PB&J EP 5 Transcript: Kwame Alexander and Becoming Muhammad Ali

Picture Books & Justice: Interview With Kwame Alexander 

Hello and welcome to a new interview series by the Picture Bookstagang Crew, Picture Books & Justice is a series where we interview a creator from the picture book world and get to know them a little better.  To us there’s nothing better than a beautiful spellbinding picture book that has social justice themes. The picture book world is a big beautiful place, and we are excited to hear different experiences and opinions in a shorter time frame than our full length picture bookstagang episodes.  PB&J is your afternoon book snack, so let’s dig in!

02:28 Coco: Hi everyone and welcome back to another episode of PB&J! Future Corrie here, and today is a really special one because over the weekend I got a chance to speak with author Kwame Alexander about his new book written with James Patterson titled “Becoming Muhammad Ali”, which will be available October 5th, next Monday folks.

Kwame Alexander hardly needs an introduction in the book world, but let me give you a quick rundown of some of his accomplishments before I turn your ears over to the wonderful interview that I was able to have with him.

Kwame is a poet, educator, and New York Times Bestselling author of 28 books, including “THE UNDEFEATED”, “SWING”, and “REBOUND”, the follow-up to the NEWBERY medal-winning novel, “THE CROSSOVER.” His story is not a rags to riches story, but it is a story of starting at ground zero as a resourceful writer and business man who sold books out of his car and at Farmer’s Markets, to becoming an expert in engaging young audiences for companies like Nike, ESPN, Sesame Street, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Follett. A regular contributor to NPR’s Morning Edition, Kwame is the recipient of numerous awards, including The Coretta Scott King Author Honor, The Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Prize, Three NAACP Image Award Nominations, and the 2017 Inaugural Pat Conroy Legacy Award. Kwame is the co-founder of L.E.A.P., an international literacy empowerment organization that built the Barbara E. Memorial Library and Health Clinic in the eastern region of Ghana, and the founder of VERSIFY, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt which publishes books that will engage, entertain, and empower young people to imagine a better world.

Becoming Muhammed Ali is actually a YA book, but it’s beautifully written and includes illustrations and Cassisus’ narration flows like poetry throughout the novel.  

Kwame and James Patterson teamed up to write this forthcoming novel. James describes his  writing career as characterized by a single mission: to prove that there is no such thing as a person who “doesn’t like to read,” only people who haven’t found the right book. He’s given over three million books to schoolkids and the military, donated more than seventy million dollars to support education, and endowed over five thousand college scholarships for teachers. The National Book Foundation recently presented Patterson with the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community, and he is also the recipient of an Edgar Award and six Emmy Awards.   

I will link to both Kwame and James’ websites in the show notes (where I found these specifics about them), as well as the Versify and HMH pages so you can check them out at your leisure.  

And a quick anecdote before I release you to what you’re really here for-when I was telling Ale and Kelly about the interview, Ale says to me “This is the nicest I’ve ever heard you speak about any man” so that should enlighten you to as the level of fangirl that I currently am about Kwame and also Becoming Muhammed Ali, which I am just now finishing up and very excited to give my full review of.  

And so, we have reached the end of Future Corrie’s nattering on, and please enjoy this interview with Kwame Alexander, and be sure to listen to the end and hear how awkwardly I end the interview.  Goodbye, lovely people!

4:05 C: Hi everyone! This is Corrie from @thetinyactivists and today I have the pleasure of speaking with author Kwame Alexander about his upcoming book “Becoming Muhammad Ali” and that is actually going to be available on October 5th. So we were gonna hang and chat for a little bit today so welcome thank you so much for being here.

4L28 K: Thanks for having me I’m really excited to talk about this book!

4:34 C: Yeah I love the cover it’s so bright and striking too.

4:38 K: The illustrator his name is Dawud and he lives in Atlanta and he’s really phenomenal.

4:45 C: Very cool yeah the illustrations are really great.  So I guess the thing that is most on my mind is what do you find most surprising in your research for the new book?

4:58 K: I think that Muhammad Ali always knew, the fact that he always knew he was the greatest.  Even when he was a kid, so he was arrogant and funny you know? Even as a 12 year old.  And I just found that really interesting because for some reason I don’t know, I didn’t know about his childhood I just, we’ve all known about him as an adult, as a professional as a boxer as a heavy weight champion, as an activist, as an icon.  But you know to find out that he, you know many of the things that he personality traits he exhibited as an adult, I guess it really isn’t surprising that they were there as a kid, but it was just really cool to find that out.

