On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Kojo For Kids welcomes author, poet and educator Kwame Alexander to the show on Monday, October 26 at 12:30. Listen live by streaming the show on this page or by tuning in to 88.5 FM in the Washington, D.C. region. Kids can call in with questions at 800-433-8850.
When Kwame Alexander wrote a book in verse about a middle school boy who loves basketball, publishers told him that boys wouldn’t like it because they don’t read poetry and girls wouldn’t like it because they don’t read about sports. He got 22 rejection letters and one green light. Then “The Crossover” became a best-seller, with more than half a million copies sold. And it won the Newbery Medal, the most prestigious prize in young adult literature.
The author went on to write “Solo”, “The Playbook,” “Swing,” “Rebound” and now has 32 books to his name — some in verse, some not. He’s a rock star in young adult literature because kids and teens love what he writes, but also for his mission to make readers and writers out of young people who never knew how much words could matter to them.
Alexander has a brand new book for kids too — “Becoming Muhammad Ali” — which he co-authored with James Patterson.
Alexander has brought his enthusiasm for poetry and prose to classrooms around the country and the world, and to National Public Radio as its poet in residence. Now he’s our guest on Kojo For Kids. What’s your question for Kwame Alexander?
This show is part of the “Kojo For Kids” series, a Kojo Nnamdi Show segment featuring guests of special interest to young listeners. Though Kojo has been on WAMU 88.5 for 20 years, this is the first time he has had the opportunity to reach out to an audience of kids, most of whom until recently had been in school during our live broadcast. We’re excited to hear from our youngest listeners! Join us!
Produced by Lauren Markoe
- Kwame Alexander Author And Poet; @kwamealexander
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. In elementary school, Kwame Alexander went from being a kid who read everything to a kid who hated reading. But he eventually learned to love books again. And now, he's a best-selling, award-winning writer whose work is loved by kids around the world. Maybe you've read "Solo," "Out of Wonder" or "The Crossover," his novel in verse about a middle school basketball player. It won the Newbery Medal, the highest award in children's literature. Somehow, I also read it, despite being an adult.
KOJO NNAMDIOr maybe today's show will be your introduction to Kwame Alexander, who has a new book out about boxer Muhammad Ali when he was a kid, published only three weeks ago. It's already on the bestseller list. Today, we're going to talk to Kwame Alexander about his favorite toys, words and how you can play with them, too.
KOJO NNAMDIWe're also going to hear from students at Cedar Grove Elementary in Germantown, Maryland, our school of the week. We know they've got questions for Kwame Alexander. Kwame Alexander, thank you so much for joining us.
KWAME ALEXANDERThank you for having me, Kojo. Good to hear your voice.
NNAMDIAlways good to talk to you, Kwame. Tell us a little bit about when you were a kid. Where were you born and where did you grow up and what did you like to do?
ALEXANDERI was born in New York City, in St. Luke's Hospital. My parents were in graduate school at Columbia University. They were studying to get their graduate degrees in education, with a focus on multicultural literature. So, as you can imagine, my house was -- it was a library. There were books everywhere, and there were books by black authors. There was Lucille Clifton's children's books series. There was Nikki Giovanni's "Spin a Soft Black Song." There was John Steptoe's "Stevie." I grew up immersed in black literature, from a very early age. And so, books were my sanctuary. Books were my reward. Books were even my punishment. So, it was all about literature.
NNAMDIYeah, but when you got a bit older in fourth or fifth grade, you lost your love for reading. What happened?
ALEXANDERWell, my father happened. (laugh) My father, off of a sudden, Kojo, decided that I should be responsible for not only reading his dissertations, but writing reports on them. That I should not only be responsible for reading "Wretched of the Earth" by Frantz Fanon and "Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire as a 10-year-old, but I should be prepared to discuss them with them. What kid wants to read that? (laugh)
ALEXANDERI was done with books.
NNAMDIIt's clear that your father was apparently me. (laugh)
NNAMDIBecause those are the exact books that I was reading and trying to get my sons to discuss with me at that time. I read in your history, you went to -- they sent you to Uhuru Sasa Shule. So, that was in Brooklyn. So that meant you met people like Jitu Weusi and people like that?
ALEXANDEROkay. You really did your research, Kojo.
NNAMDIYeah, those are my friends. I knew all those people.
ALEXANDERI grew up around, you know, the black arts, the black power movement in Crown Heights. Jetu Weusi was the founder of Uhuru Sasa, which means Freedom Now School. As a seven, eight-year-old, I remember going to sit in the back of this jazz, smoke-filled room listening to Nikki Giovanni and Haki Madhubuti and Sun Ra, and just different poets and musicians. And I had no idea what was going on, but my parents, you know, took me there.
