Kwame Alexander and the kids at PS 48 in Queens.

This spring, Kwame Alexander spoke to a rapt audience of fourth and fifth graders at PS 48 in Queens as part of a program that Queens Public Library organized through South Jamaica Reads to bring authors to schools.

Bestselling author Alexander says he owes his success to librarians. Alexander won the Newbery Medal in 2015 for his first novel-in-verse The Crossover. He describes his parents as his first librarians, saying there were books everywhere in the house he grew up in, where “books were reward and punishment. Books were places we could discover who we wanted to be, discover faraway places we haven’t been.” Libraries, he says, “were churches almost, temples of possibilities.”

To Alexander, reading means “entertainment, fun, thrill, fantasy. And it means information. Reading is intelligent entertainment.” In a new role, he’s now publishing an imprint called Versify. “I look for books that are going to help young people imagine a better world,” he says. “I look for books that are going to be page turners and books that are going to inspire.”

Alexander believes in the power of poetry to change lives—and tells a story about how it impacted him: “It got me married. I wrote a poem a day for this woman and she ended up marrying me. That was how I courted her. That’s how poetry changed my life on a very personal level. I’ve seen how it can transform and connect with people and ultimately allow people to be more human. I’ve seen it in kids around the world and I’ve seen it in my own household.”

He says, “A lifetime of experience and observation and books and travel inspired me to want to be a writer.” Muhammad Ali’s autobiography made reading cool for him, and he thinks he can make literature and poetry cool for kids: “I want to impart and share that with young people. I feel that I’m the guy to do that because I’m a cool dude.”

Kwame Alexander

Alexander speaks about the power he feels books have to overcome barriers between people: “I want white police officers to have an imagination that’s beyond stereotype and trope and prejudice.” He believes that if they had read Walter Dean Myers, Jacqueline Woodson, Lucille Clifton, or Mildred Taylor as children, “they’d probably have a whole different connection with black boys and black people. I think that’s important. It starts in childhood.”

Noting that children aren’t shaped in a vacuum, he explains that he grew up in Brooklyn public schools reading a lot of books featuring white boys and characters, but his white friends didn’t read about a lot of characters who were black. “We should find out about ourselves, so books should be mirrors, and we should find out about people who are not us, who are different from us so we can find out what those similarities and connections are, so books should be windows as well,” he says. “We should learn about our neighbors.”

Alexander expresses frustration that books featuring black characters are perceived as being for black children. “That’s cool,” he says, “but that can’t be the only thing. Non-black kids have to be able to read these books in order to have this imagination we’re talking about.” He argues that boys should not be directed to only read books about boys and girls should not be directed to only read books about girls. As he puts it, “We need to get beyond that and allow books to help kids connect with their humanity, which embraces America for what it should be.”

Alexander’s mantra is to say yes—“Say yes to possibility, say yes to yourself, walk through doors even if you don’t know what’s on the other side, and when you get there, figure it out.”

His new book The Undefeated, which he describes as a love letter to black America, is available now at Queens Public Library.