It doesn’t take much to get award-winning, bestselling poet and author Kwame Alexander excited, especially if you’re talking about books and children and teens. If you’ve ever seen him speak, you know this Newbery winner is high-energy and has great passion for his work.
He’s especially excited these days about summer. Probably for the same reasons a lot of us look forward to summer, but he’s got something extra-special on his plate. He was officially named the 2017 National Summer Reading Champion for the Collaborative Summer Library Program (CSLP).
CSLP, which reaches over 15,000 libraries nation-wide, is a nonprofit consortium of states that work together to provide a summer reading theme, materials, and professional resources for member libraries, all in the name of providing excellent summer reading programs to their communities at the lowest possible cost.
This year’s theme is “Build a Better World,” and for this Kwame has created a list of his favorite recommended summer reads. You can see the entire list here (a PDF linked to my own blog). The list includes board books, picture books, poetry, and novels (nonfiction and fiction, old and new alike) for all ages. Want to read this summer? Kwame recommends, for one, Nikki Giovanni’s The Sun Is So Quiet, illustrated by Ashley Bryan, as well as Martha Brockenbrough’s The Game of Love and Death. The latter was released just a couple years ago, but don’t forget Virginia Hamilton’s classic M.C. Higgins, the Great, the 1975 Newbery Medal winner.
Kwame’s got you covered.
I talked to him via email about his new role as Champion. (Rah!)
Jules: Hi, Kwame! What does it mean to you to have been asked to champion summer reading?
Kwame: It’s a real honor.
It means I have another opportunity, another platform, with which to encourage and inspire young people to pick up a book that’s gonna engage them. It means I get to consciously brainstorm creative ways to tear kids away from Netflix for a minute.
I hope it means I get a trophy or plaque or something: Kwame Alexander, Father, Husband, Occasional Netflix Binger, Champion of Summer Reading.
Jules: The 2017 theme of this nation-wide campaign is "Build a Better World." What’s the most recent book you read (for children or adults) that you think helps build a better world?
Kwame: Well, I just re-read the advanced reading copy of my new YA novel, Solo (to be released in August from Blink), and it is literally about a kid who’s trying to build a better world.
But I probably shouldn’t say my own book. Thus, I’d have to say, either Mary Oliver’s poetry or Simple Speaks His Mind, which is this hilarious treatise on race in America by Langston Hughes. And check this out: It’s autographed. WOOHOO!
Jules: Can you talk a bit about the books (or at least some of them) in your Recommended Reads for Summer 2017?
Kwame: I chose books that are diverse, in terms of content and audience and culture, as I really want kids and parents, in the city and the country, to be able to find a connection in the stories. I’m all about books that are informative, inspirational, and downright entertaining for kids one to 99.
Jules: You speak at a lot of schools. What is an example of something you’ve seen reading and language arts teachers do that you think really gets kids fired up about reading? What do you want to see more of?
Okay, the top three things I’ve seen teachers and librarians do the world over that seem to work:
1. Let kids choose the books.
2. Read aloud with their students.
3. Bring authors of their students’ fave books into the schools so that the words can jump off the page onto the stage. So that the books can COME ALIVE!
Jules: What are your own memories of summer reading?
Kwame: 1976. Walker Elementary. Fayetteville, North Carolina. Mrs. Virgil tells us if we read 100 books during the summer, we’d get a tee shirt that read: I READ 100 BOOKS THIS SUMMER, when we returned to school in the fall. I checked out a new book every day that summer, sometimes two, all because I wanted that tee shirt. And I got it, and it was the best thing in the world.
Jules: What would you say to a kid who might tell you summer isn’t for reading?
Kwame: I wouldn’t say anything. I’d just read them a poem.
Grades K-2: I’d read some Shel Silverstein.
Grades 3-5: I’d read them some Langston Hughes or Jack Prelutsky.
Grades 6-8: I’d read them some K.A. Holt or Hope Anita Smith or Naomi Shihab Nye.
Grades 9-12: I’d read them some Pablo Neruda or Nikki Giovanni.
And then I’d watch their eyes light up beneath the summer sun and grab the nearest book. Yeah, that’s what I’d do.
And then I’d hoist up my trophy and say: I AM KWAME ALEXANDER, CHAMPION OF SUMMER READING.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.