Kwame Alexander is a jack of many literary trades. Besides being a publisher and a producer, Alexander is the author of more than 40 books for adults and children, including his Newbery-winning novel in verse The Crossover; it also was a finalist for the Coretta Scott King Award. His second book in the Door of No Return series, Black Star, is a novel in verse about Charley, a baseball fanatic whose skill at the game has unintended consequences in the Jim Crow South. Alexander spoke with PW about making difficult topics accessible to young readers through poetry, sports as metaphor in his writing, and his commitment to foiling the book banners and getting his books into the hands of children.

Why did you write Black Star in verse?

Since The Crossover, every novel I’ve written for middle grade readers has been in verse. It’s the way I love to tell a story. I am more comfortable writing poetry than I am writing prose. That’s the first reason: it’s my style, it’s my thing, it’s my vibe. The second reason is that whenever I am writing about something really heavy, which is most of the time, I find that poetry is a way that makes it digestible for young readers. When I was writing The Door of No Return and Black Star, I used my daughter as a litmus test. How can I write this book in a way that is honest and truthful, and do it in the heavy, dramatic, and traumatic way in which it happened in this country and still not devastate my child? I wanted her to be informed and inspired and uplifted and not be totally wrecked. I find poetry to be a way to do that, to talk about heavy things, and to do it in a way that it’s palatable.

Why did you make the main character, Charley, a female?

I’ve never written a female main character in any of my books. I’ve had girls in my novels who are pretty fundamental to the story, like Roxie in Rebound. I really thought that it’s about time for me to write a fully developed girl who has a story to tell. When I started thinking about the women I grew up with—my mother, two sisters, my aunt, and my grandmother—I certainly had relationships to girls and to the women in my life. I wanted to utilize that and write from that. But the biggest thing was what I received in my fan mail from a fifth grader in Santa Monica [Calif.]. This girl said that she’d read all my books, she loved them, but she had a bone to pick with me: why didn’t I ever write a main character who was a girl? It was time for me to do that. It was challenging, but so rewarding.

Nana says to Charley in one of the last scenes, “One day you will have a grandchild, and you will tell her this story of how you survived, how you thrived, and that story will protect her.” How do you feel that telling a story that begins with such an elegiac tone but ends in terror will protect readers, especially Black readers?

That’s the beauty of it: we’re still here. We not only survived the Middle Passage, we not only survived slavery, we not only survived Jim Crow, we not only survived lynchings—we thrived. We’re still here and, ultimately, that’s the message in this series. We’ve been through the woe, but at the end of it, there’s going to be some wonder; we made it, we’re still here. And our children are here, and their children, and their children’s children will be. That’s what it’s all about.

Sports is a common theme in your children’s books. Why did you use baseball to tell this story?

Baseball is an American pastime, traditionally considered as Americana. I’m looking at a part of American history that we often don’t hear about. I find it a nice juxtaposition to talk about this great American sport and this not so beautiful part of American history and put them together. I’ve written about basketball a lot, but I had only touched on baseball a little bit [in previous works]. This time, I really wanted to explore baseball and talk about it because I love sports as a metaphor, and I think kids can learn a lot from that.

The sexism in the aftermath of the baseball game was quite explicit. Was that intentional on your part, that Willie was blamed for something that Charley actually had done?

When you look at the history of how Black boys and Black men have been treated in this country... from police brutality, to lynching, to murder, we need to be able to say, you know what, this happened. These are the origins of it, and it’s not right, it’s not fair. It had a devastating impact on children, on families, on whole communities. I love to teach things through writing. I love when you’re learning without knowing you’re learning.

Are you concerned that those who would deny the truth of African American history will try to ban this book as it brings up a past that some would rather be forgotten?

I’m never concerned about whether my books are going to be banned, but I’m going to talk about it in my speech at ALA. Several of my books have been banned. The Undefeated was banned, American Story was banned. I make sure I do everything I can to get books into the hands of children, everywhere and anywhere. I acknowledge that this book might be challenged or banned; I recognize that, but I don’t think about it; that’s not my interest. My focus is that Black Star gets into the hands of as many kids as possible.

Black Star is the second book in a trilogy. What can you tell us about the next volume?

Either I don’t know, or I’m just not telling y’all, because you gotta wait. I try to end each book with a cliffhanger, so you want to find out what happened. I will say this: in book three, you will find out what happened. And I’m going to bring some closure, because, presumably, this is the last book in the trilogy.

Kwame Alexander is an ALA featured speaker; he will appear on the main stage in Ballroom 20 at the San Diego Convention Center, on Saturday, June 29, 1:00 p.m.–2:00 p.m. PST.

Black Star by Kwame Alexander. Little, Brown, $17.99 Sept. 24, ISBN 978-0-31-644259-6