ALEXANDERSo, yes, I grew up in this movement, thinking that it was normal, number one, to be black, and that it was expected to be an activist. And so, I spent a great deal of, you know, my life trying to figure out how I was going to marry the two, to be normal and to be an activist. And that came through the writing.
NNAMDIYeah, my sons were complaining about that same upbringing just yesterday on a call. (laugh)
ALEXANDEROh, yeah, they know the struggle. It's hard.
NNAMDIWell, you ended up going to school in Virginia with Nikki Giovanni being one of your professors. And, at first, that didn't work out for you, but then later, it did.
ALEXANDEROh, I hope -- if she's listening, she's going to get me for this, but (laugh) she gave me Cs. I got Cs for three classes. Three years of classes she gave me Cs, and I had a problem with that. I argued with her. To this day she will say she didn't give me a C, but I remember the Cs, and I protested.
ALEXANDERI protested to her. I remember going to her office one day and saying, look, you know, you got to do better. I'm a writer. I've been studying black literature since I could walk. And she said, Kwame, you know, I can teach you how to be -- I can teach you how to write poetry, Kwame but I can't teach you how to be interesting. And those are fighting words, Kojo. (laugh)
NNAMDIYeah, yeah, and that's how you took them as fighting words, but later, that changed.
ALEXANDERIt changed. It changed, definitely. About three years later, I was at James Madison University at the Furious Flower poetry conference that Joanne Gabbin put together. And I was selling copies of my first book. It was really bad poetry. I had written a lot of the poetry over on 26th and P Street at a place called It's Your Mug, that's no longer around. And I was selling copies of my book.
ALEXANDERAnd she came by. We hadn't spoken in three years, and she bought two copies of my book, and I thought, why is this woman, who doesn't like me, why is she buying my poetry? And over the next couple of years, she would send me notes, congratulations. And eventually, Kojo, we would have-dinner together. I would be publishing one of her books. You know, fast forward about 20 years, and we were meeting once a month. I was going to her house. And she called me her literary son. And, of course, I felt completely bad about all the things that I thought and said about her while I was in college. But she made me the writer I am.
NNAMDIWell, as you know, this is Kojo for Kids, so we encourage kids only to call. Let's start with 10-year-old Jasola at Cedar Grove Elementary School. Jasola, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JASOLAKwame, what was your favorite book and why?
ALEXANDEROh, great question. So, my favorite book at age three was a book called "Fox in Socks" by Dr. Seuss, absolutely. Wanted to read it nonstop. When I was about your age, when I was about 10, my favorite book was a book that I discovered in our garage. It was called "The Greatest: The Autobiography of Muhammad Ali." And I couldn't put it down. It was about 400 pages, and it was all about his life. So that was the book that made me say, okay, reading can be fun, books can be cool.
NNAMDIWow. Thank you very much for your call, Jasola. And speaking of Muhammad Ali, here is Arisha, who is also a fifth grade student at Cedar Grove Elementary. Arisha, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ARISHAWhat inspired you to make the Muhammad Ali book?
ALEXANDERWell, I wasn't planning on writing that book, but, as it happened, about two years ago, I got a call from the world's bestselling author, James Patterson, who I met a couple times. You can imagine getting that call out of the blue was a little weird and strange. But he said that he had been in touch with the Muhammad Ali estate, with Muhammad Ali's widow, Lonnie Ali, and that he wanted to do a book for kids about the childhood of Muhammad Ali. And he wanted me to write it with him. So, it was like it was a big circle for me, because, again, the first book that reminded me as a kid that books were fun was his autobiography. So, I decided, yes, I was going to do that book.
NNAMDIWow. Thank you very much for your call. You know, people of my generation, who are the generation of Muhammad Ali, knew Cassius Marcellus Clay. And we thought that he invented himself, because in those days there were no books available about his childhood. And so, I'm fascinated that you wrote a book about his childhood, when he was presumably still Cassius Marcellus Clay. Right?
ALEXANDERRight. And that was Jim's idea that we were going to shine a light on, not the extraordinary icon heavyweight champion, humanitarian, activist that he became. We were going to shine a light on the ordinary kid that he was. And so, I went to Louisville. I spend time at his house, which is an historic landmark. It's on Grand Avenue. It's a pink house. And it wasn't open at the time, so I was trespassing in the backyard, sitting on the grass, just trying to immerse myself in what it would've been like to be a kid growing up in Louisville in the ‘50s.
ALEXANDERAnd then the biggest thing was Lonnie Ali gave me access to some oral history tapes of Muhammad Ali, of his best friends growing up. And so, they told all these amazing stories about his childhood, and we wanted to tell that story.
