I had the honor of meeting Bev and Wright Horton, a former teacher and a geologist, who are the long time benefactors of the program that touches hundreds and hundreds of kids in their area. They do so in honor of their late son, James, who loved writing. “James would have loved this contest,” Bev told me. Personal loss redirected into something positive for a community confirmed for me AGAIN that the literary arts – the stories of all of us – are a powerful force for connection and healing.

So for all of that, thank you (camera-shy)Linda Holtslander for the invitation to Loudoun County and for the chance to spend time with the amazing people at Park View HS, Tuscarora HS, and the Rust Library.

Writing at Palm View HS!

Writing at Park View HS!

My Cuban friend - Ms. Maria Clemens.

My Cuban friend – Ms. Maria Clemens.

I don’t have too much time to savor the downtime, but it’s for a good cause. This week marks DIA (April 30) – now known as Diversity in Action, so the next few days are all about inclusive literature for me. Check out my guest post as part of the DIA blog hop, organized by Latinas for Latino Lit. All week, Latino children’s book writers will explore the theme of immersion. I got matched with atypical familia, a blog about family, culture, and disabilities. I’m a guest there today talking about language, family connection, and how that looked in my own family.

DIA UPDATED INVITE copyAt the risk of driving you crazy, here’s a reminder:  If you’re in the DC area, don’t forget that you can join me at a free symposium at the Library of Congress Young Reader’s Center. Kwame Alexander, Ellen Oh, Tim Tingle, Gigi Amateau and moderator Deb Taylor. (That’s a lot of good thinking in one room, if you ask me.) We’ll be looking at teen books and representations of family through various cultural lenses.  I like that Karen Jaffe, the head of the YRC, targeted teens in this DIA event. Typically teens get the short straw for these celebrations. They’re asked to help with the crafts for younger kids, for example. This program addresses their literature and lives directly. I’m also grateful that the panel includes authors from many vantage points talking on a universal topic, rather than strictly about diversity. In coming years, I hope we’ll see events like this repeated with more and more underrepresented voices at the table talking about all sorts of topics within the world of books and young people. Diversity means everybody and six people can’t represent every voice.

ci_logowtagFinally, I’ll wrap up  the week by driving up the road to Frederick, Maryland where  The Curious Iguana has organized a teen and diverse lit event on May 1. Look for me with my pals from We Need Diverse Books.

Ok – time to unpack, do laundry, and head out again.

Cariños de,


Five Questions for Kwame Alexander

Kwame Alexander’s latest middle grade novel, The Crossover, stole my heart this summer. It’s a novel-in-verse about two brothers – both basketball phenoms – and what threatens to pull them apart. At its heart, this powerful book is about family, young men, and the choices we make as we grow up – all all told in an irresistible, thumping  style. Kwame will be speaking at the James River Writers Conference,  which is one of my favorite conferences each year. Here Kwame joins me for a quick taste of what he’ll bring to conference-goers. We talk dialogue, why poetry makes sense for boys, and the one thing he’s learned about the writing life.


Photo by Joanna Crowell (2)1. The dialogue in He Said, She Said is absolutely amazing in evoking character. How do you go about crafting dialogue? What advice would you give writers about the line between authentic sound and going too far?

Yeah, I took some chances with the dialogue in HSSS. It took a minute to commit to the language and style of the characters, but once I did, it was ON! I work with young people, through my Book-in-a-Day program. So regularly, I am interacting with them over lunch, teaching poetry, making jokes, and eavesdropping on their conversations. I am very perceptive (and nosy), so I stole a lot of what I heard, felt, participated in. Also, I try to remember how my friends and I kicked it back in the day.

I think that when you’re writing for young people, the trick is to not TRY to write like young people, but rather, put yourself in the classroom, in the lunchroom, in that experience, and write like YOU. There’s a kid in you, just remember what made you smile, laugh, cry, ponder, wonder, wander. Be real and authentic to yourself, and the sound will come across authentic. Of course, you still gotta make it interesting, ‘cause nobody cares that you’re being authentic if you’re boring.

True story: While I was writing, I would go to urban dictionary to come up with cool, clever words to insert. When I’d go back and read it, it just sounded unreal, uncool, suspect. Eventually, I wrote what sounded good and right to me, and I went with that.

CrossoverCover2. The Crossover, your 17th book, is a novel in verse, with themes that would be strongly appealing to boys. Was writing in verse a risk in your opinion? What are the pluses of writing in verse for you? What are the challenges?

In fact, it wasn’t a risk at all. Far too often, as writers, as teachers, we fear poetry. It probably has a lot to do with the agony with which we were taught it growing up. In my opinion, it’s the easiest thing for young people, especially boys, to grasp: It’s short, it’s rhythmic, and there’s a lot of white space. The fact that it packs a lot of emotion and feeling is just the coolest byproduct. As it relates to The Crossover, I felt that poetry would mirror the energy, the movement, the pulse of a basketball game the best. Want to get reluctant engaged with reading and writing, read them Nikki Giovanni, teach them haiku, plan an open mic, let them be firsthand witnesses to the power of accessible, relatable poetry. Recently, a kid I met at a book event told me, “I opened up The Crossover, and was like, ughh, these are poems. But then, I started reading them, and I couldn’t put it down. It was like good poetry, and it told a story. The best thing ever.”


