Tag Archives: Kwame Alexander

Solo, by Kwame Alexander, with Mary Rand Hess

SoloBlade Morrison is the son of an aging rocker, living a privileged, unhappy life with his father and sister after his mother died. His dad continues his destructive habits well past the age of coolness, showing up now and then with young bimbos on his arm, and Blade’s sister seems obliviously happy to follow in his footsteps. Even though Blade pours his heart into song lyrics and finds comfort in his guitar, he struggles to lead a normal life, excelling in academics and crushing on the flirty but distant Chapel.

When a stunning revelation spins Blade into crisis mode, he boards a plane to Ghana in search of the missing pieces in his puzzle. In Africa, he finds staggering poverty, beautiful friends, and a distrust of Westerners who swoop in to save them, leaving them worse off than before. However, music is a universal language that stays with Blade in more ways than he expected, and although loving people sometimes makes life painful, it’s the only thing that makes it worthwhile.

Kwame Alexander and fans

Kwame Alexander and fans at SLJ’s Day of Dialog 2017

Kwame Alexander is a poet and author who completely smashes the moody, depressed stereotype. He’s one of the friendliest and kindest writers I’ve met, always ready to chat and joke while signing books. This verse novel is his first work to be published by Zondervan’s Blink imprint, and the proceeds help support LEAP for Ghana, a literacy project he co-founded six years ago. I was privileged to hear him read from this latest book at SLJ’s Day of Dialog in New York a couple of weeks ago. I’ve reviewed many of Alexander’s books on this site, including the Newbery-winning Crossover, and I’d say that he is an absolute “must-read” author for all kids. Solo is another triumph for teens twelve and up. Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book, signed (Yay!) by the author. The release date is August 1, so pre-order or put your library requests in now! Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Out of Wonder, by Kwame Alexander

Out of WonderKwame Alexander is a poet, and I am not. Not that I don’t love poetry, but I am just distressingly left-brained. A mystical friend of mine once visited us when we lived in Kentucky. She walked out my back door, took in the spectacular view, flung out her arms, and made up a poem on the spot. I was awestruck—first, because she could put words together so beautifully, and second, because she had the chutzpah to say them right out loud.

Mr. Alexander and his co-authors, Chris Colderley and Marjorie Wentworth, can put some words together, as well. In this volume, they have chosen some of their favorite poets, and, as an homage, created new poems in each poet’s style. Some are poets you know from school: Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson. Others may be new to you:  Okot p’Bitek or Chief Dan George. Although it is a delightful treat to see how these writers have replicated their heroes’ styles, the new poems are luminous in themselves. One of my favorites is Marjorie Wentworth’s offering in the style of Mary Oliver. Here is the first verse:

Each day I walk out
onto the damp grass
before the sun has spoken,
because I love the world
and the miracle of morning.  (p. 24)

Can’t you just feel the dew on your feet?

Ekua Holmes has filled the volume with bold, earth-toned paintings. At the end of the book, there is a short bio for each of the featured poets– home educators and teachers, take note! There are such riches here for mining. Your students could read the original poets, then the Out of Wonder verses. What did the new poet see that made him write his poem as he did? Of course, the next part is having your kids write their own poetry. Some are ancient poets—history! Some are from far-flung parts of the globe—geography!

This is one of the many new titles out from Kwame Alexander. He is a Renaissance man! Be sure that your children make his acquaintance soon.

Very highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Booked, by Kwame Alexander

bookedKwame Alexander won the Newbery Medal in 2015 for his earlier novel, The Crossover, about twin boys who love basketball. His new novel in verse, Booked, is about twelve-year-old Nick, who is crazy about soccer. Nick’s parents both love him, but they’re not sure that they still love each other, and his mom is away a lot with her work. His dad, a linguistics professor, is passionate about Nick’s education, and is forcing him to read the entire dictionary! Besides wrestling with his parents’ expectations, Nick is struggling with bullying at school. His best moments come when he is on the soccer field, winning games and practicing the moves that he hopes will impress April, who seems quite willing to be impressed.