5:49 C: That is really cool I think it’s so special when A child has an unbreakable air of confidence about them, especially if you’re in a marginalized group in any way then the world is basically designed to break you down and you know? It’s a special personality trait to have that, and you know, what you said is exactly right I remember just the pictures of him boxing and that’s it.  As a child I used to have one of those really old “Life” photography books, like the best photos of the decade for the 20th century and there was just him there boxing but nothing, you know? About his youth or childhood or anything.

6:31 K: Yeah I think that’s one of the reasons we decided to do the book, so that kids could know that, yeah he didn’t get the best grades, he was kind of bullied, he did have a crush, he was sort of facing a lot of racism and injustice.  And he had an amazing family, and a lot of cool friends, and he loved playing sports.  And, and he survived, he persevered.  He figured it out and he had an amazing support system, so, I really think kids can learn that no matter what their circumstances or situations are whether it be in school or at home, that they can become the greatest at what they wanna be.  And that’s the hope.  That readers get from this story.

7:24 C: Definitely I will confess I haven’t finished it yet because I haven’t been able to read all the way through it since I received it but I’m so excited to finish it, it’s excellent.

7:37 K: Thank you thank you, but I don’t wanna spoil it for you but he becomes heavyweight champion.

7:45 C: HAHAHa, I may not be the most athletic, but I did know he was the heavyweight champion.  So sit safely you didn’t spoil it for me, and hopefully not for anybody else.  

7:56 K: Right

7:56 C: And I was really particularly struck by the book and want to hear a bit more about the connection between Ali’s activism and the current activism of athletes that we see today.

8:11 K: Yeah I mean, Cassius Clay grew up in his community in Louisville where, being a Black person, required you to be an activist every day of your life because you were facing racism and white supremacy and social injustice on a daily basis.  And so you figure out, pretty early on, that it’s not fair it’s not right it’s not good, and so how are you gonna resist that?  And so he grew up in this community where you know, it was just a matter of breathing that’s what activism was.  How to make this world, you know, better?  How to fight for your equality, and then there were people, like his grandfather. A local teacher who she created voting machines out of cardboard in order to teach the local community people how to vote properly.

So he grew up around these people who were activists in earnest, and so I think it was just natural for him to sort of become who he was I don’t know how you can grow up in the fifties and sixties in this country and not sort of have those sensibilities, and you know he had them for sure.

9:42 C: Definitely I think one of the issues I have run into, I’m a former Classroom teacher is the way that in a lot of school the civil rights movement and the modern Black freedom struggle are taught as sort of having these figureheads instead of explaining the widespread community system and activism to really be on the ground in every small town and every community. And it wasn’t just a couple of key people that were making everything happen.

10:14 K: Yeah, you’re spart on, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Stokely Carmichael, these were amazing, you know people amazing individuals.  And, you can’t have a protest or a march, or a rally with those handful of people there’s gotta be the people on the ground who are not going to school or not going to work because this is important like these people believe, it was a matter of life or death and so nothing else mattered but fighting for equality.  Fighting for justice, fighting for freedom, and in order to do that there has to be some serious organizing going on, there has to be some serious coordinating and some communications.  There has to be some consensus in the community.  And I just concur and agree with you wholeheartedly that a movement is made by the people.  And that is inspirational to kids because kids don’t necessarily think they can be a Martin Luther King, it seems too far fetched and, same thing with Ali, what kid thinks they can actually be Ali?  Maybe six, seven, eight year old kids might say it but when they’re eighteen nineteen twenty who actually thinks they can achieve that level? And I think one of the reasons we did this book is so what you’re speaking at is that you can do it. Because Ali started as Cassius Clay, he started as a kid just like these kids who’ve been reading this book.

12:14 C: I completely agree with you that’s why I feel so passionately about  introducing social justice education at a young age so that all of this is really deeply embedded in the foundation, like the education and the values that children grow up and develop with so that they understand you know? Not only that it takes more than one person to be a movement, but also that they are capable of change.  And, wherever they are at whatever age they are.

12:45 K: Absolutely, we should put that on tshirts.

