The Benevolent Poet

Kwame Alexander’s Book in a Day program brings an important new dimension to children’s education.

Kwame Alexander’s Book in a Day program brings an important new dimension to children’s education.

By Matt Basheda

Pilar Vergara

The art world needs more people like Kwame Alexander. His Book in a Day program brings excitement to an outdated education system. In a society in which kids’ literacy is giving way to crude online exchanges, Alexander found a way to tap into the rush of reading and writing. Book in a Day allows kids to publish their own books. The students themselves design the cover, write the introduction and acknowledgements, and obtain the barcode. Alexander simply ships it off to press. Ultimately, the book has a real ISBN number which makes it sellable in stores. 

Alexander, 43, has lived in the Northern Virginia area for nearly 20 years, and now resides in Herndon. He writes poetry, prose and plays for all audiences. His latest work, a children’s book called “Acoustic Rooster,” received an NAACP Image Award for outstanding children’s book. He makes appearances at local bookstores and libraries, signing books and speaking about his craft. 

How did Book in a Day start?
“It started because a friend of mine who’s an English teacher in Detroit asked me to come and help her AP English students publish a book of the work that they’d been writing. She called me and said, ‘If you can come, it would be great, but we only have enough money for you to come for one day. And we don’t just want you to do the work. We want you to teach our students how to publish the book.’ Of course, I’m thinking that’s impossible. But by the end of the day, I had been successful. We had essentially done all the work that went into the book, and a few weeks later, their book arrived back from the printer—a paperback book. And so I think it was my agent or my wife that suggested to me, ‘This is something really great you just did—you just published a book in a day. You might want to consider offering this to other schools. 

“People ask me to do something, and I’ll say yes, and I figure even if I don’t know how to do it, I’ll figure it out later. Because I don’t like letting opportunities go by. I believe in seizing the day. And so I think this was one of those opportunities where I said yes, and walked through this door, and it’s been a glorious and a wonderful journey.” 

Physical books are disappearing from shelves, bookstores are going out of business, the industry is by all accounts going digital—so why get students involved in book publishing? 
“The idea is that if you can induct students into what I like to call the writerly life, if you can teach them how to take ownership of becoming authors, if they can actually say that ‘I’ve been published,’ then it has a profound impact on their appreciation of language and literature. The whole technology piece is a tool. I don’t think it’s gonna replace books anytime in the near future. It becomes a mechanism for making books more accessible. Each of these books that the students publish, the students also publish an e-book version.”

 What is the significance of poetry in a child’s education? 
“I think that whether you’re looking at reluctant readers, whether you’re looking at young people who just don’t want to read, poetry can be the bridge that gets our kids appreciating all forms of literature and language. It’s so concise. Poetry is not intimidating. It’s something that young people can grasp. It’s something that they can hold onto. They can connect with it. If it’s relevant, if it’s accessible, it can really change their life. It can change their world. And I’ve seen it happen time and time again. Poetry asks questions; poetry speaks deeper than that surface level of thinking. Poetry speaks to the feeling, and if you can connect with a young person through that particular mechanism, then they’re gonna be more apt to do it.” 

How did you start Book in a Day’s international program? 
“A couple years ago, somebody somewhere wrote a college paper on Book in a Day. In Canada an elementary school teacher read the student’s paper. He contacted us and said, ‘You know, we’d really like to make this happen. Now we don’t necessarily have the budget to do it, but we’d love to do it.’ Of course this brought me back to where I first started. Being able to take the program to Canada proved to be much more of an enticing factor than the money. And so we were able to make that happen in Canada, and from there the word just spread. We went to the Cayman Islands to do it. We started a fellowship, an international fellowship, and we took nine writers to Italy. I think word of mouth has become our biggest marketing tool. So while we didn’t necessarily set out to be an international program, it just sort of happened, and we happily accepted it.” 

What’s the future of the program? 
“Four years ago we worked with the National Endowment for the Arts and the D.C. Humanities Council and Gallaudet University, and we brought the Book in a Day workshop to a school called the Model Secondary School for the Deaf, which is a high school for hearing-impaired and deaf students. And so the idea that the NEA had was to bring eight deaf students and eight hearing students together, and to use this Book in a Day program to somehow bridge a gap. Any time you work with young people, and you see that light go off, and you see them sort of, ‘Aha! I can do this! If I can make a book in a day I can do anything!’ it’s always gonna be life-changing. But this was particularly life-changing. By the end of this program we saw these eight deaf and eight hearing students who at the beginning were sitting apart, had no idea how to communicate with each other, but at the end, they’re texting each other, they’re setting up dates to hang out—there was even one guy and girl who were obviously in love at first sight. So you saw the poetry really connect them; you saw it connect them on a very literal level. So they named their book ‘Bridges.’ Now as a result of having done that program, a school for the deaf in the Bahamas contacted us and asked that we bring the program there. So we will be doing a Book in a Day there. And I mentioned the Book in a Day international fellowship, which we did in Tuscany in 2010. In 2012 we’re taking nine writers to Bahia, Brazil.” 

What’s your take on the current state of Northern Virginia’s literary scene? 
“When I came to Northern Virginia, in the early ‘90s, there was a lot going on. Recently, I just have not been on the scene. I’ve just been traveling so much. I do know that there is certainly a lack of things going on when you compare it to where it has been; Facebook and Twitter probably have a lot more to do with that than anything. It’s probably a lot easier to write a controversial poem and tweet about it than to actually stand up in front of 30 or 40 people and share it. So we lose a little bit of that connection with the people. You can’t have good poetry unless you have good folks to listen to it.” 

Has the Northern Virginia area contributed to your writing personally? 
“My first book came out in ’95. I was living in Arlington. A lot of the poems were written out of my experiences taking the bus, walking along Columbia Pike. There was a lot of material that came out of my experiences of living and working [here]—more importantly, the people who embraced me.” 

What’s next for you?
“I’ve got a [young adult] novel that’s coming out. It’s a love story with sort of a political backdrop. I’ve got a few more children’s books, then chapter books for the advanced early readers—it’s a mystery series featuring a 9-year-old black girl.”


(April 2012)