Alexander has accomplished seemingly impossible feats in these two novels. First of all, he has written realistic novels that boys actually enjoy! So many books for boys at this middle-school level are fantasies, since the most avid readers at this age devour enormous sci-fi fantasies one after the other. This is just a small minority of kids, though, who are doing most of the reading, so enticing reluctant readers with the realistic stories that they prefer shows that Mr. Alexander knows kids and wants to give them stories that resonate in their lives. Secondly, the fact that these stories are written in verse is stunning. Imagine reluctant readers loving poetry for fun! The free verse sets the pace for the meaning, with long lines for emotional passages and short, zippy lines that fly down the page for soccer scenes and breezy reading. The chapters often read like rap songs, bopping along to a beat.

Kwame Alexander hug

BEA 2016. I swear that I don’t give Kwame great reviews just because we are such good buds.

Finally, though, Alexander joins a small group of new authors speaking in a voice that has long been missing from African-American children’s writers: the average, middle-class, twenty-first century kid. So many African-American children’s books are depressingly didactic. It’s not that they’re not high quality; some great works of literature reside on these shelves. However, most books written for or about African-American children take place during the time of slavery, the Civil War, or the Civil Rights era. Contemporary stories often deal with troubled inner cities, drug addiction, or gangs. All of these topics are important and need to be remembered or addressed, but we all need a broader view of this community, and especially of young, black men. If those of us who are not African-American only hear of them as “troubled youth,” we will continue to view them suspiciously as “Other.” And in the meantime, what the twelve-year-old African-American boy down the street is really worrying about is whether he’ll pass Friday’s math test or whether his parents will get a divorce. Just the usual stuff of life: school, sports, girls, parents. Just like everybody else. Because, really, isn’t that enough for a kid to handle?

It’s this deep understanding of kids’ lives, what worries them and what thrills them, that makes Kwame Alexander’s novels appeal to all kinds of kids everywhere. And if they come away with a fascination for poetry, even better!

Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Book Expo 2016

 

BEA vendor hall

Just a Tiny Corner of the Vendor Hall

Vast spaces with advertising banners flapping overhead, thousands of vendors tastefully hawking books and book-related technology, and many more thousands of women and men setting up appointments with their chiropractors on their cellphones as they juggle canvas bags of heavy books that they couldn’t resist adding to the piles of unread galleys they already have at home: it’s another Book Expo America.

BEA venueMcCormick Place in Chicago—the West Building, specifically—hosted us this year as we attended excellent sessions with esoteric names such as “Innovation in Children’s Publishing” and “The Story Starts Here: Humor Edition” while navigating escalators and paying outrageous amounts of money for water. BEA started as a conference for publishers and booksellers, particularly for the adult market. However, over the years they seem to be catching on to the fact that libraries spend a lot of money on books, and that the children’s market—especially the exploding YA segment—can be lucrative, too. Two years ago, in New York, there were just a few valuable events for me, but this year, I had a hard time getting to the vendor floor between sessions, although two exceptional events were added the very week before the conference.

Kwame Alexander hug

Kwame and me: we’re best buds.

By the late afternoon on Thursday, the day after the Day of Dialog and Children’s Author Dinner, I was beginning to flag. I had been rained on during the river architecture tour in the morning, had attended several good sessions at McCormick Place and had even done a conquering tour of the vendor floor. Somewhere along the way, I got wrapped up in a bear hug by the amazing Kwame Alexander, Newbery-winning author of Crossover. He’s expanded to picture books now! At the end of the day, the thought of walking across the indoor bridge to the Hyatt Regency for Scholastic’s Picture Book Event was daunting, but I figured I could nurse my blisters later. I’m so glad I made the effort! Three outstanding authors and illustrators greeted us there: David Shannon, Tom Lichtenheld, and Kate Beaton. All of these are much-loved authors, and you can imagine how much fun picture book folks would be.

