Kwame Alexander’s How to Read a Book had a rather circuitous, and fittingly literacy-centric, journey from conception to the printed page. His celebration of reading began as a poem commissioned by the international literary organization LitWorld, for its annual World Read Aloud Day, but instead found a home on a poster promoting the ALA’s National Library Week, before becoming a picture book. Due out from HarperCollins next June, How to Read a Book is illustrated by Melissa Sweet, whose cover art is revealed here for the first time.
“Pam Allyn of LitWorld asked me to write a poem some years back, and since I’m obsessive about such commissions, I wrote three,” the 2015 Newbery-winning author of The Crossover said of the book’s genesis. “Pam chose one of my other poems to use for National Read Aloud Day, but since I loved this poem, which speaks to the joy, power, and imagination that comes with the reading of a book, I sent it to a librarian friend, and it ended up on a poster celebrating National Library Week. When I sent the poster to some of my friends, including Nikki Giovanni, they loved it too, and I decided to expand the poem to give it a little more narrative—and develop it into a picture book.”
Jessica MacLeish, an editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books (who took over as editor of How to Read a Book after the book’s acquiring editor, Phoebe Yeh, left the house in 2013), underscored the value of the far-reaching appreciation for reading that the book encompasses. “Kwame’s poem takes the reader on a sensory journey through reading, which I think captures the reading experience in a special, unique, and appreciative way,” she said. “I hope that’s what young readers take away from the book, the idea that reading can involve all senses, if you use your imagination—that plus an appreciation for poetry and language.”
Sweet, who has won two Caldecott Honors (for A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams by Jen Bryant, in 2009; and The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus, also by Bryant, in 2015, was immediately drawn to Alexander’s narrative—and its potential. “What I read was a poem that could be expanded into a series of vignettes that could go any which way,” she recalled. “I loved that Kwame’s text allows for such a wide interpretation, and that it captures so well that experience all of us have had when we hold a book in our hands that consumes us in one way or another and feels so right at the moment. It might be as simple as a poem or as layered as a novel—the emotions we feel can be equally intense. I had never read anything quite like How to Read a Book.”
Creatively Filling in the Blanks
Sweet soon discovered that a manuscript that is wide open to interpretation presents considerable challenges. “This was proof positive that one’s last book does not illustrate the next!,” she said. “All the work that I’d done up to this moment may have prepared me for this project, but it didn’t solve the issue of how I was going to do it and how to express the moments experienced by the children in the book.”
The artist noted that she found her creative path for the book by experimenting with typeface (much of the text is hand-lettered), design (she and art director Dana Fritts, to whom Sweet dedicates the book, opted to include a gatefold and a die-cut rather than adapting the accordion-style format Sweet initially envisioned); and color (employing a six-color process let the illustrator use neon pink and orange and “go a little wild”).
Alexander said he savored the fruits of Sweet’s experimentation. “I didn’t want the art to be a literal interpretation of the story,” he said. “Rather I wanted it to relay what is not already on the page—to fill that white space with another poem—and Melissa did just that. She brought a vision to the story that very few illustrators could bring. She is a genius and it is an honor to work with her.”
MacLeish emphasized the complementary nature of the author and the artist’s contributions to the book, noting, “Melissa’s artwork invokes imagination and, like Kwame’s text, stimulates the senses. Her style is colorful, evocative, and wildly imaginative, and her work also expresses a sense of movement that, in this case, carries the reader through the journey of reading, just as Kwame’s poem does.”
And much as the openness of Alexander’s poem inspired Sweet’s visual take on his words, their text and pictures together encourage creative reading on the part of kids. “Isn’t that what a good book is supposed to do?” the author asked. “To engage, electrify, and allow for individual interpretation, depending on who’s reading it? It’s about that experience of being transformed and being transported. It’s a roller coaster ride through one’s imagination. It’s about discovering the joy of reading—how you get there and where you go with it is totally up to you.”
How to Read a Book by Kwame Alexander, illus. by Melissa Sweet. HarperCollins, $17.99 June 2019 ISBN 978-0-06-230781-1