The highlight of day two of this year’s virtual Children’s Institute (CI8) had to be the freewheeling conversation between Newbery Medal recipients Kwame Alexander and Jerry Craft, sandwiched between indieCommerce/IndieLite one-on-one appointments and rep pick presentations.
Not only did the conversation between the two authors, who are both African American, demonstrate once again the American Booksellers Association’s commitment to diversity in its programming for this year's gathering, but the event—streamed live Thursday morning, with an encore at the conclusion of the conference that afternoon—also proved that both Alexander and Craft are natural storytellers both on and off the page.
The 60-minute conversation began with the two swapping stories about their creative processes: while Craft works at night, Alexander writes during the day.
“You're like a vampire painter, aren’t you?” Alexander asked Craft, who responded by telling a story about how his nocturnal work habits are probably the result of his father working the night shift at the post office during his childhood. “I was used to waiting till he was gone to get up and do stuff," Craft recalled.
Whereas the pandemic has not really changed Craft’s processes—though he has missed out on canceled appearances, including the Newbery awards ceremony in Chicago that the ALA called off —being quarantined has had a significant impact on Alexander.
“I tell people that I’m living a writer’s dream in the midst of a nightmare,” Alexander said. “I have nothing but time and solitude. I’ve done some of my most productive, some of my best writing during this quarantine.”
The conversation shifted to a discussion about indie bookstores after Alexander asked Craft to name three indie bookstores that he remembered from the 1990s. The first store, Craft responded, was Hue-Man Bookstore in Harlem—which was where, he reminded Alexander, the two first met in 2012. “Marva Allen was the owner,” Craft said, recalling that years earlier, he'd met Allen when he was self-publishing, and dropped in to persuade her to take a chance on him. “I had one book on the shelf, then two books on the shelf, then three books on the shelf. My goal was to have a whole Jerry Craft bookshelf.”
“You and I met because we got invited to do a Skype session to kids in Ghana. Remember that?” Craft asked. “We finished that, and we ended up talking, exchanging numbers. I remember thinking, ‘That young man, he is going places. He’s got moxie.’ ” Alexander did not only remember that day, he recalled Hue-Man’s early history in Denver, before it changed ownership and moved to New York City. He also disclosed that he sold his first picture book, Acoustic Rooster and His Barnyard Band, to Sleeping Bear Press that same day, describing Craft as his “good luck charm.”
“I’m like the walking dictionary of bookselling,” Alexander added.
Craft’s second bookstore that he remembered from the '90s was Nkuru Books in Brooklyn, which was owned at the time by the mother of “either Talib Kweli or Mos Def.” Both rappers worked at the store. Craft recalled that his Mama Boyz comic strip that was compiled into book format featured a woman who owned a bookstore; her two sons worked there.
“Talib and [another store employee] thought that they were Tyrell and Yusuf [the lead character’s two sons],” Craft said, saying that he didn’t realize until years later that Kweli and Mos Def had become famous rappers.
“What booksellers need to know, need to remember is that bookstores are sacred places, that can really help mold and shape us into beautiful human beings," Alexander said. "Teachers and educators have that power; booksellers have that power too. You open us up to these worlds that we had no idea existed.”
Craft noted that his third favorite bookstore from the '90s was Black Books Plus on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He visited the owner, Glenderlyn Johnson, to show her his self-published books. At first, Johnson was reluctant to examine at his books, but once she did, she was impressed. “Once she saw that it was professionally bound, edited, with an ISBN, then she became very supportive. We had nice conversations over the years,” Craft said.
At this point in the conversation, Craft and Alexander discussed Craft’s commitment to dispelling stereotypes about Black women in his work, which is why his main character in Mama’s Boyz was a bookseller. “A lot of times, Black women, in books, in movies, in sitcoms, are school teachers or nurses," he said. "There’s nothing wrong with that, but I wanted something different. I’ve always respected booksellers, I based a comic strip after them.”
Recollections of Becoming a Booklover
The conversation turned to Alexander and Craft describing their childhood memories of books and how each became readers—and eventually writers.
Alexander grew up with a bookseller father who specialized in selling books by Black authors; he worked for his father from about ages five through 12, shelving books. “I loathed books," he said, recalling how the family would accompany his father to shows and conferences all over the world, including the London Book Fair in the mid '80s, when they transferred a dozen boxes of books from Heathrow Airport to the exhibition hall via the London Underground.
"While I was an avid reader, my father forced me to read books," he said of his youth. "I didn't necessarily like the books my father gave me. I sort of fell out of love with reading." But he "fell back in love" with books, when he discovered The Greatest: My Own Story by Muhammad Ali: “I realized I just have to find my way to the books I enjoy.”
"I grew up in a book desert," Craft recalled, describing how intimidating it was to visit his local library as a child. “Reading was always a chore,” he said, because the only opportunities he had to read were in classes when “nothing would depress me more than getting a book in English class that was 600 pages long. It was like I had to climb Mt. Everest.”
"I never saw books with Black characters that were not runaway slaves, [in the] Civil Rights movement, or persecuted," he continued, "and those weren't fun. Kids now have you, and Jason Reynolds, and graphic novels.”
"What's interesting," Alexander pointed out, regarding Craft's experience of not seeing himself in books as a child, "is that those books were out there. They were there. There were so many books with Black characters during the '70s, [after] the Civil Rights movement, the Black Power movement.”
He added, “You had this plethora of books that featured Black characters, but you wouldn't know about it if your teacher or librarian or even your local bookseller wasn't putting these books up front making sure [readers] were aware. That's why booksellers are so important."
Craft admitted to not knowing much about contemporary Black literature until he himself was a published author, recounting how he once had breakfast with Walter Dean Myers and Jacqueline Woodson during a literary festival, but didn’t know who they were until later. “I would have treated that breakfast differently if I had known,” he said with a laugh.
After the two swapped anecdotes about their historic Newbery Medal wins (there have been only five African American Newbery Medal recipients) and that famous early morning phone call to each from the Newbery committee, Alexander pointed out that “words are powerful and meaningful, [and] allow us to imagine a better world,” adding that he tries to keep that in mind when he writes.
Alexander concluded a conversation that shifted back and forth seamlessly between the intense and the whimsical by asking Craft: "What do you think the role is of books and bookselling in this day and age when we’re looking at the awakening of racial injustice?" Craft replied: "I enjoy seeing the variety of books that I didn’t see as a kid. I really do believe now there are no non-readers or reluctant readers: there are just kids who haven't found their book.”
Rattling off the names of some of the most critically acclaimed contemporary authors writing today who are people of color, Craft noted: “There are so many different kinds of books and different kinds of authors coming out." What booksellers and librarians need to do, he suggested, is "really know the kid and match that kid with that book.”
Craft concluded the conversation with a final shoutout to booksellers, declaring: “I realize how important booksellers are, because [books] really change people’s lives.”