“Despite our differences and our individual struggles and successes in life, music is the universal language,” says Kwame Alexander. “It can be the thread that connects us all.” Music is the catalyst for Alexander’s new YA novel-in-verse, Solo (Harper/Blink, Aug.), cowritten with his close friend, collaborator, and poet, Mary Rand Hess. “It’s a love letter to rock and roll music,” he explains. “It’s a tribute, an ode to my teenage years and how music was the thing that sort of helped me stay sane and really got me on a journey to understanding myself a little better.”
Blade, the teenage protagonist of Solo, is on a path to self-acceptance, too. He’s a talented musician in his own right, but is living in the shadow of his famous rock star dad, who is battling addiction. The other curve balls in Blade’s life include the loss of his mother several years earlier, a recent romantic heartbreak, and a newly revealed family secret. “He’s in an uphill battle trying to find himself,” says Alexander, “and the journey he’s on takes him from Hollywood across the world to Ghana, to a whole other culture where he’s able to begin to understand his place in the world.”
Alexander says he wanted to include Ghana in Solo because the country is near to his heart. He has been traveling there for the past five years to work on a literacy initiative he cofounded to help students and teachers, and to build a library in the village of Konko, in the eastern region of the country. “I have spent so much time there, I wanted to write about that experience,” he adds.
Alexander shares his passion for Blade’s story with Hess. The pair had previously teamed up for a picture book (Animal Ark, National Geographic) and are in the same writing group. “We are both hopeful romantics who are in love with love, and we consider ourselves to be huge poetry enthusiasts,” says Alexander.
Alexander and Hess recently finished a first draft of their second YA novel, Swing, which will also be published by Blink. “We pay homage to jazz and baseball—two of the greatest things ever created by Americans,” says Alexander. “Swing is a hybrid of verse, poems, epistolary, and some prose—and it moves between a contemporary setting and the 1930s.” Alexander has also completed Rebound, a prequel novel-in-verse to his Newbery-winning The Crossover (HMH, April 2018.
Alexander and his writing group colleagues are headed to Ghana for a summer retreat. “It’s interesting that during the last week of July, we’ll be in Ghana cutting the ribbon on the new library and brainstorming ideas for our future projects, and when we return from doing all that, Solo will be published,” Alexander says. “It’s a wonderful time for the book and for us.” And the author is in the process of building a writing studio, which, he explains, “I’ve built to the specifications that will allow all of us to be able to be in there, have our space, and enjoy our writing group in the truest sense of the word.”
Today, 11 a.m.–noon. Kwame Alexander and Mary Rand Hess will sign ARCs of Solo in the Autographing Area, at Table 3.