Newbery Medalist Kwame Alexander is widely acclaimed for his middle-grade verse novels, The Crossover and Booked, set in the world of competitive basketball; his recent title, The Playbook: 52 Rules to Aim, Shoot, and Score in This Game Called Life, offers motivational words for success both on and off the court. But his new picture book projects mark a return to poetry. In Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets, Alexander teams up with Chris Colderley and Marjory Wentworth to form a kaleidoscopic anthology inspired by 20 of their favorite poets. In Animal Ark: Celebrating Our Wild World in Poetry and Pictures, Alexander’s poems are paired with animal photographs by Joel Sartore, crafting an ode to the animal kingdom. Fellow poet and friend Nikki Grimes, the author of One Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissance and winner of the 2017 Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal, spoke with Alexander about their shared passion for verse and for empowering young people through poetry.
Nikki Grimes: As I read your new book [The Playbook], I found myself wondering if writing is not your true vocation, but is in fact the vehicle through which your purest vocation manifests, and that is to inspire. That said, what gave you the idea for The Playbook?
Kwame Alexander: And so the conversation begins with Kwame blushing. First of all, thank you for the kind words. I suppose you’re right. I’ve always been good at reading people, and listening to people, and investing myself wholly and solely in my interaction with them. I guess you can call it charm. It made people feel acknowledged and significant. And it made me feel good, too. Earlier in my life, it was a great way to get a date. Or a job. As I got older, I began to realize that encouraging others felt really good, and I liked that feeling. The impetus for The Playbook was my desire to take ownership of that part of me that wants to encourage others, to use my charm as a way to empower young people in an intentional way. As for writing, I believe that if you want to have something authentic and powerful to write about, you have to live an authentic, empowering life. I learned that from my parents, from my mentors like Nikki Giovanni, from writers, in particular black writers, who always believed that writing is just a tool to carve out our dreams. Isn’t that what the Harlem Renaissance writers you paid tribute to in One Last Word believed?
Grimes: Indeed! And so do I. You and I are like minded, in that regard. The Harlem Renaissance poets were always writing with a larger intent than mere entertainment. Their work might have been—is— entertaining along the way, but that was never the point of the poetry. The poetry was about encouragement, about uplift, about planting seeds of hope. I am all about hope. It is the one thread I repeatedly use to stitch all my poems and stories together. Sharing that legacy of hope from the past, and glimmers of hope in the present, was the reason I wrote One Last Word. I see that thread in your work as well. That’s why we clicked when we met at ALA, a few years back. That and the whole poetry connection! You and I both know that poetry is a powerful tool for literacy, but why else do you think poetry is important for young people?
Alexander: Because it can be a bridge to help them cross over into an immediate appreciation of literature. I believe in my heart that there is beauty and magic and power in verse, and I want to empower young people. I have four books coming out next year, and they are all poetry. Every last one of them. There’s haiku and free verse and narrative. Now, I tried to write some Golden Shovel poems, but alas, I had to leave that to the masters.
Grimes: Now it’s my turn to blush! I love the Golden Shovel form, though. I find it exhilarating! I only learned the form a few years ago, when I was asked to select a line from a Gwendolyn Brooks poem and then to incorporate those words into a new poem for an anthology honoring her work. The process felt very sculptural to me, and the minute I finished the assignment, I immediately started brainstorming ideas for Golden Shovel poetry projects of my own. Right about that time, I was reading Selected Works of Georgia Douglas Johnson, and was struck—not for the first time—that few books on the Harlem Renaissance feature the amazing poetry of the women of that period. That’s when the idea hit me. What if I wrote a collection of Golden Shovel poems that highlighted Harlem Renaissance poets, women included? After that, I was off and running. I can’t wait for students to play with this form. I’ve already taught it to a few elementary and middle school students and they all had fun with it.
Alexander: So, you take one line from an existing poem and then use each word in the line as an end word in your poem, but you gotta keep the end words in order, and eureka, a Golden Shovel poem? Oh my, that sounds incredibly tedious and complex, and I’m assuming quite rewarding. How long did One Last Word take you to write? Were you working on other stuff at the same time? I’m curious about your process.
Grimes: Yes, it is, of course, tedious and complex and all of that, but ultimately gratifying. And, as such, there is no rushing the process. I worked on it over the course of maybe two years, and, as per usual, I had other projects going at the same time. I wrote Poems in the Attic during that interim and delved into a companion to Bronx Masquerade, which I’m still developing. I wrote Bedtime for Sweet Creatures and Off to See the Sea, two picture books for early readers still in production. I also began work on a second Golden Shovel manuscript, a picture book titled The Watcher, illustrated by Bryan Collier, which is in the pipeline. Part of the challenge of One Last Word was hunting down just the right poems to work with. Some of the English vocabulary and phrasing of the Harlem Renaissance writers was quite formal and, sometimes, archaic. The question became what works I could translate into language that would speak to young readers of today. I spent a good bit of time hitting my proverbial head against the wall on that one! After that, I had to figure out the story I wanted to tell, because it’s all about the story with me. Once I know the story, the poem sort of takes care of itself.
