Kwame Alexander Talks Reading, Poetry and Silencing Haters

Find out why this Newbery-award winning author sends an old teacher every one of his books.

Kwame Alexander

Kwame Alexander is a writer, poet and the Newbery-winning author of the book The Crossover. He’s been writing in verse for years, finding unique ways to tell stories and get kids interested in poetry. He’s written more than 20 books total, and his latest, Solo, celebrates music.

We recently sat down with Kwame in New York City while he was there to promote Solo. We talked about how teachers influenced him growing up, as well as his role as the ambassador for summer reading through the Collaborative Summer Library Program.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, until I was 12. Then we moved to Chesapeake, Virginia.

Did you have influential teachers in your life?

My parents were really my first librarians and teachers because they immersed us in literature in the house.

They were [teachers] at home as well as their professions. My dad was the headmaster at my elementary school. Both of my parents were teachers and writers. They also owned a publishing company, so I grew up immersed in books with them.

Do any other teachers stand out to you?

My first-grade teacher, Miss Virgil, asked us to read 100 books during the summer. And if we did, we got a T-shirt. I remember doing it in the first three weeks because I really wanted that T-shirt.

That must’ve been some shirt! What did it look like?

It was a white T-shirt with red letters that said “I read 100 books during the summer.” It was very cool.

How do you think teachers can influence students?

Teachers can influence in both positive and negative ways. I had a high school English teacher that had a negative influence because I wrote an essay, and she said I couldn’t have possibly written it because it was too good. Now every time I publish a book, I send her a copy of it.

How did you first become interested in poetry?

My parents read poetry to us. We read our own poetry books. Then in college, I found my way back to poetry in a formal sense. I fell in love with it all over again—love poems, social protest poetry …

What if someone wants to get started in poetry? Do you have recommendations?

I wrote a book called Out of Wonder. This is a book celebrating my favorite poets, so it’s a good resource to discover great poets and understand their power.

If you weren’t a writer and poet, what would you be doing?

I would be a tennis player or a doctor. I used to be pretty good at tennis.

What do you think of haiku and using it in the classroom?

Haiku is amazing. What a great way to introduce kids to poetry. It’s short. It builds confidence, and they feel like they can tackle it.

How would you describe your new book Solo in just three words?

Rock and roll.

What is your favorite thing about Solo?

The music—being able to incorporate the music of my high school years—the ’80s rock and roll and how it helped define my friends and my life. It made us feel like we could rule the world. Everybody wants to rule the world—you know, Tears for Fears!

You’re an ambassador for the summer library program. What’s that like?

I get to promote reading for the summer. I want to avoid that summer slide and get kids to pick up a book and enjoy it. Poetry books are a great way to do this. They’re easy and manageable—kids and parents can read a poetry book. 

What’s your best tip for getting kids to read this summer?

Get your kids a book they will be interested it—not something that you think they will be interested in. Put the control in the hands of kids, and let them read.

Thank you to Kwame Alexander for speaking with us.

Stacy Tornio

Posted by Stacy Tornio

Stacy Tornio is a senior editor with WeAreTeachers. Nearly everyone in her family is a teacher. So she decided to be rebellious and write about teachers instead.

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