3. So often in middle grade and young adult fiction, we find parents who’ve dropped the ball (sorry for the pun). One of the things that struck me about The Crossover is that it celebrates family, including involved and loving parents. Can you tell us about that decision and why it made the most sense for you?

Hey, the first inclination was to somehow get the parents out of the story. That would have been easy, but I wanted to try something different. Once I started marinating on my childhood, my middle school years, I remembered the woes and wonders of my parentals. Of course, once I decided to keep them around, I couldn’t just have a loaded bullet in the chamber. I had to fire it. For me, the story exploded when I did this. I had so many new and exciting literary choices to make. And, that was a fun part of the writing process. I guess I tried my best to mirror the life of a middle school boy as best I could, and you can’t do that without an authentic familial environment. Oh, and also, it gave me a chance to sort of depict my family life, in particular the life of a humorous and handsome dad (smile).

4. The life lessons through basketball never feel heavy-handed. I wondered which of those lessons is the most meaningful to you?

I remember taking an advanced poetry class with Nikki Giovanni, and being told that my poetry was too didactic. That kind of stuck with me, and I’ve been very aware of those tendencies in my writing, because I am a big fan of offering meaning and messages in my writing. I mean the impetus for writing He Said She Said was really to share one BIG message (or maybe two), and it was quite challenging to make it a PART OF the story, but not THE STORY.

The beauty of poetry is that because of its conciseness, because of metaphor and simile, because of line breaks, because of rhythm and rhyme, you are generally more reflective and inspirational, and less didactic. I had so much fun writing the Basketball Rules, and my favorite is #3, the one about not allowing others expectations of you to limit your aspirations. I was taught this as a child, and I believe it now. Especially in my writing career. If I let the number of NOs, the plethora of “Your book is just not that good” emails, define me, I’d be in a not so pleasant place. I’m a Say Yes person, and that’s how I move through the world.

5. Finish this phrase for me. One thing that I’ve learned in my writing life is…

…there are going to be some NOs, perhaps many NOs (I got 29 for The Crossover alone) out there, and you’re going to be disappointed, but if you believe you’ve written a good book (and your spouse confirms this when she sees you pouting), then you’ve got to keep it moving. Know that it’s important to get all the NOs out of the way, so that the YES can get through. All it takes is one (and after 29 rejections and five years, mine came)!

Photo byJoanna Crowell7. What are you working on next?

Now I have to put my pen and paper where my mouth is. Over the next four years, I have eight books coming out. Whoa! Right now, I am working on a new novel-in-verse and a second YA novel. It’s a little overwhelming. So much so, that I called my mentor, and said, “Is there such a thing as overkill, or overexposure.” She replied, “Not for a writer, Kwame. Not for a writer.”

Oh, and recently, in the middle of all these projects, my friend Lois Bridges at Scholastic, asked me to contribute to her anthology on the Joys of Reading. My answer, of course, was YES!


ConferenceLogo2014smallerKwame Alexander will be appearing at the James River Writers Conference on Saturday, October 18, 2014. Catch his sessions on poetry and prose romance across the genres.




Legends, Hashtags &Wisdom: VA Festival of the Book

Okay, a very quick post because I am on deadline!

I spent three glorious days with my friends Kristen Swenson and A. B. Westrick in the mountains of Virginia at the 20th anniversary of the Festival of the Book.

Some highlights in pictures:


  • My school visit at Jackson-Via Elementary. Best question from a second grader: Do you make more than $30 a day?
  • Great panel about author platforms with Jane Friedman, author Gigi Amateau, and “The Book Maven” Bethanne Patrick who is behind #Friday Reads. They gave lots of definitions and practical advice on creating your overall reputation. Favorite take-away from Jane:  Building your platform takes patience and consistency. It should outlast any single book or project that you do.
  • Talking YA books for adults with old friend K.P. Madonia (Fingerprints of You) and new friend Andrew Auseon (Freak Magnet and others) at the Village School. Great reads. Put them on your list.


  • Practicing the use of hashtags with children’s lit legend Louis Lowry, Kathy Erskine and Jennifer Elvgren. I didn’t see that one coming, but you know, we’re all racing to understand this stuff! #YA, #kidlit, #canyoubelievethis?
Jennifer, Ms. Lowry, and me

Jennifer, Ms. Lowry, and me

  • Top pick of all: The joyous “homecoming panel” at the Paramount Theater on Saturday night. We were treated to an evening of conversation with (thank you God) a culturally diverse panel of writing giants – who talked about their lives as writers: Rita Mae Brown, Lee Smith, Kwame Alexander, Sonia Manzano, E. Ethelbert  Miller and  moderator Dr. Joanne Gabbin.  They were at turns hilarious, thoughtful, and tender. Overall wisdom: Say yes to your wildest literary ideas and offers.
The Homecoming Author Event

The Homecoming Author Event