C: Absolutely, I’m in if you are. And so what do you think is most valuable about social justice education for young people?

13:01 K: We want young people to be better adults than we are.  We want, you know? The mind of an adult begins in the imagination of a kid.  So.  Social just is not just about teaching kids lecturing kids about what’s right and how to treat people, and how the laws should better reflect you know?  All Americans rights and it should not just be about teaching that it’s about, helping young people develop an imagination that empowers them to be the human beings that they are.  Cuz the kids aren’t necessarily the problem it’s the adults that are teaching the kids. Who are putting books in the kid’s hand because they think this book has a male character as a lead so it should be a boy reading it, or, you know, this book has a Black character so it should just be a Black kid reading it.  If we want kids to be more connected, more empathetic, better human beings, who embrace all facets of our humanity which include social justice then we gotta give them as a writer I’m a big fan of making sure that the books we put into kids’ hands prepare them for the world.  Help them develop a really full imagination.  So that’s, that’s what I think, social justice is, is a byproduct of a way of thinking that can be developed and nurtured in our children if you help them become better human beings.  And how do we do that? I think one way of doing that is giving them books that reflect the world that we live in.

15:14 C: That’s an excellent point it also makes me thinking about that if we are teaching all of this to the younger generations then generally the world that is beneficial and equitable for everybody then we won’t exactly need to phrase social justice education anymore because it will have transformed into something that works for everybody instead of just a very minute sliver of the population.

15:46 K: We need social justice for us, for the adults that are teaching kids, that’s who needs social justice classes.  That’s who needs to be taught about equality.  That’s who needs those lectures, the adults!

16:01 C: Well I’ll sign up I’ll give anyone any lecture about that any time. Haha.  Even when they least expect it.

16:10 K: We’ll all be waiting in line for that I’m sure because you seem like somebody who believes in it.

16:18 C: I’m trying with every, with every fibre of my being to be honest. And I really love the way that in your answer you just brought in books too and the books that we need to be giving you know?  The students and, you know, the adults, I feel genuinely that even adults can learn from any age book that they’re reading.  But what do you feel needs to change about the publishing industry as a whole?

16:47 K: I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about that.  I run my own imprint Versify and so I spend my time trying to make the world better through the books that we publish.  If I got caught up in thinking what other publishers aren’t doing, or what they should be doing it would distract me from the energy and the focus that I need to change the world one word at a time.  So I’m, I’m in the business of trying to create opportunities for authors to tell their stories that matter, so publish intelligent entertainment that’s going to make kids want to read and help them become better.

17:35 C: Which honestly is the best, biggest answer you could have you’re not wasting time thinking about it you’re actually out there doing it and making it happen yourself.  So.  I did have one more follow up question about the publishing industry which I don’t know if maybe you have been thinking about it at all.  But. You know, given the last few months and sort of the recent and very long overdue sort of upheavals and resurged interest in the Black Lives Matter movement, do you think because of this there will be a shift to more imprints like the one you are running like Versify.

18:20 K: All I can do is speak for myself that I’m going to ensure that we continue doing the kind of work that I feel is meaningful and significant and relevant.  And it speaks to the moment it speaks to the future it speaks to these kids.  My hope? Is that other people do the same thing.  But it is my goal to ensure that at least I do.

18:52 C: Fingers and toes crossed that other people will follow suit.  And I don’t wanna take up too too much of your time but I was wondering what your biggest piece of advice to parents caregivers and educators about their bookshelf, what would you say?

19:11 K: Let your book shelf reflect the kind of world you claim you want for you kids, it’s as simple as that. Look at your shelf, look at your books, those books reflect the kind of world you want your kids to have, that you want them to imagine, that you want them to live in.  And if they don’t then you’ve got some work to do.

19:33 C: I am with you, I agree, and I also think that sometimes the things that you take away from your bookshelf can also have an impact.  Although you should be adding all sorts of things, all the time.  

K: Absolutely.

C:So thank you so much for chatting with me today.  I could go on and on honestly, it would be great I would love to chat but I know that it’s late where you are. So thank you so much.

K: Yeah in London.  Thank you so much for letting me talk about this book, I’m excited for it. I appreciate it.

C: Yeah, I’m so excited for it to be out in the world and others to be able to read it. It’s very brilliant just like your other books are, that I highly recommend.  Thank you so much!

K: Thank you





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