Kwame Alexander didn’t mince his words—or bother to rhyme them—when he told the students packed into Riverside High School’s auditorium, “Poetry saved my life.”
Alexander, who lives in Reston, is a New York Times bestselling author of 21 books, including “The Crossover,” which received a 2015 John Newbery Medal. He stopped by the five-month-old Riverside High School in Lansdowne Wednesday to encourage students to “say yes” to unexpected opportunities, and maybe even take another look at poetry.
As a teen, he said it was his skills in poetry—not on the football field or the basketball court—that finally convinced his crush to agree to be his prom date. As he got older, poetry became an outlet during hard times and, eventually, his livelihood.
After success with several books of poetry for adults, his wife suggested he write a children’s book. He had never written for children, except small poems for his daughter. “But I’m a say yes person,” he told the students.
He wrote “Acoustic Rooster and His Barnyard Band,” which garnered several awards and became one of the nation’s best-selling children’s books in 2012. Following the book’s success, a friend encouraged Alexander to write a book for middle and high school students.
“I told her ‘I’ve never thought about writing for teens.’ But I’m a say yes person,” he repeated.
So he got to work on a 250-page book that tells the story of two African-American twin brothers entirely through verse. He sent the manuscript to publisher after publisher and received rejection letter after rejection letter—19 in all. He was ready to call it quits, until he received a letter from HMH Books for Young Readers, saying the staff was excited to publish “The Crossover.”
Several months later, he got an early morning call to tell him the book had won the 2015 John Newbery Medal for the “Most Distinguished Contribution to American Literature for Children.”
“It’s like the Oscars or the Grammys of children’s book writing,” he explained. “In that moment I started thinking, what if I had walked out of the room at the first no? Or number 17, 18 or 19?”
And he urged the teens, “Be a yes person.”
Several students said yes to Alexander’s invitation to come to the mic and read some of their poetry. The students read words about everything from snow days to difficult relationships.
Alexander commended them for stepping up, and told them at their age he was more concerned about being cool than writing. “But I’m serious,” he said, and repeated, “Poetry saved my life.”
Read more about Alexander at www.bookinaday.org.