Alexander: Wait, you can’t just mention “a companion to Bronx Masquerade” and leave us hanging like that. That’s like me saying, ‘Yeah, I’m working on a sequel to The Crossover,’ and then I start talking about my shoes. Speaking of The Crossover, though, The Playbook is based on the “Basketball Rules” in The Crossover. Kids seem to really connect with the “rules for life” the father shared with his sons (e.g., if you miss enough of life’s free throws, you will pay in the end), so I thought, let me expand upon that idea. So I guess it is a sequel of sorts.
Grimes: Well, my new book is not a true sequel, because it does not follow the original cast of characters. Instead, Between the Lines introduces a new crew of personalities. Open Mic Fridays is still there, of course, and a couple of characters from the original book do show up, on occasion, but what’s completely new is the inclusion of a poetry slam. I’m having lots of fun creating that! Anyway, that’s all I’ll say, for now.
Alexander: A few years ago, I struck gold and signed four book deals during one summer. I was elated. My wife was relieved (‘No more sad Kwame’). And then I won the Newbery and I had to actually write the books. I remember Linda Sue Park telling me, don’t expect to actually write anything during your Newbery year. It was the most hectic (and awesome) year of my professional life, and the only way I was able to accomplish the audacious task of writing four books was through collaboration. I wrote The Playbook by myself, but for the other three I called on some of my brilliant writer friends. I wrote my YA novel, Solo, with Mary Rand Hess. She and I also wrote the haiku in Animal Ark. I wrote Out of Wonder (which, like your new book, is a tribute to poets who’ve inspired me) with Chris Colderley and Marjorie Wentworth, the poet laureate of South Carolina. Hey, speaking of South Carolina, do you remember when we were walking around Charleston, eating Häagen-Dazs, and brainstorming ideas on a joint project? We really gotta do that, Nikki.
Grimes: And we will! But first, I’ve got to put a couple of other projects to bed, and make a little time for my visual art again. It’s been a while since I’ve had time to play with my watercolors and collage. The visual is such an important part of who I am as an artist. One Last Word is the first book in which I’ve been able to bring my visual art into the mix, but I can't remember a time when I wasn’t making handmade books, or cards, or knitting, or making beaded jewelry. Weaving beads, or weaving words—it’s all of a piece for me. Anyway, I will make time for our project. Just be patient.
One more thing before we wrap this up: What do you hope readers will come away with after reading your newest book?
Alexander: Wait just one minute. Some of your art appears in One Last Word, along with Chris Myers and E.B. Lewis, and Shadra Strickland, and so many others?
Grimes: You missed that, huh? Yeah. It’s the illustration for “Blurred Beauty.” Scariest thing I ever did. It’s a humble offering, to be sure, but everyone has to start somewhere.
Alexander: How cool is that! Wow! I read One Last Word last year while I was in Singapore. I remember having crazy jet lag and reading it at like three a.m. one night, and just being blown away and inspired to write, and just in awe of the beauty and power of your words. I think ultimately that’s what I’d like readers to come away with after reading The Playbook: inspired to live. Inspired to say yes to the possibility of living your best life. It’d be great if they were blown away too. WOOHOO!
Grimes: I could hardly ask for more of One Last Word! If my readers walk away encouraged and inspired to dig deep, and make the most of their potential, I’ll be happy. I’ll close with one fun fact. You and I have a very special connection that we’ve never talked about: Nikki Giovanni. Nikki was the first poet I ever called friend. Back in the day, she and I shared many a stage reading our poetry on the college circuit! This was eons before I ever thought about writing books for young readers. She was a very important part of my life, and she’s an important part of yours. It’s a small world, Kwame, and I’m really glad you’re in it. It’s been a blast hanging out with you this way.
Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets by Kwame Alexander, Chris Colderley, and Marjory Wentworth, illus. by Ekua Holmes. Candlewick Press, $16.99 Mar. 14 ISBN 978-0-763-68094-7
The Playbook: 52 Rules to Aim, Shoot, and Score in This Game Called Life by Kwame Alexander, photos by Thai Neave. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $14.99 Feb. 14 ISBN 978-0-544-57097-9
One Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissance by Nikki Grimes. Bloomsbury, $18.99 Jan. 3 ISBN 978-1-619-63554-8
Animal Ark: Celebrating Our Wild World in Poetry and Pictures by Kwame Alexander with Mary Rand Hess and Deanna Nikaido, photos by Joel Sartore. National Geographic Children’s Books, $15.99 Feb. 14 ISBN 978-1-4263-2767-4