Kwame Alexander says it’s his job to make books cool.
“I was that kid who didn’t like reading, even though I was well-read … you’ve got to make the words mean something,” he says. “They’ve got to be relatable.”
Alexander has been making his words matter (and cool) for years. The poet, educator and New York Times best-selling author has written 28 books, including the Newbery-winning “The Crossover.” The 2018 National Education Association Read Across America Ambassador, Alexander also regularly appears on NPR’s “Morning Edition”; hosts and produces the literary variety/talk show “Bookish,” which appears on Facebook Watch; and is the founding editor of Versify, a Houghton Mifflin Harcourt imprint that will launch in the spring with a diverse lineup of authors.
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He’ll be in Austin on Monday with his newest book in verse, “Swing” (Blink, $18.99), which he co-authored with Mary Rand Hess. Fans of “Crossover” and its sequel, the National Book Award-nominated “Booked,” will revel in the potent phrases that evoke images, issues and emotions.
“Swing” focuses on high-schoolers Walt and Noah and their ongoing attempts to find their place in the world. Walt rechristens himself Swing, for his newfound love of jazz; the moniker also references his steadfast belief that he and Noah will become baseball superstars (even though they’ve just been cut from the team for the third time).
Noah doesn’t have quite as much optimism. He’s pining for Sam, his best friend since third grade, but she’s going out with (true baseball phenom) Cruz. Even so, after finding a thrifted trove of love letters, he decides to try his hand at pouring out his true feelings on the page:
“Tonight, I’m ready
“to tear courage
“out of the book of dares
“and make it mine.”
“It’s about boys trying to find their cool,” explains Alexander. “It’s about boys trying to find their place in this world; it’s about boys trying to find love … everything I write about is coming of age, it’s about boys to men.”
It’s also about the larger world today, with a subplot centered on flags that keep appearing around town — in thickets on the baseball field, one wrapped around the tree in front of school, more drawn on the sidewalk, flurries of them appearing on car windshields. While it’s mostly town residents who are upset, there are also hints of police overzealousness, though “Swing” takes care to find the humanity on both sides of the shield.
“I think the social justice aspect of the novel didn’t kick in until the third or fourth draft,” Alexander says. “It wasn’t planned, it was just kind of what’s happening around us.”
Those challenges of the broader world are also on display in “A Thousand Winters,” Alexander’s contribution to the “We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices” anthology (Crown, $18.99).
“but it feels
“like a thousand winters
“and the world is not such a beautiful place
“You want to be able to engage and inspire and empower kids to imagine a better world for us,” he says. “I find that writing and literature and books are ways to do that.”
That happens in his frequent visits to schools and literary festivals throughout the year, as well as the Literacy Empowerment Action Project for Ghana international literary initiative he co-founded in 2012; last summer, he opened a library and health clinic in the village.
“I visited a village in Ghana, and there were about 200 kids I read to," Alexander says. "There was no library, so we cleared out a space and a closet with some friends, and over six years that room evolved into a full-size library and health clinic. It was a six-year dream — I believe that books can transform the imagination of young people and they can show them a way to better understand their place in the world.”
If anyone can do it, it’s Alexander. His charisma and easy humor have made him a sought-after presenter at schools, conferences, festivals and bookstores. Austin is one of 16 public stops on his “Swing” tour; he sandwiched in time for this interview after surprising a school with a visit. His author website features him posing with students for selfies, presenting to packed theaters and even leaping aloft with a large group of young fans.
“I love it!” he says. “When I go to my daughter’s class, her classmate was like, ‘Oh my God! It’s him! He’s here! You’re like the Beyoncé of kids books.’
“I, of course, thought I was the Jay Z.”