Publishers' Preview: Fall 2020: Five Questions for James Patterson & Kwame Alexander

This interview originally appeared in the September/October 2020 Horn Book Magazine as part of the Publishers’ Previews: Fall 2020, an advertising supplement that allows participating publishers a chance to each highlight a book from its current list. They choose the books; we ask the questions.

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Two popular writers join forces (and genres!) to examine what went into Becoming Muhammad Ali (illustrated by Dawud Anyabwile), the boxing and social justice legend.

1. Two authors plus two publishers. Geez, how did anything get done?

KA: Jim is a master storyteller, plotter, and outliner. It was his idea for Lucky to narrate. I added sensibilities from Cassius’s friends’ oral histories to Lucky’s character. Jim came up with the “A” story, Cassius’s journey to Golden Gloves, and I came up with the personal, familial, and neighborhood happenings.

JP: I work with co-authors a lot, but collaborating with Kwame was particularly rewarding. His poetry and storytelling skills are stunning. Needless to say, I left the verse to him! Most of the time he let me handle the prose.

2. Did you both know what you were going to be when you grew up?

KA: A tennis player or pediatrician. But I knew whatever I did, I was gonna change the world. Pretty lofty vision for a ten-year-old, huh?

JP: I just wanted to get out of my small town. I assumed I’d be a doctor or a lawyer, but I’m happy (most days) that I somehow turned out to be a writer.

3. How do you feel about the term boys’ book?

KA: Books don’t segregate themselves. If you want empathetic, connected human beings, give all the books to all the kids.

JP: My goal is to make up stories that all kids won’t want to put down.

4. What did writing this book teach you about Muhammad Ali?

KA: Boxing didn’t make him the ­greatest. The teachings of his grandfather, love and lessons of his parents, kinship with his brother, friends, neighborhood, ­principal — made him believe he was great. Who we are is not what we do.

JP: How intense he was about accomplishing what he thought was important. And he was aware of disparities and racial injustice even as a young boy.

5. Ever been in the ring?

KA: Once. I rather enjoyed it, until I got tagged. Ha!

JP: I saw Mike Tyson fight, ringside, and that was close enough for me.

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Photos: Left: Stephanie Diani, courtesy of Investigation Discovery. Right: Gary Gershoff.

Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

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