Talking Race & KidLit

Notes from the Backpack

Episode 26 │Talking Race & KidLit

Wednesday, September 16, 2020



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Show Notes

Kwame Alexander

How many books on your children’s shelves feature Black and Brown characters? The stories we read to our children should be mirrors to see themselves and windows to see others who are different from them. We spoke with Newbery Medal award-winning author, Kwame Alexander about the importance of representation in kids’ literature. He shared about his own writing process, how to inspire your kids to write and some of his favorite books!


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Helen: Welcome back to Notes from the Backpack, a PTA Podcast, I'm Helen Westmoreland 

LaWanda: and I'm LaWanda Toney, and we're your cohosts. 

Helen: We are excited to be back and back to school, whatever that means for you bringing you season three of Notes from the Backpack. And we wanted to start off this season with an important and timely topic. After a summer filled with continued protest for racial justice and support for the black lives matter movement. Families are having conversations about racism, justice, bias, and prejudice with their kids. These are heavy topics and parents don't always know where to start, but one place we suggest is starting with your kid’s bookshelf. 

LaWanda: Today, we're going to talk about diversity in children's literature and how we can ensure the books we're reading to our kids introduce them to all kinds of people, people of different races, religions, sexual orientations, genders, and cultures. 

Helen: That's right, LaWanda, and something I learned as we were preparing for today is, that about half of kids’ books feature white characters and more than a quarter feature animals, but only 10% of kids’ books, feature black or African American characters and only 5% feature Latinx  characters and this is a problem, because representation matters. All kids deserve to see themselves in books and books should introduce our kids to them, the rich diversity of our world. That's why we're so glad to have the incredible author Kwame Alexander on our show today. 

LaWanda: Kwame Alexander is the New York times bestselling author of 37 books, including the Caldecott Medal and Newbery Honor winning picture book, The Undefeated, illustrated by Kadir Nelson and his Newbery Medal winning middle school novel, The Crossover. He's currently working on a new book, Becoming Muhammad Ali, which he's writing with James Patterson. As the host of a new kids television program, Wordplay and Founding Editor, of Versify, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Kwame aims to change the world one word at a time. He's also a husband and father of two daughters.

In addition to all that, Kwame is my friend and I'm so happy that we get to speak with him today. 

Welcome Kwame, thanks so much for joining us today. 

Kwame Alexander: Woo Hoo! It's so good to be here and for those of y'all listening, I have never met LaWanda in my life.

LaWanda: Okay. Then maybe we aren't friends. 

Kwame Alexander: Okay. Okay. We're the best of friends and I'm so honored to be on your awesome podcast with Helen. 

LaWanda: Great. We're happy, happy, happy to have you. 

So let's jump into it. Tell us a little bit about yourself and how'd you become a writer. Kwame Alexander: Oh my gosh. I could talk for an hour on that question. I hope you got a lot of time, 'cause here we go. So I've written 37 books. I started writing when I was 12 years old. I wrote a really bad poem for my mother on Mother's Day. It was, it was really bad, I mean the first couple of lines were dear mommy I hate Mother's Day. So, it didn't go too well, but, but I kinda redeemed myself towards the end I said, "because every day is Mother's Day in my heart" and she cried. And I was like, whoa, words are kind of powerful, they can really elicit emotions. And I figured this out at 12 years old and I think I just kept writing from there.

And then I got to college and I had Nikki Giovanni as a professor and then I decided maybe this is going to be more than a hobby, I can actually have a job of writing. And then it took me 23 years of figuring out how to make a living from it and along that journey, I wrote plays, poems, stories, novels. I even wrote a movie script and I just fell in love with writing. And you know, now I'm fortunate that it is my job. I wake up every morning. I write for like three or four hours. I go for a walk in the park. I listen to music. Play softball with my daughter. Like I have this, this writerly life that I've dreamed my entire life of having and it, and it feels really good.

