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Mary Malhotra Interviews Swing Author Kwame Alexander

AN INTERVIEW WITH KWAME ALEXANDER

by Mary Malhotra

 

Author Kwame Alexander

Swing Author Kwame Alexander at Skylight Books. Photo ©2018 Shan Malhotra

Kwame Alexander recently celebrated publication of his new book with Mary Rand Hess, Swing (Oct 2018, BlinkYABooks; $18.99), at a Skylight Books event that also featured his mentor, acclaimed poet and activist Nikki Giovanni. Alexander is the Newbery Award-winning, NYT-bestselling author of more than two-dozen books. Swing is a novel-in-verse about two high school juniors, Noah and Walt, trying to find their “cool.” I enjoyed the event, and later caught up with Alexander by phone to talk about the book and some of his other projects. (The transcript below is edited for clarity and length.)

 

MM [Mary Malhotra]: This is your third book with Mary Rand Hess, so I thought I’d start by asking, how did the two of you decide to collaborate, and how does that work for you?

KA [Kwame Alexander]: We’re in a writer’s group together, and we had critiqued each other’s work for a couple of years. It was her idea, and I thought, “Well, let’s try it.”  I’m a huge fan of collaboration and we just seemed to gel. There were certain times when I took the lead and she was cool with that, and there were times when she took the lead because she had the expertise and I was cool with that. It was almost like putting a puzzle together.

MM: Obviously music is important in the book, and I was curious if Walt’s musical loves mirror yours or Mary’s?

KA: I am a jazz aficionado; Mary loves jazz. Whenever I’m writing, I listen to instrumental jazz, preferably bebop or straight-ahead jazz. Mary plays piano. Music plays a huge role in our lives, and I think that’s why we wanted to write about rock and roll in [our first novel] Solo, and really pay a tribute to jazz in Swing.

Mary Malhotra with Kwame Alexander at Skylight Books 2018

Swing Author Kwame Alexander with interviewer Mary Malhotra at Skylight Books. Photo ©2018 Shan Malhotra

MM: I know lots of adults who are intimidated by poetry, [yet] on your website you say if you want to get a reluctant reader engaged with literature, start with poetry. How do you go about making the poetry so accessible and relatable that it’s actually easier for a reluctant reader than a prose novel?

KA: I try to write stories that have you as the reader forgetting that you’re reading poetry. I want to use all of the techniques and the strategies that poetry allows me to use — figurative language, sparse text, rhythm, sometimes rhyme — but ultimately I want to tell such a compelling story that by page ten or twenty-seven you’ve forgotten that you’re reading poetry.

MM: I’d seen a synopsis that talked about a biracial friendship at the center of the book, and it still took me awhile to identify what race different characters were. I like diversity not being handled super explicitly, but some people really feel like we should be explicit. What’s your feeling?

KA: Isn’t that the goal, for us to be less explicit about race in real life, and to really begin to look past all those superficial things, and treat each other as if we are all human beings? When I was growing up and I was in high school and I played tennis, one of my best friends was a white guy. I didn’t wake up each day and go to the tennis court and say, “Oh hey, here’s my white guy!” It’s not an authentic approach to life, so why should it be an authentic approach to literature?

MM: As a white person, I’ve tried to be sensitive to arguments I’ve read about people who feel like, if I say, “I don’t see your race,” then I’m not seeing them as a whole person.

KA: I’m definitely not saying you don’t see race. I’m saying the race is obvious and evident in all of the books that I write, in my estimation. The race is a matter of fact.

Nikki Giovanni and Kwame Alexander at Skylight Books Swing Panel

Nikki Giovanni with Kwame Alexander at Skylight Books. Photo ©2018 Shan Malhotra

MM: When you started out [writing Swing], were you planning to write something political?

KA: Everything I write is political. I think to live in America, especially during this time, you either — what one of the characters says: “You either uphold the status quo, or you see what’s wrong and try to change it.”

MM: I read about your imprint [Versify, at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt], and saw that it’s accepting unsolicited submissions. What are you looking for?