Picture Book Panel

Kate Beaton, David Shannon, and Tom Lichtenheld

There were musical numbers with audience participation, reader’s theater, and hilarious slide shows. We received galleys of Shannon’s new Duck on a Tractor, Lichtenheld’s Groovy Joe: Ice Cream & Dinosaurs, and Beaton’s King Baby. I had to laugh when Kate Beaton talked about the stages of life on Facebook: you go for years in college when you have nothing but pictures of young adults partying, etc. Then suddenly, your friends get married and their posts are nothing but baby pictures, and you roll your eyes in disgust. Then your sister has a baby, and your Facebook page is nothing but baby pictures, too—but nobody else’s baby is as cute or smart as yours. They left us with terrific gifts, including a signed and illustrated print of all three book covers in a wooden frame, which is now hanging near my desk.

Thursday evening was all about the Sourcebooks cocktail party in the Hancock Tower that I wrote about in my first Chicago blog, so it was serious work, of course.

Torch Against the NightFriday started early, back at McCormick Place for the Children’s Author Breakfast. Let me just state here that the fees for the meals at BEA must go to the speakers, because the menus are a low-carber’s nightmare. Mini-bagels, sweet breads, and fruit. I had had some yogurt back at the hotel, just in case, so I started off this breakfast by popping the top off the coffee carafe and pouring it all over the tablecloth, my purse, and my slacks. I did manage to miss my colleague, thank goodness. The day did improve. Jamie Lee Curtis, who is one of the few celebrities to write children’s books that are truly literary, hosted a panel that included Dav Pilkey, Sabaa Tahir, and Gene Luen Yang, all of whom are brilliant and gave fascinating speeches. Ms. Curtis shared with the audience that her severely challenged son, who is now twenty, could not read until he met Captain Underpants, and so now she has a soft place in her heart for Dav Pilkey. She choked up, they embraced, and the audience wept and had more coffee. Ms. Tahir spun stories of her childhood as a bullied Muslim girl growing up in the American western desert, where her father owned a hotel. I achieved my objective of acquiring an additional copy of the much-anticipated A Torch Against the Night for a certain teen girl that I know who passionately adored Tahir’s debut, An Ember in the Ashes. Gene Luen Yang gave a rousing speech as this year’s National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, encouraging us to read outside of our comfort zones. I agree with him that our entire world would be a more peaceful place if we lived inside one another’s stories for a while and broadened our worldviews. In all, this author’s breakfast encapsulated the heart of children’s literature: innocence, suffering, laughter, and compassion.

After meeting a favorite author by chance on the vendor floor, sharing stories at a session with the Unshelved guys and other librarians, and setting up a shipping box to send all of my loot home ahead of me, I went to the ABA-CBC Children’s Author Speed Dating Lunch, and this, as mentioned in my last post, is where I geeked out. Here is how author speed dating works: all the participants are assigned to a numbered table, and the authors move from table to table, pitching their latest works for five minutes until the bell rings and they move to the next table and start again. Often, the authors are fairly new or even debut authors. It’s fun, and the tables are piled high with gift copies of their books, just in case you haven’t set up that appointment with your chiropractor yet.

David Arnold.jpg

David Arnold

I had never eaten a meal during speed dating before, and it was tricky. You can’t put food in your mouth while the author is talking, since that seems rude, so you’re stuffing forkfuls of salad in while they walk to the next table. Our second author had just sat down and was plunging into his spiel in a panicked manner, since he had just realized at his first table that the bell rings far too soon. Something he said made me think, “Oh, my gosh, is this…?” as I craned my neck to see his nametag while frantically trying to swallow my lettuce. Then I blurted out, “Oh, my gosh, are you David Arnold?” He stopped talking and nodded, wide-eyed, as if caught in the act of being himself. “Oh, I just loved Mosquitoland so much and forced so many people to read it!” KidsLogoORIGINALFILEI gestured to his new book, Kids of Appetite, and he started talking again. At the end, I asked him if he was signing galleys and got all the info about where he would be. In the meantime, the very dignified woman to my right took over all author comments, since I’m sure she was convinced that I could not behave in a professional manner. This turned out to be a good thing, since I could not say a word later when Arthur A. Levine, a publisher himself, sat down to talk about his new book, What a Beautiful Morning. I could not help crying the whole time, which made him tear up, so the woman on my right was probably in despair that our entire table would be disgraced. This luncheon turned out to be much more wonderful than I expected, so Friday was becoming an excellent day.

