Kwame Alexander: 2016 National Book Festival


>>From the Library of
Congress, in Washington DC>>Mark Sweeney: Well good
morning everyone and welcome to the Folk Festival, a session
that’s devoted to teen readers. I’m Mark Sweeney, the Associate
Librarian for Library Services at the Library of Congress. We want to thank the Co-Chairman
of the festival, David Rubenstein, and the many book festive sponsors
that have made this event possible in 2016, and those that have
supported us over these many years. You can support the festival
with a gift or donation by checking the information in the
festival program or on our app. We welcome the help in making
this festival a success next year and every year. The festival would not be
possible without our sponsors and book lovers like you. Now if you would please quite
your cell phones, the question and answer will follow the author’s
presentation and please be aware that we’re filming the
event for our archive. Today it’s my privilege to
introduce Kwame Alexander, one of the nation’s
most dynamic writers, who has achieved particular
distinction with books that he’s written that have
transformed reluctant readers into enthusiastic readers. Last year at this festival he talked about his best-selling
book Crossover, for which he won the
Newberry Medal in 2015. He also told us stories
about the ups and downs of his literary career, and the
power of a personal philosophy that had say yes at its core. Just as stereotypes are
attached to librarians, and I’m sure you know most of
them, there are also stereotypes that are pinned to writers. One is that writers are solitary,
they work alone, you know, up in the Garrett, and
prefer to be alone. But as many of you already
know, this doesn’t apply to Kwame Alexander in
any way, shape or form. Writing while cooper up in
a Garrett, certainly not. He talks about writing while
sitting at a table in the middle of his favorite Panera Bakery. Prefer to be alone? I don’t think you can
say that about a person who in 2016 alone has spoken at over
101 different events in schools, libraries, conferences and
festivals in 21 states, the District of Columbia and China. Passionate, honest and engaging,
Kwame is a marvelous advocate for literature and language who has
the unique ability to use poetry and prose to connect
with audiences in ways that are truly transformative. I know that because I have
three songs, and it works. I am sure most of you
who love to read can talk about a particular experience,
mostly early in our lives, that caused us to flip
the switch with respect to our positive interest in reading. For me as a boy, that experience
was hearing my father’s enthusiastic quotes and reading aloud from the
passages of Robert Lewis Stevenson. For many of today’s young people,
that kind of switch is provided by Kwame Alexander’s books. Following the great success of his
book Crossover, he will tell us about his latest book titled Booked. It’s described as verse
novel with a 12 year old boy as the central character. It deals with such topics as soccer,
girls, friendships and divorce. I’ll note, too, that one of the
main characters is a charismatic school librarian. So, very good. Kwame will be signing copies of
Booked today from 12:30 to 1:30 and it will be in line
five downstairs. So please join me in
welcoming Kwame Alexander back to the National Book Festival. [ Applause ]>>Kwame Alexander: Hello.>>Hi.>>Kwame Alexander: Any
third graders out here? Let me hear you say yeah.>>Yeah. [ Laughter ]>>Kwame Alexander: Fourth graders?>>Yeah.>>Kwame Alexander:
Fifth graders, uh huh?>>Yeah.>>Kwame Alexander: Oh. Okay, okay. This is good. What a pleasure. What an honor to be invited back. I’ve been writing books
for 23 years. I started in Arlington
Virginia and I’ve always wanted to come to this festival. And so to be coming two years in a row is really
something pretty special. The times that we’re in right now
are certainly challenging and tough. And I thought well, how do I come
up here and begin this presentation with you know, sort
of paying respect to what’s going on in our world. As artists, we are not
separate, you know, from what’s happening in our world. We are inspired by it and
sometimes we are saddened by it and even that causes inspiration. And so I thought about
this idea of silence and that sometimes
silence is about not trying to say the things we
know we need to say. And silence is also about
running out of things to say. And I think, you know, I
was in the car with my kid and we were listening to
MPR, and she says, you know, and this is the problem,
which we all love MPR, but this is the problem
with listening to MPR when you’ve got a third
grader in the car. Because you know, like a week
later she says dad, you know, we’re driving to school,
she says slow down. And I say why? You’re speeding. And I’m like I’m only
going one mile over. She says but you might
get stopped by the police. And so how do you answer that? It’s tough. You answer it with silence. What do you say? I was being interviewed at the
