Catching up with children’s author Kwame Alexander isn’t easy. He lives at 30,000 feet these days. After playing tag to set up an interview during a week in which he traveled home from China and immediately returned to the road for book events, I get him on the phone at — of course — an airport. Fitting, since he describes the first 21 years of his career as him being a jet plane on a runway.
“With each year, each school visit, each book, I picked up speed. And then on Feb. 2, 2015, the plane took off, and I haven’t come down since,” he says.
That was the day he received a call from the Newbery Award selection committee informing him that he’d won the most prestigious honor in children’s literature for his novel about life and basketball, “The Crossover.” Alexander, 46, has been on the road constantly since, visiting schools and doing appearances around the country (and the world).
There’s no pause in sight. He will visit the L.A. Times Festival of Books as part of his tour for his latest novel, “Booked” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers: 320 pp., $16.99), out this week. “Booked” uses verse to tell the story of a young soccer player whose life suffers a major upheaval when he’s injured and his parents separate.
Writer to writer, I ask him whether he’d finished “Booked” before the Newbery or pulled off the miracle of managing to write it afterward during all that travel and under the pressure of being a newly minted award winner.
“I’m going to keep it real with you,” he says. Of course, he didn’t expect to win the Newbery, but there had been buzz that he was in the running, and it was impossible to ignore. “I had decided there was so much hype that when Feb. 2 came, I was probably going to be disappointed. I’d be in no mind-set to write a new novel any time soon, and so I need to go ahead and write the next book.” So, around 11 the night before his Newbery win was announced, Alexander finished “Booked” and pressed “Send” on an email to his editor.
“Booked” was partly inspired by a request from student players in Washington, D.C., Alexander had met on a school visit, but he is also a longtime soccer fan with a close friend who played professionally. “It’s a book about family, friendship and words,” he says. “It’s the closest I’ve ever come to writing a memoir. Looking at it, I realized there’s a lot of my life in here.”
Alexander spent the first 10 years of his life in Brooklyn. His family then moved to Virginia (where he still lives with his wife and daughters). He describes his childhood as immersed in the civil rights and black arts movements, surrounded by poets, musicians and artists. In his household, books were both “reward and punishment,” and similar to the main character of “Booked,” he was assigned readings from the encyclopedia by his dad. Then, as a student at Virginia Tech, he studied with poet Nikki Giovanni for three years.
“The first time I realized I could be a writer and what that meant was when I saw Nikki doing it, living that life.” He told her this at a dinner the night before our phone conversation, when they randomly ran into each other at a hotel in Little Rock, Ark., both there doing author events.
Turns out, his first encounter with writing for children and young adults also came courtesy of Giovanni, via a course. Alexander wasn’t interested at the time in writing for young audiences, however. He claims he got a C in the class, though he says Giovanni would debate whether she gave him that grade. (“But it was a C,” he says with a laugh.) His first 13 published books were a combination of poetry and creative nonfiction for adults.
It was ultimately family, in the form of his two daughters — at the time 15 and a newborn — who brought him to children’s literature. He was reading Jacqueline Woodson and Mo Willems, trying to understand both stages of life, to remember what it was like being a teen, being a child. During a crying baby meltdown, he resorted to putting on Ella Fitzgerald and it worked, his daughter mesmerized. He decided he wanted to write a book about jazz for kids — 2011’s “Acoustic Rooster and his Barnyard Band” — and then kept on writing books for them.
In addition to writing, Alexander is also an active proponent of young writers and literacy, not just with school visits but also through programs like Book-in-a-Day, a publishing project for students that has included hundreds of schools since 2006, and LEAP for Ghana, an international literacy project. Asked about recent conversations about increasing diversity in the children’s publishing industry, he is direct. “We are the people who can make the change, you and me,” he says. “I don’t spend my time hoping, I spend my time on the act of making change.”
It’s not just well said but also the perfect reflection for a writer always in motion. Alexander isn’t someone who sits in place, waiting. Returning to Los Angeles with “Booked,” his 21st published book, holds a special significance. His first two book signings were in the city in 1995. “So I’m really excited to come full circle and share with L.A., where I started my writerly journey.”
It’s a journey that shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.
Bond is the author most recently of the young adult novels “Girl on a Wire” and “Lois Lane: Fallout.”
Alexander will appear at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on Sunday.