KA: I’m looking for good books. Picture books, middle grade novels, YA novels, graphic novels. I’m looking for books that highlight the beauties, the hurdles, the woes, and the wonders of children coming of age. I’m looking for books that are going to help kids ultimately imagine a better world. I’m looking for books that are intelligent and entertaining.

MM: I also read that you’re starting a #HUGLIFE commitment in classrooms?

KA: It’s really just borrowing from Walt’s philosophy on life. Sometimes the world is not so beautiful, but you’ve got to stretch every inch of good as far as you can. I’m a big fan of saying “Yes” to what’s possible in life, and hugging life.

Swing Author Kwame Alexander with Wendy Calhoun at Skylight Books 2018

Swing Author Kwame Alexander and Wendy Calhoun at Skylight Books. Photo ©2018 Shan Malhotra

MM: Transforming [Tupac Shakur’s acronym] “THUG LIFE” into “HUG LIFE” —

KA: If you look at what Tupac’s acronym stood for — The Hell You Give Little Infants F’s Everyone — if you flip that around, don’tgive them hell. Hug them. Show them love. I went to a school one day in a prison. I told my wife I was never going back, and she said “Why?” And I said, “Because it was the hardest work I ever had to do.” And she said, “Well, that’s cool. Those kids probably aren’t expecting you to come back.” And of course, I ended up going back. And it changed my life, and it changed theirs. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. I’m suggesting that hugging life, embracing the full humanity of all of us? It’s work, but the rewards are sacred, and beautiful, and life-giving, and life-saving.

Find more events at Skylight Books

Read Mary’s review of Swing here.

Swing, a Novel-in-Verse by Kwame Alexander with Mary Rand Hess

SWING
Written by Kwame Alexander
with Mary Rand Hess

(Blink YA Books; $18.99, Ages 14-18) 

 

Swing by Kwame Alexander and Mary Rand Hess book cover

 

 

Starred Reviews – Kirkus, School Library Journal 

Kwame Alexander’s Newbery Award-winning novel, The Crossover, used basketball as the backdrop for the story. His new book, written with Mary Rand Hess, is a novel-in-verse called Swing with a prologue beginning:

We were halfway through

junior year.

Rounding the bases.

About to score

it’s a good bet that the title refers to baseball.However, Hess and Alexander also collaborated on the 2017 novel Solo about rock and roll, and it turns out that Swingis as much about swinging the beat as swinging the bat. Most of all, though, it’s about putting yourself out there and embracing life.

The book opens as narrator Noah and his best friend Walt (AKA “Swing”) have again failed to make their high school baseball team. Noah wants to give up, lamenting:

But the truth is

we suck.

Our baseball dream

is a nightmare.

It haunts me.

Noah defines himself by what he can’t do. He can’t play baseball, and he can’t tell his longtime crush, Sam, how he feels about her. With Walt’s encouragement, Noah tries writing poetry for her, but it’s not very — well, see for yourself:

I want you

to be my symphony

Your legs

two piccolo trumpets

blazing through

the air.

Even Walt agrees the poem is not good enough to give to Sam, but when Noah buys a second-hand Louis Vuitton Keepall as a birthday gift for his mom, he finds old love letters stashed in the lining that inspire him to try again.

Tonight, I’m ready

To tear courage

Out of the book of dares

And make it mine.

The love letters give him a scaffold for creating art worth sharing. Noah uses them to make blackout poetry — he blacks out some words so that the ones that remain legible form a new poem — and then adds original graphic elements with his pen. The resulting mixed media art stands out, even in this book composed entirely of poems. They make me curious; I have to figure out which letter Noah uses for which piece. They make me want to try writing blackout poetry myself, and they make Noah more confident, able to express himself and impress the girl he loves.

As wonderful as Noah’s art is, my favorite creation in this book is, simply, Walt. I want to reread Swingto spend more time with him. Noah describes him and his quirks like this:

My best friend

Walt Disney Jones

is obsessed with jazz,

baseball,

dead famous people,

and finding cool,

if it’s the last thing

we ever do.