International Literacy Association in Boston and this kid named, I
believe his name was Jack, or Adam, Jack or Adam, and he says to me,
we’ll call him Jadam [phonetic]. He says to me, he says Mr., he
interviews me, 12 year old kid, he’s interviewing me and he says
Mr. Alexander my last question. With all the things
happening in this world, what can we as kids
do to help you all? Why should a kid have
to ask that question? And how do you answer that question? And again you find yourself silent. And so this whole notion of
being silent is, it can’t work. We need to figure out what
some of these answers are. So that our children aren’t
put in those situations and having to ask those questions. We’ve got to speak up. We’ve got to find our voice. And I think you know, children, you
know, how do they find their voice? And of course it’s
through the language, it’s through the literature. It’s through, you know, the books. That’s how they can
find their voice. And that’s why, you know, so many
of these books are important for us. You all are probably wondering why
do I have Carl Hiaasen up here? Yo, his books are hilarious
for kids, and they deal with these
amazing environmental issues, so when we talk about saving the
world and protecting young men and sort of the, and
saving the world emotionally and intellectually, we also take
about saving the physical world, and he’s dealing with a lot
of environmental issues. And so, you know, we have to
learn, so from our history and from our past, and I
think books are the answer. Or books are an answer, I
don’t know they’re the answer, but they are definitely an answer. And I think there’s so many
wonderful books out here. Especially this one. [ Laughter and Applause ]>>Kwame Alexander:
That was smooth, right? [ Laughter and Applause ]>>Kwame Alexander: So my
editor, Margaret Raymo is here, from Houghton Mifflin,
and she’s often asked me, Kwame why are you always, you
know, do you have daddy issues? Because you’re always writing
about your, you’re always writing about boys and fathers
in your books. And of course, my father, he comes
at it from another point of view, he says when are you going
to pay me my royalties? My father made me read the
encyclopedia growing up, he made me read Funk and Wagnalls. You got it from Safeway for free if
you had the reward points, right? And so I really, I think
Booked is not an autobiography but it’s certainly
like autobiographical. And I really wanted
to talk about that. And so I decided to write a book
about a boy who loved soccer. You’re pumped. The match is tied. At the end of extra
time, players gather at center circle for the coin toss. You call tails and win. Real Madrid scores the first goal. Ours bounces off the left post. They make the next two in a row. We make three. The score is three, three. Your turn to rev the engine. Turn on the jets. Score and you win. Teammates lock arms
for the final kick. The crowd roars, screams your name. Nick Hall. Nick Hall. Nick Hall. Like a greyhound coursing game could
you take are from 12 yards out? Winding for the kill. But right before the winning kick of
your Barcelona debut, your teacher, Ms. Hardwick, streaks across
the field, in her heels, and purple polyester dress, yelling
Nicholas Hall, pay attention!>>Kwame Alexander: The thing
about daydreaming in class, is you forget what was happening
just before 90,000 fans started cheering you to victory. So everything blurs when your
best friend whispers from behind. I think she’s talking to you, bro. And your teacher slams
you with a question that makes absolutely no sense. The expression to nip something in the bud is an example
of what, Nicholas? Uh. To nip it in the butt. Is an example of how to
get slapped by a girl. I wanted to write a book
about a boy who loved soccer and likes a girl named April. At Ms. Quattlebaum’s school of
ballroom dance and etiquette, the boys must address
the girls as m’lady. M’lady may I take your coat? M’lady may I please have this dance? M’lday, sorry my hands are clammy. After you learn how to
properly shake hands, Quattlebaum chooses dance partners. When she gets to you,
there are two girls left. April and a girl with
chronic halitosis. Guess which one you get? I wanted to write a book
about a boy who loves soccer, likes a girl named April and
unfortunately, is getting bullied. [ Laughter ]>>Kwame Alexander:
That was interesting. I wanted to write a book about
a boy who is getting bullied. Dean and Don Egglesten are pit
bull mean eighth grade tyrants with beards. They used to play with you
and Kobe until they got kicked out of the league for
literally tackling opponents and then, get this, biting them. I wanted to write a book
about a boy who loves soccer, likes a girl named
April, is getting bullied and unfortunately hates books. Why couldn’t your dad be a
musician like Jimmy Leon’s dad? Or better yet, own an
oil company like Kobe’s? Better yet, why couldn’t he be
a cool detective driving a sleek silver convertible sports car
like Will Smith in Bad Boys? Instead your dad’s a
linguistics professor. With chronic verbal mania
