RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Kwame Alexander writes books that bends genres, novels about middle school boys that are written in verse. His last book "The Crossover" won the Newbery Award for children's literature.
His new book is another group of poems. It is called "Booked." The narrator is a 12-year-old boy named Nick. Nick loves soccer. Nick hates book. But there's a reason for that.
KWAME ALEXANDER: He hates books because his father makes him read the dictionary every day.
ALEXANDER: I tell people this...
MARTIN: He's an academic. His dad's an academic.
ALEXANDER: His dad is a linguistic anthropologist.
And I think - you know, this is probably the most autobiographical of all the books that I've written because growing up, my father, you know, when I didn't know what a word meant, he'd say go look it up. And he forced me to read the encyclopedia.
MARTIN: OK. He is forced to read encyclopedias - dictionaries. He's forced to read dictionaries, so he's got a love-hate relationship with words.
Let's have you read one of these poems. This is one of the introductory poems at the very beginning of the book. This one is called "In The Elementary School Spelling Bee".
ALEXANDER: (Reading) In the elementary school spelling bee, when you intentionally misspelled heifer, he almost had a cow. You're the only kid on your block, at school, in the entire freaking world who lives in a prison - of words. He calls it the pursuit of excellence. You call it Shawshank. And even though your mother forbids you to say it, the truth is you hate words.
MARTIN: So you say this is the most autobiographical part of this book. Did you - I mean, did you hate words when you were growing up?
ALEXANDER: Well, so I loved words. I loved books from the time I was born until I was about 10 or 11. My parents read to me. We read together. I was taken to poetry readings. And so I remember being immersed in language and literature and loving it. And somewhere around 10 or 11, when my father began to make me read these huge, educational and historical tomes - that he had written...
ALEXANDER: I sort of fell out of love with books because I was being forced to read books that I did not enjoy - that I was not interested in. And so you know, sort of my love affair with literature - it was gone around fifth - sixth grade.
MARTIN: In the story, though, things start to unravel at home. And that's what a lot of the book is about - is Nick kind of grappling with the eminent separation of his parents. And there is this poem that I just thought - man, this is something that would exist in an adult collection of poetry. It just hits you in the gut. And this is as Nick is realizing that his mom is going to go. His mom is going to leave.
ALEXANDER: Yeah. And I think, you know, the power of poetry, Rachel, is that you can sort of take these emotionally heavy moments in our lives and you can distill them into these palatable - into these digestible words and lines and phrases that allow us to be able to deal and cope with the world. That's what I think with the power of poetry is, especially when it comes to being able to get young people to become engaged in literature.
I say use poetry because it reaches us on such an emotional level. And it uses so few words to say, you know, so very much. And I - it's one of the reasons why I love writing novels in verse. And I think it's one of the reasons why young people love reading novels in verse is because, on a very concrete level, it's - well, it's not that many words. So it's not intimidating to me. There's so much white space.
And on a very abstract level - well, what's the white space for? And I remember one kid telling me it's for the imagination. It's for the spiritual journey that the reader takes. And I think kids get into it.
MARTIN: A kid told you that?
ALEXANDER: Yeah. Isn't that cool?
MARTIN: That's pretty cool.
ALEXANDER: I know. That's what I'm - I tell teachers all the time - you want kids to get excited and engage with language and literature? Use poetry. It is a surefire way.
MARTIN: Obviously, this guy's got a really rich interior life, right? Like, this is a young man. He's doing a lot of thinking. And we think of that a lot in literature, YA stuff, in relationship to girls. What is interesting to you about this age of boy?
ALEXANDER: Well, it's a good question. I think the first obvious sort of answer to that is I'm a boy.
MARTIN: You were one of these creatures. See, it's more exotic and interesting to me because I'm a girl...
MARTIN: ...Looking at it, like, whoa, boys.
ALEXANDER: I know. I know. And I was that boy who was in touch with his emotional side, and I had a lot of friends who were. And I think boys - we get a bad rap.
ALEXANDER: I mean, I think I wanted to sort of shine light on this reality that boys in general - black boys, in particular, we smile. We laugh. We love. We cry. We hope. We think like everyone else. And I think that it's important for us to know it and to feel - and to feel OK about it as boys. And it's important and imperative for people, you know, who are looking at us - who are interacting with us to know that as well - that we are - you know, we are - we are human. And I tried to really make sure that in "The Crossover," with Josh and JB, I did that. And it was important that I did that with Nick because again, Rachel, you know, I'm writing from this space of, you know, what I would have wanted to have her read as a 12-year-old, as a boy and the kind of boy that I was. And this was me.
I think that so often we think of boys as just wanting to be a part of sports. But when you get on a sports team - when you really get in that huddle and you get on the court with these boys or you get on the pitch, it's all about family and friendship and love and rivalry. And it's extremely emotional. And so if those kind of things are happening then, as writers, I find that it's my responsibility and it's our responsibility as writers and artists to help create those moments in the literature, in the art to showcase that - those vulnerabilities and those sensitivities because they are happening. And so let's just keep it real.
MARTIN: You said that you wish that you had had these kind of books when you were growing up and that there has been this big vacuum when it comes to children's literature, young adult literature that gives a fully multidimensional representation of what it's like to be a young person, especially a young person of color. Do you think it's getting better? I mean, you've been part of this very public conversation for a while about diversity in literature. Is it improving?
ALEXANDER: Yeah. It's always - it's improving. And here's how I know it's improving. It's improving because it's not on someone besides you and I, Rachel, for it to improve. It's on us. And so for things to improve, we have to act on it and move on those kinds of things that we feel are going to ensure that it improves. And so I don't spend a whole lot of time trying to worry or wonder or hope that things are going to get better. I spent a lot of time making things better.
And so yes, it's always improving for me. I'm the say-yes guy. I'm already sort of at this place where I see what's possible in terms of diverse literature because that's where my head is. And so if other people aren't in tune to it - I think Nikki Giovanni had this one quote. She said I write what I want. I write what I like. I'm going to dance naked on the floor. And if you don't like it, you can go home. If you can't handle it, you can go home.
And to a certain degree, that's how I feel. I'm going to write what I want to write. I'm going to write about who I want to write. I'm going to write windows. I'm going to right mirrors. I'm going to write books that are going to elevate and empower young people to help them become more human. And ultimately, yes, I'm going to write because I think that things are improving because I have a role to play in that. And so - at such point when I believe that things aren't improving, it's going to be at a point when I'm not doing what I have to do.
MARTIN: Kwame Alexander's new book is called "Booked." He joined us from the studios of Iowa Public Radio.
Kwame, thank you so much for talking with us.
ALEXANDER: Thank you for having me.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: WEEKEND EDITION is a production of NPR News, which is solely responsible for its content. To find out more about the books and authors you hear on NPR's programs, go to npr.org/books. There, you'll find author interviews, NPR's best-seller list and find out what our staff is reading.
MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.