Helen: I want to learn a little bit more from you Kwame, about the process you use to develop some of your characters. I shared with you at the top, before we started recording, we've been reading a lot of Acoustic ooster in my house with my two year old. I know that, the book might be a little old for her, but she loves it. And so, I'm just curious what's your process like to think of, like, I'm going to write a story about this rooster, starting a jazz band, with the barnyard animals, what inspires you and gets you going on that?

Kwame Alexander: For each book it's different. I will preface it by saying, I'm a willing participant in life. I walk through life just being actively involved, paying attention, eavesdropping, interacting, hanging out, just trying to, to, to say yes to what's possible in my life, because I only got one shot at this. And so as a result of that, of being intimate with the world, I pay attention to everything. And so that is my inspiration. In particular, I was in a place called Tuscany in a small town called Artimino in 2010. I was staying in a Villa with nine other writers and every morning we'd wake up and we'd walk to the local cafe down this long gravel road to get croissants and tea, and each morning I'd pass by this chicken coop and in this coop were these, yeah, real, it was real, these chicken, these hens and these roosters were running around and it was almost like they were dancing and I was like, that's pretty cool. It looks like they're dancing. And then my mind just sort of went to this place, well, if they're dancing naturally, there's gotta be music. And if there's music and they're in a barnyard, then maybe these hens and roosters are listening to jazz. And if they're listening to jazz that it's gotta, it's gotta be a live band because DJ's don't play jazz and if it's a live band well, who was in the band?

You see how, how kooky of writer's mind works? Like we're just out there we're taking in everything. And, and so that led to me, me coming up with, with the characters, Duck Ellington and Mules Davis, and then I just, I wrote the book during that three week stint in Tuscany. 

LaWanda: So Kwame, let's talk a little bit more about your writing style because, you write your novels in prose and that's a little different than most authors. Why is that so important to you? 

Kwame Alexander: Well to be, completely, semantically correct, I write my novels in poetry, in verse. A lot of people tend to, combine or confuse prose with poetry 'cause, prose sounds so poetic. It's the, just the word itself, the way it rolls off your tongue. But, and the, and the idea is that when I'm writing my novels in poems, as it were, that you forget that you're reading poetry, that you forget because your eyes and your mind and in our imaginations, we're used to reading novels in prose in, in traditional prose and if I'm writing my novels in poetry and I'm doing a really good job Lawanda, then by page five or six, you forget that it's poetry. And you're just into the story into the beginning, the middle and the end. So why do I choose to write novels in poems? 

I think poems are direct. I think they're concise. I think they can talk about really heavy things in  a manner that makes it digestible and palatable for us as readers, especially kids, especially kids who, who teachers and librarians and parents don't think want to read because they think they're reluctant readers. I think poetry is immediate. I think it's emotional. I think it's a great way to tell a story and it's, the best way that I know how to do it.

I think that so often as it relates to our boys, and my teacher said this about me, boys don't read, or Kwame was a reluctant reader and I just disagree with that. Nobody ever gave me books that I was interested in. It wasn't that I was reluctant I was, I wasn't interested. And I, I believe that you can create some really engaging and interesting stories that are not intimidating to the eye. Through poems telling stories through poems and that's, and that's what I choose to do. 

Helen: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. It's a more beautiful read in some ways to read in poetry, you can feel it in a different way.

You mentioned that, in school you were called a reluctant reader, and how important it is for kids to have some choice, and have something that grabs their attention, whether it's the style of writing or, part of what we're talking about today is who the characters are, right, and culturally, who they speak to.

Could you share with us a little bit about sort of your experience and philosophy and why you think it's important for families to be reading books with their kids that feature more diverse characters? 

Kwame Alexander: Well, I don't like that word, Helen. I mean, is more diverse characters, what does that mean? I mean, let's really get deep into it if you want to, because it does it mean white kids need to be reading books with black characters, because it doesn't mean black kids need to be reading books-, it doesn't mean black kids need to be reading books with white characters because black kids been doing that for the past 400 years. So, let's reframe the question. 