But Walt’s a

self-proclaimed expert

on how to

never give up

until you win.

When it comes to “finding cool,” especially with regard to girls, Walt relies on his older cousin Floyd and a podcast called The Woohoo Woman. He won’t give up, whether he’s practicing baseball or finding a date for prom. He even gets a tattoo inspired by Tupac Shakur’s acronym THUG LIFE. Walt’s tattoo says HUG LIFE, exhorting everyone who sees it to embrace the world, and all its people and opportunities, wholeheartedly.

Noah’s quest to win Sam over from her boyfriend takes flight after Noah’s parents go on a trip, leaving him home alone for a few weeks. Noah’s grandmother is supposed to supervise him but doesn’t believe it’s necessary. Walt, on the other hand, moves right in, believing Noah absolutely needs supervision if he’s going to win Sam’s heart. Walt anonymously sends Sam one of Noah’s poems, but it’s still up to Noah to decide how and when to reveal himself. Will he ever convince Sam to promote him out of the friend zone?

Swing is most of all a coming-of-age story, but there is a mystery in the background throughout. People find American flags left on lawns, stuck on windshields, and painted on freeway exit signs, and the town debates whether the flags represent a show of patriotism or a sinister warning.

no one can agree

on why the flags are here,

who’s planting them,

and whether or not

we should be

happy or offended

that they’re growing

like dandelions.

The flag mystery leads a fairly light story into heavier territory. I believe in building empathy and understanding through books about difficult topics; however, in Swing, the social justice issues are not well developed. Because of this, I felt unprepared for a tragedy (caused by police using excessive force) at the end of the book, and I think younger, sensitive readers in particular may have the same experience. Most of us dislike spoilers, but with Swing I think it’s fair to provide readers with a little warning before reading and a lot of opportunities for discussion afterward. In that context, I recommend Swing to readers fourteen and up as both a funny coming-of-age buddy story and a serious vehicle for discussing the people we as a society forget, fear, or abuse.

  • Review by Mary Malhotra

 

Celebrate Summer With Our Fabulous Four Books Giveaway

WIN FOUR SIGNED MG & YA BOOKS
Enter our fantastic summer giveaway
Courtesy of Candlewick Press

 

What better way to welcome the summer solstice than with a giveaway? But this is no ordinary giveaway! In April I enjoyed a wonderful pre-LA Times Festival of Books dinner with four fab Candlewick authors and was given autographed copies of their books. Good Reads With Ronna is giving away those signed novels to one lucky winner and it could be you. Read about the books in the giveaway. A handy Candlewick  tote bag is also included:

Burn_Baby_Burn by Meg Medina book coverBurn Baby Burn
Written by Meg Medina
(Candlewick Press; $17.99, Ages 14 and up)
Pura Belpré Author Award winner Meg Medina has another hit on her hands with this riveting read which took me back decades to that scary summer following my first year at university in New York. That’s when the letters of the S.O.S. distress signal stood for something much more sinister – the killer, Son of Sam. Here’s a description of the novel from Candlewick:
Nora Lopez is seventeen during the infamous New York summer of 1977, when the city is besieged by arson, a massive blackout, and a serial killer named Son of Sam who shoots young women on the streets. Nora’s family life isn’t going so well either: her bullying brother, Hector, is growing more threatening by the day, her mother is helpless and falling behind on the rent, and her father calls only on holidays. All Nora wants is to turn eighteen and be on her own. And while there is a cute new guy who started working with her at the deli, is dating even worth the risk when the killer likes picking off couples who stay out too late? Award-winning author Meg Medina transports us to a time when New York seemed balanced on a knife-edge, with tempers and temperatures running high, to share the story of a young woman who discovers that the greatest dangers are often closer than we like to admit — and the hardest to accept.
While violence runs rampant throughout New York, a teenage girl faces danger within her own home in Meg Medina’s riveting coming-of-age novel.

Read a sample chapter here.

