“The mind of an adult begins in the imagination of a child,” said Newbery Medalist Kwame Alexander in his keynote address during the U.S. Book Show on Thursday, May 26. “If you want to create more empathetic human beings, then I believe we’ve got to put books in the hands of children that are going to expand their way of thinking. That are going to expand how they view other people who don’t live like them. Ultimately, it’s going to help us all become better human beings.”

Alexander is the bestselling author of 35 books, including The Undefeated, Booked, Rebound, Solo, and Swing. He spoke with fellow author Lev Grossman (The Golden Swift, Little, Brown) from New Orleans, where the Disney+ series based on his Newbery-winning book The Crossover is currently being filmed.

The focus of their conversation was the fall release of Alexander’s new middle grade novel, The Door of No Return (Little, Brown). This historical novel in verse tackles the turbulent period of the transatlantic slave trade from the perspective of a 12-year-old boy living in what is now Ghana. Alexander said that throughout the process of writing the book, he wondered if the material would be too heavy for young readers. He described the book’s interplay of “wonder and woe, triumph and tragedy” as an unprecedented challenge for him as a writer. “We often think of Black history here in America as the beginning,” he said. “I posit that it’s the middle. With The Door of No Return, I wanted to refashion what the beginning was for students, for teachers, for parents, for readers—for us. Let’s change the narrative so that we can have an understanding of the real roots of this tree.”

Alexander writes both picture books and novels in poetry and verse. Poetry, chants, songs, and rhyme were the original forms of stories, he said, through which important messages were handed down through generations. Poetry “allows me to talk about really heavy, expansive things in a few words,” he explained. That economy of words and immediacy magnifies the emotional impact on the reader. An expanse of text and a lengthy book can be intimidating to kids, he noted; but a novel in verse allows a child to take in the pages and the whole book quickly. “It builds confidence in young readers,” he said.

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The Door of No Return is scheduled for September 27. Set in 19th-century Ghana, it tells the story of 11-year-old Kofi, who lives in the village of Upper Kwanta. Kofi is an ordinary boy who loves swimming, hates yams, and dreams of future glory in an upcoming village wrestling competition. Beyond his village, forces are at work that will change his world forever. He finds himself caught between his community’s traditions and the dark clouds of the future gathering on the horizon. By focusing on the aspects of Kofi’s life that “any kid can connect and relate to,” Alexander said, he is able to take young readers “out of that normal, accessible, comfortable place” to “a very uncomfortable place” in which they can open their hearts and minds.

Alexander has made 11 trips to Ghana in the past decade, and has built a library and a health center in the country’s Eastern Region. He visited the Elmina Castle, the country’s infamous “slave castle” seven times. The portal through which enslaved people passed on the way to the ships gave his new book its title: the door of no return. Those visits “inadvertently” became research: Alexander said that at some point during his many journeys to Ghana, he realized, “I’ve got to write a story” exploring the tragic history of this vibrant culture and the people who experienced the brutality of the slave trade.

The book was the most emotionally difficult he’s ever written, Alexander said. “It’s hard to talk about the book even now because of how heavy, how weighted it is.” At times it felt like “pushing water uphill with a rake,” he recalled. This novel took longer to write than his other books, he said, in part because writing such tough material required being in a certain uncomfortable frame of mind.

I believe in the power of hope and dreaming a world and saying yes.

The Door of No Return is planned as a trilogy. “It’s sort of my Hunger Games,” Alexander said. Readers will be able to follow the characters through their world. “Some may not make it.” But in confronting one of history’s most tragic chapters, the author hopes that readers will also recognize the resilience of individuals and communities that lived through it, giving them “a whole new level of understanding of the humanity of Black people. Black people need to be reminded of that. White people need to be told that. I felt like it was my job to do it.”

Ultimately, the author described himself as “a hope person. I believe in the power of hope and dreaming a world and saying yes. I want to write books that instill that and inspire that in kids.”