Let's say, do we need to have books in our classrooms, do we need to have on the shelves, in our kids' bedrooms, do we need to have books on our Kindles that reflect the kind of world we actually live in and reflect the kind of world we, we claim we want for our children to inherit? The answer is a resounding yes. So that means the books that we give our kids, they have to be as Doctor Rudine Sims Bishop says, "the books have to be mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors." And so, we gotta be able to see ourselves in the books. We gotta be able to see each other in the books and we gotta be able to see the relationship between the two of us in the books.

The book's got to reflect the kind of world we claim we want for our kids. My daughter, she has a really cool best friend who she's known, she's 12 now, who she's known since she was. I remember going over to take her to a play date and I was in the little girl's room, dropping my daughter off and I looked in the girl's bookshelf and the girl, by the way was, was white and my daughter's black. And on her bookshelf out of about 40 or 50 titles, children's picture books, only one of them featured a character that looked like my daughter, just one. And, that was a book that I had written and I gave them.

And so, we got to really understand that if we want our kids to be empathetic, if we want them to connect more with, children, from various backgrounds and cultures and communities, if we want our children to embrace their full humanity and embrace the full humanity of their friends and their associates and their colleagues and their lovers and the people they work with at work when they become adults? Then we've got to make sure that the books that they have as children set them up for that prepare them for that. The mind of an adult begins in the imagination of a kid. So, what kind of adult are you creating now? 

Helen: I do appreciate your reframing because I think, the reality is it's not hard to find books with white characters, right? And if you just were to go about your world of the most popular quote unquote, right? Like books in mainstream sort of America, you, you, it will be very hard to find books with black and brown characters specifically. Could you tell us a little bit about some of the resources that are out there for parents, who do want to be sure that their kids can see those other children, and those other families and experiences in their literature? 

Kwame Alexander: I would say I don't agree that the books are hard to find. So I, , I would start there. 

I would say that the books are easy to find, are you looking for them? Because you got to think like, in our minds, we haven't been looking for those books. Like, I remember when I was growing up in, in middle and high school, you would not see a white kid walking around school with a book by Walter Dean Myers or a book by Langston Hughes. You wouldn't see that you would, but I would be walking around school with Tuck Everlasting, and Bridge to Terabithia, but those books are there. They're in the library. They're in the bookstores, but are we looking for them? So, you know, the books don't segregate themselves, Helen and LaWanda we do, as the adults. 

I wrote a book about two frogs, it's called Surfs Up. It's about two frogs who were going to the beach to go surfing. But one frog is reading Moby Dick, so he doesn't want to get up off his couch and the other frog is a little pissed and it's a really fun book. And I was signing books at a conference in Milwaukee, and this librarian came up to me and she said, Kwame, I have black kids in my school and I have white kids in my school and before I teach this book, I need to know which group of kids I can teach it to. So, I need you to tell me what color your frogs are.

I was like, huh? Yeah, I need to know what color your frogs are. And I just looked at her and I was like, your question is much more interesting than any answer I could ever offer you. And I remember when I got home, I said to my kid, who was maybe nine, eight or nine at the time, I said to Maya, just curious, what color do you think dad's frogs are? And she's like, duh, they're green. I was like yeah, that's what I thought. 

But see, our minds are so brainwashed and conducive to segregating the literature, that we don't understand that the kids aren't the problem, the books aren't the problem it's us. And we gotta do a much better job of providing all the books for all the kids so they can become better human beings than we are.

LaWanda: I love that. 

So Kwame, the other day, I was talking to my friends and preparing for this podcast and I asked them, when was the first time you read a book that the main character resonated with you, either look like you, or you had an experience where you, like, I get that, that character, and a lot of us, it wasn't until high school. 

Do you remember your first experience with a character you're like, yeah, I get that? 

