Ci8 in Conversation: Kwame Alexander and Jerry Craft on Their Lives as Writers

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On Thursday, July 16, booksellers attending the American Booksellers Association’s virtual Children’s Institute (Ci8) had the opportunity to join Newbery Award-winning authors Kwame Alexander and Jerry Craft in conversation. Logged-in booksellers can view a recording of the conversation here.

Alexander kicked off the conversation by noting that he and Craft have been writing books since the ’90s, and asking Craft if he could name three of his favorite independent bookstores from that decade. 

“You and I actually met in a bookstore,” Craft said. “I think it was in 2012 at the Hue-Man Bookstore in Harlem [owned by Marva Allen].”

Alexander said that while they met at Hue-Man in New York City, the store was originally established in Denver, Colorado, by Clara Villarosa, “a dean of Black booksellers...she was very encouraging to young writers, including me back in the ’90s. She’s a real force.”

Craft’s second favorite bookstore was Nkiru Books in Brooklyn, he said. Alexander, who noted that he’s a walking encyclopedia for children’s books, said that Nkiru Books was owned by Leothy Miller Owens and later sold to rapper and activist Talib Kweli. 

And Craft’s third bookstore, he said, was Black Books Plus, owned by Glenderlyn Johnson, who supported his book Mama’s Boyz

Alexander shared that while he also has a deep respect for booksellers, there was an age where he didn’t because his father was one himself. “I had to work for him, and I loathed [selling] books,” he said, noting that he had to help his father move them around the world to trade shows. “I was an avid reader, because I had to be. My father forced me to read books, [but] my mother gave me books and told me stories that I found interesting.”

He remembered finding a copy of The Greatest: My Own Story by Muhammad Ali in middle school. “It was 400 pages, and I couldn’t put it down,” he said. “I realized that books are cool and books are fun, I just have to find my way to the books that I enjoy.”

Craft said that, as a child, he never saw books with Black characters that “were not runaway slaves, or [people] being persecuted.”

“What’s interesting, Jerry, is those books were out there,” Alexander said, naming Lucille Clifton’s Everett Anderson series, Nikki Giovanni’s Spin a Soft Black Song, and Ernest Gregg’s And the Sun God Said: That’s Hip. “There were so many books with Black characters during the ’70s...but you wouldn’t know about them if your teacher, librarian, or even your local bookseller was not putting them out front.”

This year, Craft won the Newbery Medal, an annual award given to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children, for his book New Kid. Craft and Alexander are two of only five Black authors to receive the Newbery Medal. 

Craft shared that because he wasn’t a reader growing up, he hadn’t exactly aspired to winning the award. “I really didn’t experience the Newbery books until I became a dad and I started reading to my kids,” he said. “I remember seeing the medals on [Christopher Paul Curtis’] Bud Not Buddy...I loved it and [my kids] loved it, so I started looking for those stickers.”

When he won, he realized that “the last African American to [win the award] was young Kwame Alexander. And going back before that, was Christopher Paul Curtis, for Bud Not Buddy...and then Mildred D. Taylor, and then Virginia Hamilton.” Said Craft, “Realizing that there were just five African American authors really gave me chills.” 

Alexander said that winning the Newbery Honor for The Undefeated was almost sweeter than winning the Newbery Medal, because it was totally unexpected. “I didn’t think it was possible,” he said. “It meant a lot, because here was this book about the tragedies and triumphs of Black people. It was a love letter to America. It was a love letter to Black America. It was about knowing that Black lives matter.” 

“Words are powerful and meaningful, and necessary to help us imagine a better world,” Alexander added. “I think books can do that for us. I know they did it for me. I tried to write The Undefeated with that in mind.”

He also asked Craft what he thought the role of books and booksellers is in terms of the awakening of racial injustice in our current moment. 

Craft said that one thing he enjoys now is seeing the variety of books that he didn’t see as a kid. “I really do believe that there are no nonreaders or reluctant readers, there are just kids that haven’t found their book,” he said, noting that with the variety of books out now, booksellers, teachers, and librarians can match books with a student’s interests. “As I’ve taken that all in as an adult, I’ve realized how important booksellers are. They really do change lives.”   

Alexander noted that bookstores are sacred places that can help mold and shape us into becoming beautiful human beings. “Much like teachers and educators have that power, booksellers have it, too,” he said. “Booksellers open us up to these worlds we had no idea existed, that enhance, electrify, and make us better.”