Tag Archives: Kwame Alexander

Looking back some more, and forward

When I had the idea to cover more [than my average] black fiction during June, I came up with a lot of titles and authors. And then I realised that many of these authors were white, which is what much of the criticism of books featuring black characters has been about. So I vowed to avoid those books, however great they may be.

I also came up with a list of books I wanted to read, but was unable to fit into one month. If nothing else, it would have been unfair to the books, as I wouldn’t have given them the time they deserved.

Two ‘recent’ books were Mare’s War by Tanita S Davis, and Home Home by Lisa Allen-Agostini. The former is about black American women serving in Europe during WWII, and the latter is about being an immigrant in a very white part of Canada. Neither is typical and I enjoyed them. Also, the two authors are not really household names, which adds to the fun.

Speaking of household names, I am getting a lot closer to reading Toni Morrison. And despite her being very well known, I have to admit to wanting to read Michelle Obama’s autobiography. And Kwame Alexander’s The Undefeated which, while being a picture book, is so much more.

Writing Rhythm

It’s odd. First, I don’t read that much poetry, or go to poetry events. And then in quick succession I found myself in the Spark theatre for poetry, two events running. Also, out of five poets, three are American. But they explained that poetry is big in the US, in a way it’s not in the UK.

Jason Reynolds and Amy McKay

Chaired by Amy McKay, whose flamingo skirt I couldn’t help noticing at the first event (about flamingos), she’d moved on to an equally stunning daisy skirt. And as she said in her introduction of Sarah Crossan, Kwame Alexander and Jason Reynolds; ‘we are really spoiling you this afternoon.’ They really were. She also knew not to waste time on listing all the great stuff the three have done.

Kwame Alexander

For some reason I’d not realised Kwame wasn’t British, but he’d just moved to London six days earlier, so I was almost right. Brixton has changed in 28 years, apparently. He read his new ‘picture book’ The Undefeated to us, showing the audience the illustrations while he recited his own poems by heart.

This impressed Sarah Crossan, the current Irish Laureate na nÓg, because she can’t remember hers. Maybe it depends on which side of the Atlantic you’re from. She chose to read about Marla and Toffee, the young and the old, and no one listens to either.

Sarah Crossan

And I finally got to ‘meet’ Jason Reynolds, whom I’d not heard of two years ago when I met someone who enthused about him a great deal. At first he gave a fair impression of a sullen teenager while the other two spoke, but once it was his turn,  he sprang to life and you could see why people admire him so much. He mentioned the weather [in the tent], before moving on to gun violence, and talking about how we ‘strap monikers to children so we won’t have to call them children.’

Jason Reynolds

So, anyway, poems are cool in America. Sarah was in luck, writing her first novel while living in the US. According to Kwame poetry is big, but he reckons the publishers don’t know much. He mentioned the impact of Walter Dean Myers, the hero in Love That Dog. Verse novels is quite a new thing, but ‘the kids were already there.’

Sarah is ‘impressed by myself’ and keeps anything she’s written, but edited out, in case she can slot poems in where they are needed. Kwame had many nice poems, but they didn’t go together, so he rewrote.

Jason said ‘it’s my job to keep the rhythm,’ and according to Kwame ‘when it works, the reader forgets it is poetry.’ And he told Sarah that she needs to learn to ‘own her own work.’ She felt that sounded like therapy, and very American.

Sarah Crossan

Kwame went on to mention the American ‘call and response’ to poetry, which is clearly what Elizabeth Acevedo was busy doing a couple of days before, when Dean Atta read from his book. Sarah doesn’t want to manipulate the readers, but Kwame is ‘totally into manipulating’ them… You need to make the world better, and it’s his responsibility to make you feel something. Jason said he’s somewhere between the other two, and manipulation is a dangerous word. ‘I just wanna bear witness.’

Someone in the audience mentioned that with verse novels you don’t have to write the boring bits, which made Kwame quote a secondary school pupil who had described it as ‘the right words in the right order.’

Jason Reynolds

Jason pointed out that writing poetry is like painting with only half a palette, which is harder; ‘really difficult.’ Sarah feels that writing is very democratic, and you only need pen and paper. And it helps if you don’t go to the cinema, don’t have any friends and if you work hard.

Kwame, ‘I steal a lot. Mature writers steal.’

And that was it. The main problem with the event was that it was too short. We could have done with at least another hour. Maybe two. It’s all that poetry, with so few words.

Tough Teens

As Daniel Hahn and I agreed afterwards, we had forgotten the event a couple of Augusts ago, which he had chaired and where Anthony McGowan turned himself into the bad voice re YA. But we remembered the night fondly, because last night’s event with Tony and Alex Wheatle was also a really good one.

Tough Teens, it was called. Chaired by Mairi Kidd – who had ‘mothered’ Tony’s fictional boys into being – this was a great conversation. In fact, it’s one of very few where the authors involved got so caught up that they talked to each other, in earnest, about writing, [almost] forgetting the chair and the audience.

Yes, the audience. It wasn’t the biggest I’ve known, but it was Monday night when the schools had just gone back. But it was the right audience. It was nearly all teenagers, mostly boys, with a few token adults like me and Daniel, and Kwame Alexander. This is how it should be.

Alex Wheatle and Anthony McGowan

So, the talk was right, and the audience was right. The questions were great, and far better for me staying out of things (someone had wanted me to ask the first question…).

And jail, well, it can turn a man into a reader, and then into an author. The young Alex met his ‘mentor’ in a jail cell; someone who told him he’d nothing better to do in there so he might as well read. And now with his personal experience of living in care, Alex has written a book about a girl in care. He had to force his own daughter to tell him what girls talk about, to get it right. He was a bit shocked at what he discovered.

Tony, on the other hand, returned to Sherburn in Elmet outside Leeds, where he grew up, to write about two brothers in the four-book Brock trilogy. It’s a place for boredom, and with a bacon factory. Not as exciting as London.

Alex’s fictional Crongton can be London, but it could also be almost anywhere else. He knows about detentions, and remembering how he wanted to impress a girl he met there, it all went into Kerb Stain Boys. His reading from the book revealed a lot about his made up slang and accents.

When it was Tony’s turn to read, I thought he was trying to get out of it, but a member of the audience lent him her reading glasses, so all was fine. He needs to pace around when he reads, and we all enjoyed the story about swimming across the ‘bacon pond’ in the nude.

Winning awards is nice, and it opens doors. But, they feel shortchanged by the media. Asked if they get fan mail, it seems that teens are too cool to write; it’s mostly younger ones who do. Mental health is a big thing in their books, as is life for young carers.

They recognise their own teen years when they do school visits, but reckon mobile phones have changed how pressured children are today. Tony remembers everything from his teens, but not what he did last week. Alex is the hopeful guy who wants to date the beautiful girl, who already has a more exciting boyfriend.

Anthony McGowan

And on that happy note we all congregated in the bookshop. Well, Tony got there a little late, but he got there. Kwame chatted to Alex and got a book signed. Even I remembered after a bit that I had books that wanted signing. (I’m the one without an ‘e’ at the end, btw.) Tony discussed tonality with a fan, and did his best to sign in Chinese.

Alex Wheatle and Kwame Alexander

As I said earlier, it’s great when authors simply get on with it and talk about writing. It’s also great when their peers come to the event, along with the appropriate age readers.

We want more of this.