For recording artists, an ultimate indicator of success is going on tour in a tricked-out tour bus. Kwame Alexander is doing just that. He’s no pop star, though: He’s a poet.
Alexander has written over a dozen books, including poetry collections and children’s fiction. He won the Newbery Medal in 2015 for The Crossover, his novel in verse about two brothers, Josh and Jordan Bell, carving out their own basketball legacy in the midst of their father’s own legendary shadow. In his new prequel to The Crossover, titled Rebound, Alexander revisits Josh and Jordan’s father Chuck as a young man discovering his love of basketball in the late 1980s.
Alexander will present his new novel for Inprint’s Cool Brains! Readings for Young People series on Sunday. We caught up with Alexander before his visit to talk basketball, fatherhood, and the power of poetry at any age.
The Crossover won you the Newbery Medal in 2015. What’s been the most unexpected consequence of that?
(Laughs.) As we are talking right now, I’m sitting on a tour bus. And this tour bus has a living room, it has four bunk beds, a master bedroom, seven TVs. And I’m going to 30 cities! That has to be the most unexpected result of winning the Newbery. I’m on book tour on my own tour bus that is wrapped in the cover of my books. I pinch myself every morning of this tour. That’s pretty miraculous. What an honor, a blessing, and a complete and total surprise.
I’ve seen the pictures of the outside of the bus, and it’s so cool. I didn’t realize the inside was that cool, too.
(Laughs.) Yeah, the outside is great, but the inside is even better. You’ve got to come get on the bus, my friend!
I’ll be honest: I love poetry, but I don’t know anything about basketball. And after reading The Crossover and Rebound, I have a newfound respect for basketball. So you’ve won over an unbeliever!
What made you want to go back and explore Chuck’s past after writing The Crossover?
Kids were asking me for a sequel to The Crossover, and I didn’t necessarily want to write one. But I did want to write about a time in my life that was pretty awesome, cool, and exciting, and that was the ‘80s. And I thought that maybe there was a way to accomplish both. Of course, if I wanted to do that, I needed to go back to the origins of the Bell family and look at how they came to be who they were. So that set up the prequel to The Crossover. It was an exciting story to write because that’s what I remember about my time in the ‘80s, but for the character of Chuck, it was also a time of loss and grief. That’s how life works: it’s not always great and fun and cool. There are going to be things happening in the midst of that that make you have to deal with some pretty trying times. We’ve all dealt with that. It’s difficult for adults to deal with loss and grief, so you can only imagine what it must be like for a child to deal with it. So I wanted to explore that and give children some tools to be able to handle that emotional weight.
Chuck’s a father, and so are you. How did that influence the way you wrote the character in The Crossover and the younger version of him in Rebound?
Well, I knew that families were going to play a big role in both books because I play a really big role in my kids’ lives. And so many times, you’ll read novels for children and the parents are not integral to the story. To me, that’s not real or authentic—at least for me. I have a wealth and plethora of anecdotes, experiences, and drama from my parental life, whether it be as a child with my parents or as a parent to my kids. And I wanted to bring that to the story. I felt like that was real and organic and natural for me.
I also want to remind children that parents—even though they may seem uncool and unnecessary—that ultimately, parents are cool, and they’re on your side. They’re on your team. I wanted to show that side of familial life because it’s so important to me.
Another powerful thing about your books is they put poetry in the hands of young people. Why is it important to get readers hooked on poetry when they’re young?
I think it’s important to get readers reading poetry whenever. Poetry is sort of a surefire way to get us all, young and old, excited and engaged with reading, with literature. It’s a way to talk about things that are difficult to talk about. It’s a way for us to understand the woes and the wonders of the world. Ultimately, it’s a way for us to take these big things that are happening in our lives and in the world and really distill them into a few words that make us connect, make us understand, and give us solid ground. I think it helps us become more human.
Kwame Alexander, Cool Brains! Imprint Readings for Young People. Free. Meyerland Performing and Visual Arts Middle School, 10410 Manhattan Drive. 713-521-2026. More info and tickets at inprinthouston.org.