“I’m floating,” Kwame Alexander said, speaking to PW from his home in Reston, Va. He admitted, however, that the night before the Newbery announcement, he couldn’t sleep. “I decided I would watch some TV, and read The Crossover again, and around 6 a.m. I went upstairs and got into bed, and at 7:16 a.m. the phone started ringing. My wife started screaming in my ear: ‘Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh!’ ” When the Newbery committee began to speak to him, “It was like I was on Mars, I didn’t understand the language they were speaking. They said ‘medal,’ and I asked, ‘Are you sure it’s not the Honor?’ It was overwhelming. I was overwhelmed with joy.”
The committee told Alexander he wasn’t to tell anyone beyond family until the big announcement; he immediately called his father, who was a pivotal figure for him, making him read the dictionary as he was growing up, and not letting him watch TV. “Today on the phone when I called him, he was over the moon. It was a really warm sort of moment, a validation for him for all the work he put into me and all the grief I gave him.” Eventually he also spoke with his editor, Margaret Raymo, and his two agents, Deborah Warren and Rubin Pfeffer. “I’ve been on the phone all day. I had a nice talk with Jackie Woodson. I’m looking forward to celebrating with her when I’m in New York next. It’s been pretty amazing.”
As one of very few African-American recipients of the award, Alexander feels a sense of honor in the historical significance of his place alongside authors Virginia Hamilton, Christopher Paul Curtis, and Mildred Taylor. “To be in that conversation with those literary stalwarts is so humbling, and so validating for your career,” he said. But most important for Alexander is the reach that the award gives to his book. The Newbery will now cast a spotlight on The Crossover, bringing it into different communities, classrooms and libraries, and ultimately support his original intention in writing it: to connect and engage with reluctant readers in an “authentically relatable” way.
The Crossover developed from a number of sources: in particular, several friends who pitched him ideas, telling him that he should write a book for reluctant readers, and maybe write it about basketball, and “since you’re a poet, maybe it should be in verse.” The winner of this year’s Coretta Scott King/Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award, librarian Deborah D. Taylor, encouraged Alexander to write about family, and in particular his relationship with his father. When Alexander sat down to write The Crossover, these ideas all influenced the story he told.
Next up for Alexander: a middle-grade novel in verse entitled Booked, due from HMH in spring 2016, about a boy who loves soccer and hates books. Also on the horizon are two picture books for HarperCollins and Candlewick. Writing across age ranges keeps Alexander energized, as does engaging with students at school visits and talks. But for Alexander, the Newbery win is a reward for the work he continues to put in daily. “I tell writers that you have to put in the work,” he said. “I’ve tried to put in the work over the past 20 years. On a superficial level the award is a recognition of the work I’ve put in. It means a great deal.”
But first, Alexander plans to celebrate. “I’ve literally been on the phone and returning emails all day,” he said. The morning of the announcement, he added, his six-year-old daughter was home from school, and as he learned the news and cheered, when she finally woke she asked: “What’s all the commotion?” Alexander and his wife told her about the award, and she responded: “Yay! Can you make my French toast now?”
“And that’s what I’ve been doing all day,” he said: taking care of his daughter and giving interviews. “I’m over the moon, but she also keeps me grounded. Tonight, I’m getting together with some writer friends and raising a glass of wine.”
To read our interview with 2015 Caldecott Medalist Dan Santat, click here.
To read our interview with 2015 Printz Medalist Jandy Nelson, click here.