Kwame Alexander: I didn't encounter my first book with characters who were black or from communities that I felt connected to in school until maybe I was in college. However, my first encounter with books that featured characters that looked and lived and laughed like me was when I was two or three years old because, my parents were my first teachers and librarians. So I had Everett Anderson's Adventures by Lucille Clifton, which was about this little boy, this little black kid who was, Ooh... it was about his adventures in his neighborhood, I had that at age, two or three. 

I mean, my bookshelves were filled with books. So schools weren't doing their jobs, but my parents were, and that's what I want to encourage. I think Helen brought this up earlier, it is so important for parents to make sure that the books on their shelves reflect the kind of world they claim they want, that are going to lift their kids up. And for parents to read those books with the kids and have these sort of nightly read alouds build this fun, inspiring, experience around the pages of a book.

So I had that from the time I was born. 

Helen: Hmm. 

[00:20:36] LaWanda: You're very fortunate that, that's great and I hope that this encourages other parents to start thinking in the same way, to provide them those mirrors, that we talk so wonderfully about. 

Helen: Yeah, absolutely. I want to hear a little bit about, Kwame, Versify Imprint. Can you tell us what that is and why that's important? 

Kwame Alexander: So, I had the opportunity about three and a half years ago to start my own publishing company, again. And I say again, because as LaWanda knows, I had my own publishing company back in the 1990s, early two thousands and after 10 years in 2005, I had to shut it down because I just wasn't making any money. And, and I wanted to publish really high quality literature that people weren't interested in, necessarily. And so, I always said maybe one day I'll get a chance to do it again.

So, after the success of my first novel, The Crossover, my publisher approached me in 2017 and said, Kwame, do you want to start a publishing company? And I said, yes, and of course this time around my publisher, Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, they were going to fund it. They were going to provide all the backend and so it was a win, win situation. I've always looked at the publishing industry as sort of this dinner party and there are 10 chairs at the table and seven of the chairs have been occupied by the same people day in and day out. And they're enjoying the meals, having great champagne and enjoying each other's company and doing some good stuff. 

But, three of those chairs have been empty and every now and then they'll let them special guests come to the party. I wanted to create a company where I filled those chairs up. I made sure that those meals were going to represent the world, represent the community and it was going to be great literature. And it wasn't just going to be limited to the friends and of those seven people. But, we were going to open this thing up. And so we created Versify in 2017. 

We're in year three now, we do four to seven books a year, our first four books, Vamos by Raul the third, Last, Last Day of Summer by Lamar Giles, White Rose by Kip Wilson and The Undefeated by myself and illustrated by Kadir Nelson. Those were our first four books, they came out in the spring of 2019 and all four of them, won major award from the American Library Association. So, it was a great start. 

Helen: Congratulations. 

Well, and it sounds like, for me and other parents listening that want to build their library, like you said, to be mirrors and windows and sliding glass stores, Versify could be a first place to go to look at that. 

Kwame Alexander: Absolutely, definitely go to your local independent bookstore. I don't know if people can go to bookstores right now, but you can order online.

LaWanda: Kwame, I wanted to ask you a question about kids and being able to write their own story. We know that an important aspect of literature is not just reading, but the ability to write your own story, how do parents encourage their children to write? 

Kwame Alexander: Wow. That's a great question. When kids read books that are interesting and engaging and inspiring and empowering, they naturally will want to write. I think it's how do you create activities and prompts for, for students to extend that reading experience? I think there are a number of, of wonderful, wonderful books out there, on that topic that parents can, you know, share with their, with their, their, their young readers. 

There's a book by Jack Gantos, I think it's called The Writing Radar. I have a book coming out in the fall, it's called Kwame Alexander's Free Write Journal. And then, one of the things I used to do, when my daughter would have play dates, when she was much younger, the girls would come over to the house and I would say, all right, before we get into the pool, before we play basketball, before we, you know, play pool, whatever, there's a haiku scavenger hunt happening.

So, you all got 30 minutes go around his house and find these, and I'd leave  adjectives, I'd leave verbs, I'd leave nouns on, on pieces of paper and I'd hide them and you got to go find one of each. Then you gotta write a haiku. Everybody meet back in my office in 30 minutes. And I just made it a fun activity and I think if we can make writing and reading cool, which of course to me it is, it's always been, I think our kids are going to be more appreciative and more engaged in it.

