Follett and Newbery Medal-winning author Kwame Alexander are teaming up for a new literacy effort called All Books for All Kids, with the goal of ensuring that children have access to a wide range of books from a broad spectrum of voices. The campaign officially kicks off Saturday, October 13, at a special event in Miami, where Alexander is on tour promoting his latest book co-authored with Mary Rand Hess, Swing (Blink, Oct).
In his role with All Books for All Kids, Alexander will curate a collection of books—a mix of his own titles and those of new authors and illustrators—that will be displayed on an endcap at Follett Book Fairs, a business that Follett launched in October 2017. Alexander’s curated booklists will also be featured in Titlewave, Follett’s collection development/ordering tool. “I’m a big believer that children need to be able to see themselves in their books and they need to be able to see their friends in their books,” Alexander said. “It’s one thing for us to wonder how adults become who they are when sometimes they are not as empathetic or connected as they need to be. It’s another thing for us to realize that perhaps we can impact children in a way that they become kind, caring, compassionate, empathetic, connected people, and that starts with books. But kids need to have access to all kinds of books, that don’t just reflect who they are, but reflect who we are. I’m excited that we get to start that in earnest and see if this ambitious idea, that we want to create kids that are going to imagine a better world, can actually happen. I believe it can.”
Additionally, Alexander will be a judge for the 2019 Follett Challenge, which begins this month and is the company’s annual advocacy contest rewarding schools and districts that have instituted innovative educational programs that teach essential 21st-century skills to students. The winning school is set to receive a visit from Alexander, who will also be appearing at some Follett Book Fairs around the country, beginning in November.
This new partnership comes on the heels of Alexander’s launch of his Versify imprint at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers. Similar in mission to All Books for All Kids, Alexander’s Versify list, debuting in spring 2019, will reflect his vision “that accessible and powerful prose and poetry—in picture books, novels, and nonfiction—can celebrate the lives and reflect the possibilities of all children,” according to a statement from HMH.
Alexander found a comfortable fit with Follett, having recently worked with the company at several educational events it sponsored, including a reading summit last year. “There were a couple hundred librarians in the audience and I got to share with them my love of reading and my theory that poetry can transform student lives,” he recalled. “We’ve done these one-off events and along the way Matt Follett [sales leader, Follett Virtual Campus] and I said maybe there’s a way to make this relationship more formal. Our missions align; we want to create a campaign or a platform that gets kids excited about reading. And from there it was just a matter of figuring out what that relationship would look like.”
But it was the ramp-up of Follett Book Fairs that proved to be the catalyst for cementing the deal. “I visited 150 schools last year,” Alexander said. “I’m interacting with teachers and kids and librarians every day sharing my passion for books. Follett’s going into schools, I’m going into schools. We can share this message together.”
Britten Follett, senior v-p of marketing for Follett School Solutions, believes that her company’s and Alexander’s goals are well matched. “Every kid needs to have the opportunity to discover what life is like beyond their own four walls,” she said. “And Kwame’s really working to do that through his Versify imprint and through his own books. He talks quite in depth about the choice to have a silhouetted figure on the cover of his Newbery-winning book The Crossover because he didn’t want kids to not pick it up because the figure on the cover might not look like them. That really resonated with us. We said, ‘We need to make sure that kids don’t shy away from that content but they embrace it because it provides a perspective about the world around them that they wouldn’t already have.’ ”
Follett said that there is no timeline for the All Books for All Kids campaign, or for Alexander’s role. In the future, she noted, “We’re going to be looking to work with other authors along these same lines because it’s essential that there are multiple voices all talking about this topic. This is the beginning of a conversation about inclusivity in general.”
Though his passion is running high for this latest endeavor, Alexander is especially looking forward to the announcement for All Books for All Kids for what he describes as a slightly more “superficial” reason, too: it will take place at a big yacht party. “I’ve always wanted to have a yacht party,” he said with a laugh, “and so I’m celebrating my birthday, and celebrating this partnership with a bunch of librarians and teachers and writer friends like Edwidge Danticat, and some of our Versify team. We’re going to celebrate our love of books and our mission to change the world one word at a time.”