On a recent cold and wet December afternoon, the spirit within Loachapoka Elementary School was hot and loud. About 200 students from grades five through eight were approaching a fever pitch as they awaited the arrival of one of their heroes. It wasn’t a famous athlete. It wasn’t a rap singer. It wasn’t even a movie star. It was a poet.
Kwame Alexander is an American poet and children’s book author. Actually, he combines the two genres in bestselling verse books like Rebound, Swing, and Solo. One of his most popular books, The Crossover, was published in 2015 and has sold nearly 500,000 copies. It won both the Newbery Medal for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children, and the Coretta Scott King Award, which recognizes outstanding books for young adults and children by African-American writers.
The students not only knew that book, they had memorized it.
When Alexander swept into the room, the young people went wild, cheering and clapping and calling his name. And he did not disappoint. He told his life story, including writing his first poem at age 12 (to his mother), and becoming more serious about his art when he studied under Nikki Giovanni at Virginia Tech.
“The reason my shirt has YES! printed on it is because I am a ‘Say YES!’ person,” Alexander told the students. “I had 22 publishers reject The Crossover because they said boys didn’t like poetry and girls didn’t like sports. I could have said NO! But I kept rewriting and revising because I decided not to give up. You can do the same thing. Everyone hears NO! and no one likes it, but remember this: it only takes one ‘YES!’ in your life. So what I want you to do is keep remembering to say YES!”
But his event wasn’t just about preaching and teaching. It was also fun, as Alexander let the kids show off their knowledge. He invited students to compete in seeing who could finish his verse sentences from memory. The competition was intense. When he called up the teachers to play, the students were even more excited, as reflected in their screams of delight. It seemed like everyone in the room knew each of Kwame Alexander’s books. And that is the point.
While the books have a hip-hop tone and use language familiar to young people, the characters are rich in human complexity and the stories reflect the conflicts and confusion that are part of everyone’s growing up. Kids just relate to what the characters go through and achieve. And along the way, the characters come to love reading and students learn to love the rhythm and rhyme of a master poet and story-teller.
Music is part of the message
While Alexander enchants, he is accompanied by guitarist Randy Louis Preston. The music helps set the mood, and adds rich comedy. Once Alexander called for “something beachy” and Preston came back with a Flamenco sound. Alexander protested, but Preston said “Man, this is music from the palm-covered beaches in Spain!” He sings, too, including “I Believe I Can Fly,” and just generally looks cool.
In the question and answer time Alexander showed terrific wit. He ‘dropped the mic’ and answered all kinds of questions, including how much money he makes as a poet.
“I make enough to take my best friend, Randy Preston, to lunch at Cracker Barrel!”
In fact, Alexander has sold more than a million books, and has signed two separate seven-figure book deals. He has his own imprint, Versify Books, at Houghton-Mifflin. When asked if his books will ever be made into movies, he revealed that he had just been invited to meet with a Hollywood producer.
While his book tours often take him to high-toned bookstores and literary events, along with his regular guest work on NPR, Alexander obviously has a soft spot for places like Loachapoka. As described in a 2018 New York Times profile:
Mr. Alexander is a charismatic performer who often breaks into spontaneous poetry when addressing crowds. He seems to have an almost hypnotic command over audiences, whether he’s speaking to squirmy first graders, high school seniors or a room full of publishing executives. In the last couple of years, he’s visited more than 300 schools around the country, sometimes startling students who had written him fan letters with surprise visits in front of their lockers. He occasionally visits juvenile detention centers and leads poetry workshops.
Lynne Patrick, executive director of the Truman Pierce Institute, was at the event. TPI has a long and rewarding history of working with students of all ages at Loachapoka, including its annual L.E.A.D. Days camp. Patrick knew the students had been studying Alexander’s works, so when she learned he was actually coming to the school she arranged to have books there so each student could have a book autographed by the author.
“I just love this school and everything about it,” Patrick said. “They were so excited to have copies of Kwame’s books for him to autograph. There is just something very special that goes on here every day. We love being able to work with them.”
Loachapoka principal Albert Weeden agrees.
“Friday was one of the greatest moments of my young tenure as principal,” he said. “To see our students so excited about reading and listening to Kwame Alexander is a memory of a lifetime. The kids were glowing with joy to get their books signed and spend more valuable time with the author. Also, one of our students had the opportunity to read a poem to Kwame she wrote. It was the most amazing moment. This was a great event, and would not have been possible without the help of the College of Education and the Truman Pierce Institute. I am one proud principal.”
The Kwame Alexander visit was the second recent children’s book event with which the College of Education was associated. AU grad James Dean brought his beloved Pete the Cat books to the College’s Learning Resources Center for a pair of overflowing sessions in late November.
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