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Five questions for Kwame Alexander

alexander_kwame_200x300Middle-school hoops star Josh “Filthy McNasty” Bell wants to play for Duke. His twin brother JB bleeds Carolina Blue. Is there a more apt metaphor for sibling rivalry?! Here we talk to 2015 Newbery Medal winner Kwame Alexander, for The Crossover (Houghton), about sports, music, sleep (who needs it?), and…Gangsta Cookies.

1. The book has a sense of symmetry to it — the symmetry of a basketball court, the back-and-forth rhythm of some of the lines (“MOVING & GROOVING”; “CrissCROSSING / FLOSSING”), and of course the twin brothers. Was the idea of symmetry or pairs something you had in mind?

KA: Thank you, Horn Book, for asking that. Unfortunately, this is one of those situations where the question is much more interesting and amazing than the answer. I’ll say this though: When the writing gets good, when the right words dance together on the page, sometimes things just click and you just have to accept. You smile, and say, “Wow, I did that symmetry thing. I hope some interviewer asks me about it, so I can claim that I did not skip Nikki Giovanni’s Advanced Poetry class the day she taught us how to extend metaphors and create layers in your poetic text.” So, again, thank you for this wonderful question.

2. There’s musicality to much of the verse. Are there songs or artists or genres of music that inspire your poetry?

KA: I listen to jazz
When I write

On the drive to a school visit
I blast House or Hip Hop

When I’m on a plane or a beach, relaxing
I listen to Bossa Nova

And, of course, it’s Darius Rucker on rotation
When I’m in Africa (Seriously, country music is HUGE in Ghana)

alexander_crossover3. Are you a hoops fan? NCAA or pro?

KA: Love the NBA. Love watching LeBron on the court. Love what’s about off the court. Love Stephen Curry (went to college with his father). On the other hand, one of my childhood friends is the aunt of Kentucky’s seven-foot center, Dakari Johnson, so yeah, I’m a huge NCAA fan…right now.

4. You do frequent school visits, along with other author events, your Book-in-a-Day program, and you also have a family. When do you find the time to write? Or sleep?

KA: I wrote a play once about Tupac Shakur, and I had gotten to that part of the writing process when the writing got real good, the characters moved in with me, I was immersed in their story, and one night I had a dream that I was in the back of a jeep with Tupac and we were driving house to house selling…wait for it…Gangsta Cookies. This, of course, became the funniest line in the play, which was my first piece of work to get reviewed in The Washington Post. How cool is that: I write in my sleep.

Also, I’ve been doing all these things you’ve mentioned for twenty-two years, and I’ve never stopped to ask myself how I do it, and I don’t think I’m going to start asking myself now because I like my sanity.

5. Do you abide by the book’s Basketball Rules? (For example: “Basketball Rule #4: / If you miss / enough of life’s / free throws / you will pay / in the end.”

KA: Well sorta, except I don’t call them Basketball Rules. Also, the sports metaphor for me would probably be Tennis Rules, as that was my favorite competitive sport in high school and college. I guess I have what I call #KwameRules and number one on that list is: Say yes! I’m a fan of taking risks, walking through doors even if you don’t know what’s on the other side, and figuring it out once you get there. It doesn’t always work out immediately as you’d like, but in the end I think you’re better for it. I know I am.

From the February 2015 special ALA Awards issue of The Horn Book Herald.

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