Honor_Girl by Maggie Thrash book coverHonor Girl
Written and illustrated by Maggie Thrash
(Candlewick Press; $19.99, Ages 14 and up)
I read this graphic novel memoir in three sittings because I just had to find out what happened to Maggie at Camp Bellflower for Girls, the summer she fell in love. I cared about her immensely and so will YA fans into candor, introspection, and the intensity of first love. Here’s a description of this impressive debut novel from Candlewick:

Maggie Thrash has spent basically every summer of her fifteen-year-old life at the one-hundred-year-old Camp Bellflower for Girls, set deep in the heart of Appalachia. She’s from Atlanta, she’s never kissed a guy, she’s into Backstreet Boys in a really deep way, and her long summer days are full of a pleasant, peaceful nothing . . . until one confounding moment. A split-second of innocent physical contact pulls Maggie into a gut-twisting love for an older, wiser, and most surprising of all (at least to Maggie), female counselor named Erin. But Camp Bellflower is an impossible place for a girl to fall in love with another girl, and Maggie’s savant-like proficiency at the camp’s rifle range is the only thing keeping her heart from exploding. When it seems as if Erin maybe feels the same way about Maggie, it’s too much for both Maggie and Camp Bellflower to handle, let alone to understand.
All-girl camp. First love. First heartbreak. At once romantic and devastating, brutally honest and full of humor, this graphic-novel memoir is a debut of the rarest sort.

The Hired GirlThe_Hired_Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz book cover
Written by Laura Amy Schlitz
(Candlewick Press; $17.99, Ages 10-14)
While everyone was out at the pool during my Florida vacation this winter, I remained indoors because I could not put down this multiple award-winning novel from Newbery Medalist Schlitz. I relished being brought back in time to 1911 Baltimore following the ups and downs of protagonist Joan Skraggs as she becomes the hired girl in a wealthy Jewish household and tries to find her place in the world. Fans of historical fiction should add this to their must-read list.

Fourteen-year-old Joan Skraggs, just like the heroines in her beloved novels, yearns for real life and true love. But what hope is there for adventure, beauty, or art on a hardscrabble farm in Pennsylvania where the work never ends? Over the summer of 1911, Joan pours her heart out into her diary as she seeks a new, better life for herself—because maybe, just maybe, a hired girl cleaning and cooking for six dollars a week can become what a farm girl could only dream of—a woman with a future. Newbery Medalist Laura Amy Schlitz relates Joan’s journey from the muck of the chicken coop to the comforts of a society household in Baltimore (Electricity! Carpet sweepers! Sending out the laundry!), taking readers on an exploration of feminism and housework; religion and literature; love and loyalty; cats, hats, and bunions.

Dan vs. NatureDan_vs_Nature book cover
Written by Don Calame
(Candlewick Press; $17.99, Ages 14 and up)
Novelist and screenwriter Don Calame, has penned a fast-paced, fun YA novel for the most reluctant of teen readers. If you’re not sure what’s in store, better check out Calame’s clever book trailer here because it really gives you a good taste of the author’s unique sense of humor. High schoolers will appreciate the predicament that the main character, Dan Weekes is thrown into, survive being with his future step-dad or survive the wild.

Shy and scrawny Dan Weekes spends his time creating graphic novels inspired by his dream girl and looking out for his mom as she dates every man in the state of California. Then his mom drops a bomb: she and her latest beau, Hank, are engaged, and she’s sending her “two favorite men” on a survivalist camping trip to “bond.” Determined to trick Hank into showing his true — flawed — colors on the trip, Dan and his nerdy germaphobe best friend, Charlie, prepare a series of increasingly gross and embarrassing pranks. But the boys hadn’t counted on a hot girl joining their trip or on getting separated from their wilderness guide—not to mention the humiliating injuries Dan suffers in the course of terrorizing his stepdad-to-be. With a man-hungry bear on their trail, no supplies, and a lot of unpleasant itching going on, can Dan see his plan through now that his very survival depends on Hank?
From screenwriter Don Calame comes another outrageously funny and raunchy tale of teen boys whose plans go awry — this time, on a survivalist camping trip.

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