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An author whose poetry gives hope to children in time of despair

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  • solo book cover

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  • the crossover cover

With the hard-won success of the civil rights movement and the election of our nation’s first African American president, Barack Obama, many people might have thought that we would now be living in a post-racial America. Unfortunately, despite many gains in social justice and professional achievement, race relations remain one of America’s greatest problems.

Despite the country’s rich history, economic prosperity, and abundance of natural resources, it seems that the United States is unable to find the language needed to effectively discuss race and healing. Many have taken matters into their own hands by removing historical statues, protesting in the streets, fighting, and in some instances, even killing. While all of this is unfolding, the country’s children are watching and waiting. One can only imagine what they must be feeling: detachment, abandonment, and possibly fear. Perhaps they are wondering whether anyone’s life really matters.

Children are the future stars of the world, and certainly, their lives matter. No society should ever be so enraged that it loses concern for its children. While the nation’s children wait for America to become a more positive and welcoming place, it is our responsibility to work toward restoring the tolerance needed to celebrate differences.

In this state of despair, there’s an author whose poetry is uplifting, rhythmic, and a lot of fun. His name is Kwame Alexander. Many children who have read his books are left feeling inspired to read more.

Alexander's powerful use of language and remarkable talent to tell stories have given him rock-star status.

In 2015, Alexander was recognized by the Association for Library Service to Children, receiving the prestigious Newbery Medal. Since then, his work has continued to climb the New York Times children’s best-seller list. His most recent book, Solo (2017), is a widely acclaimed story about love, struggle, identity, and rock and roll. Booked (2016) is about a soccer player who strategically uses words to gain popularity with girls and to fend off bullies. In Alexander’s Newbery-winning novel, The Crossover (2015), he has beautifully woven together themes of pre-adolescence, basketball, and brotherhood.

These novels are filled with spectacular narratives, haiku, and free verse. In Solo, Alexander writes with pizzazz and swagger, pairing poetry to music tracks in a way that shows their relation as cousins, as he says. I would also argue that poetry gave birth to hip-hop, a genre filled with thought-provoking language sometimes used as a call for justice.

Intended for middle graders, the novels have also reached the attention of an adult audience — a fan base that is quickly growing. I'm one of his biggest fans, and whenever he’s in my area signing books or performing a mini book concert, I'm there. I know the benefits of teaching poetry to children and hope to glean techniques from his performances that will enhance my instructional read-aloud /modeled reading times.

As a former children’s librarian for the Free Library of Philadelphia, I was asked to participate in the Building Bridges with Books program, designed to help children read by 4th grade.

My interpretation of what was expected led me to create story-times that were more than tactile experiences of holding books and reading from them. I wanted to teach children how language and literacy come together. Since the language of poetry teaches many literacy skills – phonics, vocabulary, and sentence structures – and since children have an attraction to patterns, repetition, and rhyming words, I used an assortment of books and songs riddled with playful language and rhyme schemes such as quatrains, couplets, and limericks to create a thrilling and fun-filled time. 

At moments like these, we can use poetry as a tool to demonstrate how children can think beyond the literal into the abstract and use their voices to shine!

Solo
Publisher: Blink
Reading level: grades 5-12
Ages: 14 & up

Booked
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Reading level: grades 5-12
Ages: 10 & up

The Crossover
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Reading level: grades 5-12
Ages: 10 & up

Robin Muldor-Engram is a former children’s librarian for the Free Library of Philadelphia whose mission is to guide learning and to promote quality childhood achievements.

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