LaWanda: So, we aren't doing haiku scavenger hunts, but we did start a, we did start a book club this summer with Caleb and his cousins. So, the age ranges are eight to like 12. We meet on Saturday mornings on Zoom and they have to read a couple pages during the week, we assign the number and then we just let them go talk about it and it is the most interesting conversations where they go, like, we start off with the book, of course. But how they process things and how they think about it. They have not complained once either. I'm like, who are these kids? This is wonderful. 

Kwame Alexander: Okay. So, hold up, that's brilliant number one. But number two, Caleb is eight?

LaWanda: Caleb will actually be eight in November, but yes, he's getting there. It's crazy. 

Kwame Alexander: Oh my gosh. 

Helen: But I think that's such a good idea. So many parents could do that, LaWanda, like a little virtual of book club.

LaWanda: Yeah I would encourage it. 

Helen: And maybe do some of the books we've talked about today. I love that.

Well Kwame, before we go, I want to be sure you can tell our listeners a little bit about what you've got coming next. Tell us about, Becoming Muhammad Ali or any other projects that you've got coming up that, you want to be sure parents know about. 

Kwame Alexander: So I wrote this novel with James Patterson, you all ever heard of him? So, Jim and I wrote this novel called Becoming Muhammad Ali and it's and it was, it was sanctioned by the, Ali Estates. So, so Lonnie Ali, Muhammad Ali's wife and Jim and I had a meeting and then Lonnie gave me access to the Muhammad Ali archives, which has these amazing oral history tapes that have never been released to the public of interviews with Ali's best friends growing up, when he was known as Cassius Clay.

I listened to all these tapes and we ended up writing a book about Cassius Clay from, primarily his middle and high school years, that nobody really knows about. And I think it's the best thing I've ever written. I'm really excited about the story. It comes out October the fifth.We'll be doing a little virtual tour. It's got illustrations in it but it's a novel and it's a coming of age tale about how Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali. 

LaWanda: That is so exciting, and I'll definitely be adding it to our book club list. Yay. So good. So Kwame out of everything we discussed, what is one thing families should walk away with, from today's episode, you think?

Kwame Alexander: The mind of an adult begins in the imagination of a kid. 

If you want to create beautiful human beings. You want to create adults, who become teachers who care about all their kids. You want to create adults who become police officers who have an imagination that sees beyond stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination. And, if you want to create human beings who are empathetic and loving and caring, it starts now. Give them the books that will help shape and mold their minds to become beautiful. 

LaWanda: I love it. Thank you. Thank you so much for sharing so much with us today. Okay, so let's talk about your social. So, what are your social media handles and where can listeners go to learn more about you and all your work? 

Kwame Alexander: Well, this has been great. I got to tell you, even though I haven't seen you in a minute, it feels like, you know, it was yesterday, you know, that you and I were hanging out. So, it's good, it's good to be with you and it's so good to meet you, Helen. And I'm honored to be guest number one for the season three. 

In the meantime, in between time, y'all can find me, @KwameAlexander on Twitter, Instagram, Kwame Alexander books on Facebook. I'm everywhere and anywhere, and, hope to see you all out in the digital world. And when things get back to normal, hope to see you at your school or your library, but certainly on your shelves.

Helen: Thanks again, Kwame for this awesome conversation. To our audience listening, thank you for joining us for more resources related to today's episode. Check out, and we want to extend a very special thank you to our sponsor for season three of Notes from the Backpack, the Carnegie Corporation of New York for supporting season three of Notes from the Backpack.

LaWanda: Before we go, we want to let you know that it's National PTA's Back to School week. We know that back to school season is far from normal this year, and we're here to help visit for all kinds of resources to support you and your family during the start of the new year. Thanks for tuning in and see you next time.


Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast is made possible by funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.