as evidence by the fact that he actually wrote a
dictionary called Weird and Wonderful Words with,
get this, foot notes. Verbal mania, known, a
crazed obsession for words. Every freaking day I have
to read his dictionary which has freaking foot notes. It’s absurd to me. Kind of like ordering a glass of
chocolate milk and then asking for a side of chocolate syrup. Seriously, who does that? In the elementary school
spelling bee, when you intentionally misspelled
heffer, he almost had a cow. You’re the only kid on your block
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. So I want to write a book
about a boy who loves soccer, likes a girl named April, is getting
bullied and he hates words and books until he meets the
coolest librarian ever. [ Laughter and Applause ]>>Kwame Alexander:
And this librarian is so cool that he actually raps. The Mac drinks tea
in a dragonfly mug, on the library floor
is a dragonfly rug. The door is covered in
dragonfly pics cuz skip to the Mac is dragonfly sick. Sometimes I wear a dragonfly hat that dragonfly this
and dragonfly that. Dragonfly this and dragonfly that. Dragonfly this and dragonfly that. Dragonfly this and dragonfly that. Around my room are drangonfly clocks but please don’t touch
my dragonfly socks. [ Laughter ]>>Kwame Alexander: Socks. Socks. Box y’all, box. Around my room are dragonfly clocks but please don’t touch
my dragonfly box. Skip McDonald. The Mac is a corny joke cracking
seven foot bowling fanatic who wears funny t-shirts like I
like big books and I cannot lie. [ Laughter and Applause ]>>Kwame Alexander: He used to be a
rap producer but now he only listens to elevator music because he
says that hip hop is dead. When I ask him who killed it he
says ringtones and objectification. Reason number one why he left
the music business at age 29 to become, get this, a librarian. Reason number two is the brain
surgery he had two years ago that left him with a scar
that runs across his head from his left ear to his right. But he’s the coolest
adult in our school and to prove it he’s
got a Grammy award for best rap song sitting right
at check out in plain view for everyone to see and touch. Plus he’s won teacher
of the year more times than Brazil has won The World Cup. So when he gets all geeked
about his book club or breaks into some random rap in the
middle of a conversation, most people just smile or clap because we’re all just happy
the Mac is still alive. I wanted to write a book
about a boy who loves soccer, likes a girl named
April, is getting bullied, hates words because he’s
being forced to read books that he doesn’t want to read,
including his father’s dictionary, and his life completely changes when the things he hates
become the things he loves because there are adults in his life
who remind him and remind each other that sometimes it’s not about
teaching the curriculum, it’s about teaching the child. [ Applause ]>>Kwame Alexander: Because
he has an adult in his life, a librarian who understands that all
children need to have an opportunity to open a world of possible. Because there is an adult
in his life who understands that books are amusement
parks and sometimes kids need to be able to choose the rides. Because he understands that
we’ve got to know our children so that we can allow them
to imagine a better world. We have to expose them to all
kinds of literature to Mac Madena to Pam Munoz Ryan to Jason
Reynolds to Carl Hiassen, I mean, we’ve got to expose all
kids to all literature. I’ll be on my soap box you all. You all give it up
for Randy Preston. [ Applause ]>>Kwame Alexander: My favorite part
of these presentations is to be able to answer questions, especially
from some of the young people. So we have a few minutes left. Let’s do a quick Q and A. Can
the lights come up a little bit?>>There are microphones
at the front, just please ask your
questions for the microphone. [ Background Noise ]>>Kwame Alexander: Has anybody
read Booked and Crossover? Sweet. Sweet. Any sixth graders who have
read Booked and Crossover? You have. Excellent. Any sixth graders from Virginia
who have read Booked and Crossover? Back here? You have? Alright. Stand up. [ Applause ]>>Kwame Alexander: Alright. Question?>>I’m not a young person. I’m a 52 year old eighth grade
English teacher from Lamb County. And your books are one of the most
popular books in our classroom. I am a co-teacher, so I
teach special education. And you definitely are
getting the reluctant readers. I want to thank you. Because some of our students last
year Tweeted you about the book as they were reading,
and especially one child, that hadn’t read a book all year. And when you liked his
Tweet, he finished it.>>Oh good. [ Applause ]>>And so I also follow you so
I know you re-Tweet and Tweet and so we appreciate that. I also want to thank you for
the work that you’re doing with Cornelius Minor with
the Columbia Teachers College and we are you know, we’re
trying to make a difference. We’re trying to help that silence.>>Kwame Alexander: Thank you,
