Newbery Medalist Kwame Alexander engages Evanston kids with novel on basketball, growing up


Julia Jacobs/Daily Senior Staffer

Kwame Alexander, this year’s Newbery Medalist, signs copies of his award-winning book Thursday afternoon at the Evanston Public Library. Alexander’s book, called “The Crossover,” is a children’s novel about basketball-playing twins that is written entirely in verse.

Julia Jacobs, Summer Editor

Kwame Alexander received 20 rejection letters for his book “The Crossover” before it was finally published. But when Alexander got a call one morning in February informing him that his children’s story had won this year’s Newbery Medal, he realized the two decades of struggling to make it as a poet had been worth it.

“When you’ve been told ‘no’ 20 times, the inclination is to walk out the door,” Alexander told an audience Thursday afternoon at the Evanston Public Library. “Here’s the thing, you’ve always got to say ‘yes’ to yourself.”

Alexander recounted his uphill battle to literary fame to about 100 children and adults, transitioning back and forth from speaking as if in a casual conversation to delivering spoken word poetry from his book. “The Crossover,” which is entirely in verse, is a novel for children and teens about basketball-playing twin brothers amid a family crisis.

Alexander said his initial goal for the book was to write something that he would have enjoyed reading as a young boy. After the book won the country’s top children’s book award, he said, he recognized the power the story can have to change people’s perspectives on the image of young black boys in America.

“Who better to do that than children’s book authors?” Alexander said. “Children’s book authors have the power to change our imaginations.”

Although Alexander often spoke directly to the crowd of cross-legged elementary school kids at his feet — many of whom could finish his sentences as he read aloud from the book — he also stepped forward to address adults on topics like love and parenting. Alexander, a father of two, recited poetry about realizing his desire to marry his wife as well as how he felt when his oldest daughter went on her first date at age 15.

The author’s visit was the capstone of the Dajae Coleman Foundation Summer Reading Initiative, which provides 200 free books to Evanston children, many of whom are a part of the McGaw YMCA summer camp or Youth Organizations Umbrella programming. The foundation was established by Coleman’s mother Tiffany Rice to honor the legacy of her son, who was killed as a result of gun violence at age 14.

Rice, who is now president of the foundation, said the program is both a tribute to her son’s love for reading and a solution for summer learning loss, which she said is common when children enter school without having read at all during the three-month vacation. In choosing a book, the foundation looks for a story that will be engaging for both boys and girls in the program, Rice said.

“We want to capture an audience that traditionally you don’t seen in libraries, you don’t see them reading,” she said. “It’s basketball-related, so it’s easy to identify with.”

Rice said the book’s verse form, which she said sounds a lot like hip-hop, is also appealing to the children.

“It’s good for all — any kind of gender,” said 10-year-old Sydney Olla-Chatman, who read the book as part of the foundation’s summer reading program. “Boys like basketball and some girls like basketball too. Some girls like poetry and so do some boys.”

Zaphan Hammond, 12, said although he doesn’t always like to read, “The Crossover” was easier to consume than most books because of its verse form and use of common language. Hammond, who also participated in the reading program, said he initially enjoyed the book because he is a basketball player himself but came to realize it was relevant to him in more ways than one.

“When you see the cover you think it’s all about basketball,” he said. “But when you read it, it’s more about life than basketball.”

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