Newbery Winner Kwame Alexander Visits Village School in Pacific Palisades

By Sue Pascoe

Kwame Alexander, the entertaining winner of the 2015 John Newbery Medal, visited Village School on Sept. 28.

Alexander won the award, which recognizes the year’s “most distinguished contribution to American literature for children,” with his book The Crossover.

“They [Newbery officials] called me at 7:16 a.m.,” Alexander told the News. “I was speechless; I didn’t have a whole lot to say.”

The Crossover, for 9- to 12-year-olds, is about basketball-playing twins, who are also successful students because their mother, an educator, demands that of her sons. The twins’ father was a basketball player, but achieved his success overseas. One twin starts to fall for a girl, the father has health problems, and the other twin finds himself lost amidst change.

One of the most interesting aspects about this juvenile fiction is that the chapters are short and written in verse.

Newbery Medal winner Kwame Alexander kept Village School students captivated with his latest picture book, Surf’s Up.
Newbery Medal winner Kwame Alexander kept Village School students captivated with his latest picture book, Surf’s Up.

On his website, the author was asked why he used poetry to tell a story.

“I felt that poetry would mirror the energy, the movement, the pulse of a basketball game the best,” Alexander wrote. “I’ve always thought that if you want to get reluctant readers engaged with literature, start with poetry. 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.’”

Alexander’s poetry is certainly accessible in The Crossover—the story takes main stage and doesn’t let the reader go.

During the assembly at Village School, Alexander asked the students, “All of the [poetry books] have lots of white space. Does anyone know what the white space is?”

The kids seemed mystified until Alexander explained, “White space is for you to imagine what is there.”

First, he read his latest picture book, Surf ’s Up, with the youngest students. The book about two frogs, Bro and Dude, kept the kids absolutely captivated as they repeated key phrases after Alexander.

Then he taught the kids to count to 10 in Swahili, using rhyme. Starting with “moja is one, we are the sun,” and ending with “tisa is nine, you are fine and kumi is 10, we won’t say that again.”

With the older kids, Alexander spoke about The Crossover and his latest book Booked, about a boy who loves soccer but hates to read books.

The kids wanted to know if Alexander played basketball or soccer? “Tennis,” he told them.

He took questions from the students, who wanted to know when he first got interested in writing books.

“I was 12 and I wrote a poem for my mother on Mother’s Day.” His mother, Barbara, was a professor at City College in New York, and his father, Dr. E. Curtis, was a writer.

“I loved books; I was inspired by them,” said Alexander, who attended public and private schools in New York City. At Virginia Tech, he wanted to become a doctor, but after taking organic chemistry, “I wanted to be a writer.”

His first of 21 published books, Just Us, was a collection of love poems for adults in 1994. He eventually transitioned to children’s literature, and The Crossover was published in 2014.

About receiving the Newbery Medal, “It changed my life forever,” Alexander said simply.

He was asked how one can get the reluctant reader to dive into literature. “Books are like an amusement park; you’ve got to let the kids choose the ride,” said Alexander, who lives in Virginia and has been on the road since April, speaking at schools and conferences.

Each year, Alexander leads a delegation of writers, educators and activists to Ghana as part of LEAP for Ghana, an international literacy program he co-founded that builds libraries and provides professional development for teachers.

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