With 36 books and counting, there is no denying that the volume of Kwame Alexander’s body of work is impressive. But it is his depictions about Black life and the travails of growing up and adhering to society’s rules that have truly impacted the canon of youth literature — and opened the minds of young Black readers by allowing them to see themselves reflected in the characters and beyond stereotypes .
To help his readers redefine their place in the world, Alexander writes about the daily lives and the extraordinary situations Black kids encounter and have to navigate. In his latest book, the first in a trilogy, The Door of No Return (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, September 27, 2022), Alexander explores the rich legacy of African traditions and those which were lost as a result of slavery.
Alexander has won winning multiple awards for his work, including the Newberry Medal, the Coretta Scott King Honor, and the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award. He has also been nominated three times for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work. On top of all this, his 2014 book The Crossover is being made into a television series on Disney +, where he serves as an executive producer and writer.
One of Alexander’s goals is to nurture future generations in literacy and leadership. In 2012 he founded the Literacy Empowerment Action Project (LEAP) with author Tracy Chiles McGhee. The organization is based in Ghana and aims to provide “innovative literacy, school improvement, and youth development programming to expand educational opportunities and strengthen developing communities.”
Alexander has visited thousands of schools and libraries across the country, promoting reading and the importance of libraries. In 2017, he was chosen as the first Conroy Legacy Award winner by a jury of Southern independent booksellers for his lifetime work in the literary community.
Here, he spoke with Oprah Daily about his writing and what lies ahead.
When you are creating, how do you envision your characters, and why do you make the choices you make?
When I’m thinking about character initially, I am thinking about my life, my experiences growing up, because so many of my heroes are young people. That begins a foundation for the character followed by imagination. Most of the work I do is really centered around trying to resist and rebel against the deficit language that is used to describe and portray Black people in general and Black children in particular — marginalized, disadvantaged, and othered. I don’t accept that, and I don’t buy it. I currently believe that one of my jobs as a writer is to show the full humanity of Black people in that we laugh, love, learn, and joke just like everybody else. I’m doing that to remind Black people of that, so we don’t get caught up in all the stereotypes and the limited imaginations of other people. I try to write books that are mirrors and windows, books that show us and remind us who we are, and books that allow other people to fully see us as human beings. And if they don’t, we’re going to keep doing what we do. I’m not going be distracted.
You write about Black characters going through their daily lives, not as an anthropological study of Black life. How does this approach impact the book industry?
I am not only trying to entertain through my books but to educate. I’ve been able to educate people in the industry and outside of the industry that our lives are more than slavery and they’re more than civil rights and faith.
I can’t tell you over the past two years how many times I’ve been invited to a book festival or a conference and they want me to speak about race, and I’m like, “No, I’m not going be your diversity author; I’m going to come and talk about what I want to talk about. “
The people who should be having the conversation about race are white people. The industry tends to think that we are defined by it, and I’m not. I refuse to be defined by how others view me. I’m going to define how and who I am.
I call it matter-of-fact Blackness. As Toni Morrison said, if we spend our lives being distracted by the racism, that’s where all the mental health issues come in and the hypertension. The purpose is to be here. Langston Hughes said, “I’ve been scarred and battered. My hopes the wind done scattered. ” But we’re still here, and in order for us to remain here, we have to be focused on the things that matter: joy, kindness, peace, and love. That’s Black futures right there; that’s hope.
We honor the heritage because they’ve got us here, and we live in the hope because that’s what’s going to carry us forward. The heart is what sustains us and keeps us from going crazy. It’s ultimately what we want for our children, what we want for ourselves tomorrow and the day after. We are not only going to survive but we going to thrive and be happy. I try to remind my children every day, “You are going to find that happiness, child. Find it, embrace it, and hold onto it. “
What is your vision for children’s fiction?
Children’s literature should help young people imagine a better world. The mind of an adult begins in the imagination of a child. What better way to inspire that imagination than through the pages of a book? I believe that children’s book authors — like teachers and librarians — have a sacred responsibility, and we have to honor that. Sure, our goal is to create page-turners, we want kids to read these books, but it’s more than just entertainment when you’re writing for children — it’s inspiration, engagement, and, ultimately, it’s empowerment. When I was 12 years old and I read the autobiography of Muhammad Ali, I couldn’t put it down. It was entertainment, but it also empowered me because I felt like I could be the greatest.
What does Versify, the imprint you lead, do differently than other imprints?
I don’t look at my work in publishing as trailblazing. I’m just being me — a creative who is interested in and committed to helping others find and lift their voices. I’ve always looked at publishing as a dinner party. For so long, the same people and ideas have been invited to the party. I’ve always been about crashing the party and bringing other dynamic people and ideas along. Some may see that as extraordinary, but it should be an ordinary thing. That is why I started Versify, and I know it’s the modus operandi of the team that’s now running it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
This story was created as part of Future Rising in partnership with Lexus. Future Rising is a series running across Hearst Magazines to celebrate the profound impact of Black culture on American life, and to spotlight some of the most dynamic voices of our time. Go to oprahdaily.com/futurerising for the complete portfolio.