Saturday, February 7, 2015

Kwame Alexander: Writing Diverse Characters and Books

It was announced this week that Kwame Alexander won the 2015 Newbery Award for his middle grade novel, The Crossover!

Kwame is a poet and author of eighteen books, including Acoustic Rooster and His Barnyard Band (The 2014 Michigan Reads One Book Selection), He Said, She Said (a Junior Library Guild Selection.) He is the founder of Book-in-a-Day, a student-run publishing program that has created more than 3,000 student authors; and LEAP for Ghana, an international literacy project that builds libraries, trains teachers, and empowers children through literature. The Kwame Alexander Papers, a collection of his writings, is held at the George Washington University Gelman Library.

The room is PACKED for Kwame Alexander.

He has us cracking up, telling us about finding time to write and balancing that with spending time with his family.

If we want to write diverse characters, we've got to READ books with diverse characters.

He addresses the fear of being disrespectful, people who say they don't know any diverse people so they can't write that. He says we write books about zombies and vampires and we don't know any of them. It's a cop out to say we don't know diverse characters.

He reads some amazing poems/passages from his Newbery Award-winning THE CROSSOVER, asking us questions about what we know about the character, and why? Is the character Black? Why do we think so? How do we separate out the author from the work?

He shares that a teacher contacted him, saying she needed to know the race of the main character before book-talking The Crossover to her students. He said why? She said the kids were going to ask her. He didn't tell her, but said, let me know if they ask.

The kids never asked.

The problem is not the kids reading the books. The problem is us. In the way we are writing and the way our perceptions color our books.

"We have to change our way of thinking of diversity."

"You have to LIVE a diverse life."

He speaks of bringing the power of words and stories to children in other countries. Of his six trips to Ghana, and the 200 children in a village who had never seen a book with a Black character in it before he visited them.

Kwame calls up Pam Allyn of LitWorld, who shares a story of children in a rural village. She took a photo of them, and then showed them the image - and they had no idea which child they were in the photo. Because in their village, they had no mirrors, no glass, no reflections - they didn't know what they looked like. The power of being able to see themselves in a book is so powerful! Children need mirrors.

Kwame talks about the assumptions about the color of a character based on the book's author if its not called out otherwise, and he tells us to "be bold!"

Assert our vision.

He shares a great list of seven tips and wisdom, including these two:

#3. Be Authentic
(You don't have to make a big thing out of the diverse characters and elements, unless the story dictates that you make a big thing out of the diverse characters and elements.)

#7. Be intentional in your effort to write the kind of world you want your children to live, learn and love in.

Humble. Proud. Charming. Brilliant.

Kwame Alexander - awesome!

1 comment:

  1. I am an author with similar values. I hope to share my diverse characters with readers as much as I can. Thanks for the inspiring words!