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2015 Newbery Medal winner makes slam dunk with novel in verse

Andrea Blackstone | 2/20/2015, 11:37 a.m.
On Monday, February 2, 2015, something extraordinary happened to Kwame Alexander.
Newbery Medal winning author Kwame Alexander

On Monday, February 2, 2015, something extraordinary happened to Kwame Alexander. The author of 18 published books was notified that he was the winner of the (John) Newbery Medal, which is awarded annually by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC)— a division of the American Library Association— for the most distinguished American children’s book published the previous year.

The Virginia based poet and author won what many consider the highest award for children’s literature for penning his hip book, “The Crossover.”

Alexander’s win could easily inspire an extra celebratory fist pump, considering the book's interesting back-story. Alexander felt that he crafted a good book about twin junior high school basketball stars, but the road to get it published was difficult. The Newbery Medal winner said that he was tempted to self-publish his middle grade novel written in verse.

“It was a hard sell. It took five years to sell it and about 20 plus rejections. It took a while for it to actually resonate with a publisher and eventually find somebody who believed in it. There was a point where I said I am going to publish this myself because I believed that it was a really good book. A week after that, that’s when we got the offer,” Alexander said.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published the book. On the heels of Alexander winning the Newbery Medal, “The Crossover” recently made its way to the New York Times Children’s Bestsellers list. Alexander may not have predicted the flood of accolades that would result from honoring his instincts to bring his book to the marketplace, but the visionary said that he did feel confident that “The Crossover” would resonate with kids. For a long time, Alexander had known and practiced the power of poetry. Although he observed how much young readers are attracted to it, Alexander is still shocked about winning the Newbery Medal.

“I was completely shocked when I got the call because who is ever really prepared for something that amazing to happen? When you spend your whole life writing, you want to have an impact with young people, but you also want to be recognized by your peers. To be recognized like this, the honor is still pretty mind-boggling,” Alexander said. “I think that the committee recognized that the best books weren’t necessarily the typical books. I hope that it continues. That is really what is going to empower readers, and empower writers that some of gatekeepers of children’s literature are going to say, 'The best books are just the best books, regardless of who writes them or how they look.' They really stepped up to the plate. Hopefully, other committees will sort of follow suit.”

Despite the basketball theme, “The Crossover” appeals to girls and boys. Alexander explained that basketball was a hook to get boys interested in reading a book. Other subjects in the novel about what children and families go through are relatable to all youth.

“We have to meet young people where they are, sort of as a bridge. We have to give them something that's accessible and something that relates to them. I think that’s important,” Alexander said. “I knew that children would respond favorably. I felt that once that happened, the librarians and the teachers and the parents would say, ‘Oh...wow. Let me check this out.’ And then I knew that once they checked it out, they would be hooked on it too. I knew all of this, because when I wrote the book, I fell in love with it, and I’m an adult. So I knew that pretty much anybody, if they allowed themselves to check it out, would find something that they could connect with and hopefully enjoy in the book.”

Alexander’s busy writing life has been full of leading workshops, speaking at conferences, traveling and promoting his books. He also co-founded LEAP for Ghana, which “supports communities through literacy education, youth development and community engagement.” The organization is building a library in the village of Konko, located in Ghana, along with other educational endeavors there. Alexander expects to visit the Enoch Pratt Free Library for a future event and also participate in the next Baltimore Book Festival.

For further information about Alexander and his upcoming event schedule, visit: www.kwamealexander.com.