NNAMDII'm so glad you did. If you're a kid, you can give us a call, 800-433-8850. What would you like to ask Kwame Alexander? His new book is about Muhammad Ali, the so-called Louisville Lip. When we found out about him, he had talked himself into the heavyweight class of boxers. And we didn't realize how immense his talent absolutely was. But in order to find all that out, you'll have to read the book. Let's move on to 10-year-old Adina, also a student at Cedar Grove Elementary. Adina, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ADINAThanks for letting me speak on the show. My question is, what did you want people to take away from your writing?
ALEXANDERWow. Well, that's a wonderful question. I think, first and foremost, I want young people -- I want readers to have the same experience I had when I couldn't put that Muhammad Ali autobiography down when I was 10. I want you to be engaged. I want you to be entertained. I want you to not be able to put the book down. I want you to be inspired, in some way. And I want to leave you feeling some hope and some joy. Like, that's my goal.
ALEXANDERI feel like there's enough darkness in the world. I want to bring a little bit of light through my words, so that when you finish it, you're like, oh, yeah, that was something. And now I want to go read something else. If I can get you to do that, I feel like I'm doing my job.
NNAMDIAdina, thank you very much for your call. Kwame, you once heard about a kid who never enjoyed reading, but read "The Crossover" and loved it. So, you decided that it might be fun to surprise him. Tell us about the surprise, and how did that kid react?
ALEXANDER(laugh) You're bringing out the vault. That's why I love talking to you, Kojo. It's never old. It's new every time.
ALEXANDERRandy Preston is a guitarist, and we travel around the world -- or we did, when the world was open -- performing for kids. And, one day, we were in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and we decided to surprise a seventh grader who had picked up a copy of "The Crossover" and had become a reader. It was his first book. And so, we showed up at his school. The principal and the teacher were in the loop. They were in the know.
ALEXANDERAnd I walked up to him in the hallway and just started reciting a poem from "The Crossover." Didn't tell him who I was. He had no idea who I was, but he recited the poem along with me. And all of his friends are gathering around. And when I finished, I said, thanks for listening. My name's Kwame Alexander. And he turned around to leave, and then he turned back and he was like, oh, my gosh. And you would've thought I was Lennie Kravitz or Kojo Nnamdi, or something. I mean, he just went off. And it was wonderful.
NNAMDIYou were a rock star in that situation. Speaking of being in North Carolina, we should also mention that you are speaking to us across the ocean. Where are you, and what are you doing there?
ALEXANDERI live in London, England now, Kojo. I was the innovator in residence last year at the American School in London, and I'm the writer in residence at the American School this year. So, I'll be here for a few more years, at least. And I think the main reason I came here, or the two reasons were, A., to give my 12-year-old, my now 12-year-old sort of a different outlook, a different viewpoint, a different world view, a different experience. So, she's in school here.
ALEXANDERAnd two, I was sort of a -- I talk about this a lot with my friends Jacqueline Woodson and Jason Reynolds. And I was sort of in a comfort zone, and it was becoming not easy, but it was becoming just a normal routine and ritual for my writing and my art. And I wanted to mix it up. I wanted to challenge myself in a way that I wasn't, you know, used to. And I think I walked out of that comfort zone and flew across the pond, and here I am in Regents Park.
NNAMDIWow. What do you like about London?
ALEXANDERKojo, this is a whole other discussion, but I will tell you this. Number one, I have found my muse. I have written some of the best stuff I've ever written. "Becoming Muhammad Ali" was the book I wrote here. But number two, you know, I feel -- and I think James Baldwin said this -- I feel more American than I've ever felt in my life. Being here in the UK, I feel more American. I don't walk around with a chip on my shoulder. You know, I just feel like I am Kwame. I'm a writer. I'm a man who has a family. And I can just be me. And it's an interesting -- I mean, I'm not saying there's not racism here, because there is, but it's a different kind of energy, and I appreciate it.
NNAMDIThat's how Baldwin felt in France. Here now is Sahithia, who is also a student at Cedar Grove Elementary. Sahithia, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SAHITHIAHi. Thank you so much for giving me an opportunity to ask you a question. I really like your books. My question is, how did it feel like while collaborating with James Patterson to write "Becoming Muhammad Ali"?
ALEXANDERWell, thank you for liking my books. That means a lot. That means I'm doing my job, because that's my goal. How was it to work with James Patterson? Well, I got to tell you, he's the world's bestselling author for a reason. He knows how to craft a story. And his outline -- I don't know if you all have ever written outlines at Cedar Grove, and young people listening, but his outlines are 30 pages long. The outlines are the maps, the directions, the guidance to write your stories. It's the beginning, middle and the end. And his outline was 30 pages, so it really helped guide the story.
ALEXANDERThe other thing about working with him is, at one point, when he sent me some of his writing for the book, I sent him back some notes and some edits. And he sent me a note that said, Dear Kwame, I would never begin to question your poetry, because you are the expert. Signed, Jim. And that was all I needed to know. (laugh)
ALEXANDERBut he did end up making the change, and that was pretty powerful. So, he's got an ego, just like we all do as artists. But, ultimately, what matters is the book.