Kids of AppetiteAfter this event, I hauled my armloads of books up two flights and immediately got in line at the Penguin booth to get David Arnold to sign Kids of Appetite. There was another line for Sabaa Tahir, but when asked if I wanted to join it, I said, “Oh, I’ve already seen her” in a lofty manner and went to Arnold’s line. I was probably the oldest person in either line, but I probably spend more money on books than any of them, so I felt justified. When I got to the front, he remembered me from the luncheon, since I was so memorable to all the witnesses, and he asked me if I wanted the book to be personalized. I said, “Hey, I did not walk all this way and stand in a line for just a signature!” So he very nicely wrote a bit in it. (I have already finished this book and will post a review later. Hint: thumbs up.)

Maggie Stiefvater

Maggie Stiefvater

The very last session I attended at BEA was the APA Audio Authors’ Tea. Do you know what they served at this tea? Tea. Lipton’s. Regular or decaf. There were also some cookies that I ignored, but seriously, Lipton’s? When I went to Orlando for the Baker & Taylor Vendor Summit, they had a glorious selection of teas set out all the time between sessions. Here, I actually paid for the session and got Lipton’s. Oh, well, I really paid for the event because it featured (drumroll…) Maggie Stiefvater! There were others, too, of course: Terry McMillan, John Scalzi, and Michael Koryta, so no small potatoes. All were great, and discussed the special considerations that go into making recordings of books, which I have found fascinating since touring the Recorded Books studio a couple of years ago in New York. Maggie looks like a character in one of her books, and I hung on her every word. I am so glad that I was able to finish The Raven King—the last of the “Raven Cycle”— before seeing her, and I can’t wait to see what this amazingly creative author serves up next.

And that was it! I shipped off my box of goodies and joined my group of colleagues and my husband for that boisterous final meal of octopus that I wrote about in my first Chicago post. I was able to meet so many of my favorite authors, confer with other professionals, and continue to increase my respect for hardworking publisher reps, and throughout the week, several themes seemed to come to the forefront over and over again. I hope to write about those in a later post.

Thanks to all who made Book Expo America possible!

__________________

The very sophisticated photos of David Arnold and Maggie Stiefvater are from Google searches, probably by very expensive professional photographers. The photo of Kwame Alexander and me is from Baker & Taylor’s Facebook page, courtesy of Jill Faherty of Baker & Taylor’s Children and Teen Services.

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The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander

CrossoverJosh and Jordan are eighth-grade basketball stars. Twin sons of a million dollar basketball legend, their lives revolve around games and practicing for games. Lay-ups, free throws, and crossovers, the boys’ dad keeps them on it, while their mom—who is also the school principal— makes sure that they keep up their grades.

One day, the guys find a document that reveals the reason that their dad quit playing years ago, and it helps them to understand why their mom is so upset that he won’t take care of himself now. When Jordan gets a girlfriend, Josh loses his best friend, and with his parents’ secretive whispering, he feels very alone. He continues to excel in school and stay committed to the team, but inside, his world is falling apart.

Written in verse that reads like rap, Kwame Alexander has crafted a novel that will resonate with sports-loving boys. Quick, powerful, and relevant, this is a great read for even reluctant middle-school readers. I particularly enjoyed the fact that the main character is academically gifted as well as athletic. Alexander explores adolescent changes through a loving family and the closest sibling relationship possible.

Although sports stories are not my usual taste, the ALA Youth Media Awards are coming up in a few days, and this one is getting lots of buzz. Furthermore, I enjoyed Kwame Alexander’s remarks on diversity in children’s literature at the SLJ Day of Dialog in New York last May. So glad I read this novel; it was well worth it. Recommended.

Update February 2, 2015— It’s a winner! The Crossover just won the ALA’s Newbery Award for most distinguished contribution to children’s literature. Congratulations, Kwame Alexander!

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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