I love those kinds of questions. Thank you so much. Thank you.>>Hi. I’m a school
librarian actually, at a small boarding
school in Virginia. A little hamlet called Mouth
of Wilson, Oak Hill Academy. And we are known for our basketball. And we have quite a few students
who do come because of basketball and because of Crossover I’ve
gotten some reluctant readers who haven’t read a book in such a
long time, and they’re 16 years old and picking it up for
the first time. So thank you for Crossover
and now for Booked, because we also have some
kids who like soccer as well. So I just want to thank
you very much for all the work you
have been doing.>>Kwame Alexander: Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Kwame Alexander: If I could
just say something, in book, the character Nick Hall,
the teachers and so forth, probably think he’s
a reluctant reader. And just like the teachers
thought I was a reluctant reader. But by age 11, I had read, my
father made me read Pedagogy of the Oppressed. By Paulo Freire. And so I was not only
well read, but I was like, I was reading college text. And so it wasn’t that
I was reluctant, which is why I am a
little weary of that word, it’s that I wasn’t interested in
the books that were being given. And so I think, we’ve got to be
careful about how we label children. Because these labels will
carry through them in life. [ Applause ]>>Kwame Alexander: You all didn’t
know you were getting a lecture. Yes.>>Do you find it easier to write
in verse than to not write in verse?>>Kwame Alexander: Oh yes, I do
find it easier to write in verse. It’s certainly a challenge to be
able to say so much in so few words, but I’ve been writing
poetry for so long, and doing it professionally
for 23 years. And I started right
here in Arlington, Virginia when I was trying
to court my wife who’s here. And the way I courted her was I
wrote her a poem a day for a year. Yup. And I can embarrass
her with a poem right now. No, there’s too many kids here.>>Are you working on
any new books right now?>>Kwame Alexander: Am I working
on any new books right now? Oh, I love that question. [ Silence ]>>Kwame Alexander: Yes,
I don’t really even need to say anything about that. It’s just wild. This is a book called Out of
Wonder, Poems Celebrating Poets and it’s a collection of poems
and illustrations by Ekua Holmes who just won a Caldecott Honor,
and that comes out in March. This is a book of poems that I wrote
with some friends to photographs of endangered animals
from around the world. And it was a partnership
with National Geographic and it comes out on Valentine’s Day. If you read The Crossover,
you will know that there are a lot
of basketball rules. If you miss enough of life’s free
throws you will pay in the end. The father gives the son these
basketball rules for life. Well I decided to do a whole
book of basketball rules. And it comes out on
Valentine’s Day as well and it’s called The Playbook. So thank you for that question. Yes?>>We’re from Julius West Middle
School, and we have two questions. One, are there any
authors who inspired you? And two, do you have any
advice for younger writers?>>Kwame Alexander:
For young writers. So yes. Nicki Giovanni was
my professor in college and she inspired me and
continues to inspire me. I read a lot Langston Hughes. And do I have any advice
for students who want to write and who are writing? And for adults who want to
live and who are living? I do. [ Laughter and Applause ]>>Kwame Alexander: Say yes. I believe you have
to say yes to life. You have to say yes
to what’s possible. And the way you learn what’s
possible is by reading and exposing yourself to
all the wonderful things that are possible for
you in this world. So say yes. No, say yes, say yes.>>Hi. Thanks so much
for being here today. Oh the microphone is
shorter than I am. I’m the librarian at T C Williams
High School in Alexandria.>>Kwame Alexander: Yes.>>Titans.>>Kwame Alexander: Yes.>>I love, I loved
Crossover and I loved Booked. And I’m going to tell
you something very sad but I think it’s an important
conversation we have to have. I can’t move your book. I cannot get kids to
read your books. And I think, I’m having this
conversation with fellow educators, this idea of Cadence and
how do we teach students, they don’t hear their own
voice when they’re reading. We have gotten to such a scripted
reading program in this country that we don’t teach kids how
to hear themselves and how to hear inflections and how to hear the things they need
to be hearing in a book. What are we doing? And how do we move forward and
teach kids to hear their voices so they can enjoy books like yours?>>Kwame Alexander: So I have
never heard that comment before.>>It is the most>>Kwame Alexander: Wow,
that is astonishing. So tell me this, do
you teach high school?>>Yes, it’s high school. I’m in grades 10 through
12, and I will say>>Kwame Alexander: Okay.>>We have a large
international academy. About 1,000 of our 3,000 students
at my campus are all coming from different countries. 144 different languages represented. That may have something to do with