NNAMDISahithia, thank you very much for your call. Kwame, you travel around the country and the world talking to kids about poetry, and even writing poems with them, and they seem to love it. But a lot of adults don't buy poetry books for their kids or borrow them from the library, so a lot of kids only read poetry at school. How and why are you trying to change that?
ALEXANDERI think poetry is short. It's concise, it's rhythmic, it has a lot of white space. It builds confidence in readers. It triggers voice. Ultimately, when you have a good poem, when you have a poem that really resonates with us, a poem by Mary Oliver or a Langston Hughes, it makes us become more human. It connects us to each other. And I think it does it in an immediate way and an emotional way.
ALEXANDERI think the adults are afraid of poetry, because somewhere around fifth, sixth, seventh grade, we started -- we weren't taught it. And then by the time we got to high school, you know, the poetry that we remember, the Shakespeare, the sonnets -- we went from Shel Silverstein in elementary school to Shakespeare in high school. That's a huge leap. Both of them are genius and brilliant, but we need bridges. I try to write poetry that is the bridge that connects us, that allows us to become engaged with literature in a life-giving and a life-saving way.
NNAMDIOn now to Ananya, also a student at Cedar Grove Elementary. Ten-year-old Ananya, you're now on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANANYAHi, Mr. Alexander, and thank you Mr. Kojo for the opportunity to talk with Mr. Alexander. So, my question for Mr. Alexander is, when writing about the bombing of the church in Birmingham where the four girls died or the other pages in "The Undefeated," did you feel agony towards the people who died?
NNAMDII told you these kids were deep.
ALEXANDERThese are deep. Shout out to Cedar Grove. Thank you and your teachers and your parents. And thank you all, students, for doing this. Did I feel agony? Yes. When I was writing "The Undefeated," in particular, some of those spreads that were dealing with the tragedy, whether it be the middle passage, whether it be black lives matter, whether it be the bombing of the church in Birmingham, I felt agony, I felt sadness, I felt despair, I felt frustration. I felt a lot of those things, for sure.
ALEXANDERAnd then I wanted to make sure that I didn't stop there. I didn't leave it there. I didn't end there, Ananya. So, I tried to end with some triumph. I tried to show that there's tragedy and there's triumph. There's woe and there's wonder, because ultimately that's what it's got to be about. We've got to figure out how to find a little bit of joy, a little bit of hope, a little bit of love even in the midst of the challenges.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. I think we have time for one more call on this. And this is from Sahill, in Virginia. Sahill, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SAHILLHi. Thank you. My question is, what's your favorite book that you made?
ALEXANDERThat's like a perfect setup for me to read a poem.
NNAMDIWell, hurry up.
ALEXANDERMy favorite book is always the latest book. Every time I write a new book and it publishes, I call my dad and, of course Kojo, my dad now wants royalty checks, because he said...
ALEXANDER...he's responsible for my career. And you agree with him, too, I'm sure.
ALEXANDERHe's me. (laugh)
ALEXANDER(laugh) So, my favorite book is "Becoming Muhammad Ali," and this is a poem that Muhammad Ali wrote. When he was a child his name was Cassius Clay. He changed his name, later in life, to Muhammad Ali. But this is a poem where he's going around his neighborhood, knocking on doors, telling people about his next fight as a 13-year-old, his next boxing match.
NNAMDIRead it. We're almost out of time.
ALEXANDERThe name's Cassius Clay, and I'm gearing to fight. My next move may bark, but I'm sure gonna bite. If he comes in grinning like he's having fun, I'll wipe that smile and beat him and won. If he tries to stick me like Elmer's glue, I'll turn up the heat and sting him in two. Tell all your friends, best bet on me, 'cause there ain't no way he's lasting for three.
NNAMDIWow. We remember those poems so very well from Muhammad Ali. Kwame Alexander is the New York Times bestselling author of more than 30 books, mostly written for kids, including "Becoming Muhammad Ali," which was just published this month. Kwame Alexander, always a pleasure talking to you. So, thank you so much for joining us.
ALEXANDERThank you. My dad says hi.
NNAMDIOh, good. And thanks to all of the kids who joined us from Cedar Grove Elementary School. They all said thank you for allowing me on the show, so they were well prepped for this broadcast. Thank you for joining us. Kojo for Kids was produced by Lauren Markoe. And our conversation about admissions changes at Fairfax's Thomas Jefferson High School was produced by Ines Renique.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, many conservatives, including President Trump, favor smaller, limited government. We explore what the Trump presidency has meant for government agencies and the tens of thousands of federal workers in our region. Plus, throughout the pandemic, there's been an increase of people suffering from depression and anxiety, and the election is making things worse. We'll talk with a psychiatrist about how to cope with the election stress. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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