it, but those aren’t just the kids that I can’t get the
book their hands.>>Kwame Alexander: Sure.>>And it’s that, I don’t think
the content is interesting, I really think they look at your
book and they can’t decode it.>>Kwame Alexander:
So here’s the thing, I don’t even know how
to answer that. But I will say this. What came to mind is, that in my
travels to 177 schools last year, the comments that I heard from
teachers and librarians, were this. Because it’s poetry, because it has
so much white space, these kids, the ones who are avid, the
ones who are not engaged, are reading your book and
are doing it in one day. I just met a kid who came up here and said I read your
book in one day. And so, I think, this
is me guessing. I write for ages 9 to 12. These are middle grade novels. And so certainly I think that
adults and some older people, some older students have enjoyed
the books and been able to connect with them, and been able
to resonate with them, but I think maybe the appeal of
it, it’s not there for high school. Or maybe it needs to be book
talked in a different way.>>Your accompanying
music today helped.>>Kwame Alexander:
Josh Bell is my name but Filthy McNasty
is my claim to fame. Folks call me that
because my game’s a claim, so down right dirty
it will put you to>>Shame.>>Kwame Alexander: My hair
is long, my height’s tall, see I’m next Steph
Currey LeBron and Chris.>>Hall.>>Kwame Alexander: Remember the
greats my dad likes to gloat, I ball with Magic and the goat. But tricks for kids, I reply. Don’t need your pets,
my game’s so fly. Mom says, your dad’s old school. Like an old Chevette, you’re fresh
and new, like a red Corvette. Your game’s so sweet it’s crepe
suzette, each time you play it’s all>>Net.>>Kwame Alexander: If anyone
else called me fresh and sweet, I’d burn that as a flame,
but I know she’s only talking about my game, see. When I play ball, I’m on fire. When I shoot, I inspire. The hoop’s for sale and I’m the>>[inaudible]>>Kwame Alexander: I think
maybe sometimes we’ve got to book talk these books in
different ways for different ages and just like all of
you all participated, I think maybe the high
school students might.>>I Tweeted that you>>Kwame Alexander: But that’d
be the only answer that I have. But thank you for that question. Wow. I’m going to think about that.>>I Tweeted at you today. Hit me back and let’s get
you to T C. Read aloud. Thanks.>>Hello.>>Kwame Alexander: Hello.>>Alright, so. I’m going to right off the
bat, I have never heard of these books before in my life. And as soon as I heard
the description I’m like, oh my God I need to buy these books
and put them in my school’s library because there are some kids at
my school who need to read it. Who need to get this. Because I’m a very avid writer,
reader, artist, musician, poet, and I go to school. And there are five year olds, there
are seven year olds, who are stuck, who I see on their
iPhones texting away, saying they haven’t read
a book in their lives. There are seven year
olds in my school, it’s a private school,
but who can’t read. And as, I’ve been reading since
I was three and a half years old, I’ve read the Harry Potter series
when I was like nine, I love books. I like reading them,
writing them, and the thought that there are people out there who
are unable to connect to the stories on the page, it’s horrifying. And>>Kwame Alexander: You’re right. And I applaud you. What grade are you in?>>Eighth.>>Kwame Alexander:
You’re in eighth grade?>>I think.>>Kwame Alexander: Wow,
that’s really impressive. I applaud you, and I think
we’ve got to do more of this. We’ve got to have, that’s why the
book festival is so important. Because it takes the
words off the page, it puts the words on the stage. It gives parents and
children an opportunity to connect around literature. So thank you so much for that. [ Applause ]>>I’m from Beville Middle School and I was wondering
what would you say to future authors to
inspire them more?>>Kwame Alexander: So
we’ll end with that. That’s a very good point. What would I say to future
authors to inspire them? I would say it took me five years to get my novel, The
Crossover published. It took me 22 rejections. It took a lot of persistence
and a lot of will. And I think I would encourage
you to believe in yourself. To believe in your capacity
to create a story or a poem or something that’s meaningful
and significant to other people. I would also encourage the
adults in the room to remember that adults don’t sort of create
their prejudices and their ideas about the world out of a vacuum. The mind of an adult begins
in the imagination of a child. And we have to begin to create
literature and expose children to literature that’s going to
make them into the kinds of people that we’re going to be proud of
and that are going to represent and really create the kind of place
we really need and want in America. So thank you all so much
and have a great day. [ Applause ]>>This has been a presentation
of the Library of Congress. Visit us at LOC.gov.

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