Kwame Alexander is poetry in motion at a May reception with students, teachers and community members at Castleton Elementary School near Albany. The Newbery Medal winning author shakes hands, autographs books, samples an oversize cupcake and, occasionally, lets loose a burst of rhyme with an infectious grin and deep-throated laugh.
In the background, the Maple Hill Middle School jazz band plays, a fitting backdrop for an author whose children's book, Acoustic Rooster and His Barnyard Band, features a pianist named Duck Ellington and a singer called Ella Finchgerald.
Eyes alight with excitement, Alexander seems far removed from the acclaim of his 2015 Newbery Medal for his novel in verse, The Crossover.
"I just kept saying 'are you sure … are you sure?'" says Alexander of the win. From a poet/author with the modest goals of writing, sharing his writing with students and creating "a book to get kids excited about poetry and literature," Alexander has emerged a full-fledged literary celebrity.
Arranging signed books in the background, Castleton Elementary School librarian Stacey Rattner, who was instrumental in planning the day-long visit, smiles. "Today was so emotional — seeing him with the kids and listening to him recite poetry was beautiful." Rattner is a member of the Schodack Central School Faculty Association, led by Pat Wood and Tim Ryan.
Tweets, emails and Skypes
The visit was the second at a New York state public school that week for the Virginia-based author. Librarian Susan Polos, a member of the Bedford Teachers Association, led by Michael Groarke, hosted Alexander at the Mount Kisco Elementary School the day before. Both Polos and Rattner — American Library Association colleagues — were early fans of Alexander's work and reached out to the author as part of Newbery class projects, which challenge students to predict that year's award winner.
Alexander's visit underscores the importance of school librarians, often targeted for cuts at budget time — particularly in elementary schools where they aren't mandated. Librarians enrich the learning experience, noted CES Principal Jason Chevrier, terming Rattner's library a "hub of teaching and learning" and "a great resource for teachers."
For Rattner, the visit was the culmination of months of tweets, emails, Skypes and planning, starting last summer when she researched books for her third-annual Newbery project with district fifth-graders. She selects about 40 books, and students choose several to read, rank and write a defending paragraph about. Newbery "winners" are selected bracket-style. "So far, every honor or medal-winning book has made our list."
"I read The Crossover in August and loved it," said Rattner, who tweeted kudos to Alexander that summer and kept in touch once the project began in November, regularly tweeting and emailing updates about student projects featuring his book.
After finishing The Crossover early, a group of boys wrote Alexander letters asking him to Skype with them, which Rattner scanned and emailed. He accepted with an original poem and set an early January Skype date. "Are Josh or Jordan based on any NBA players?" wrote one student. "Will you make another book, like the Crossover 2?"
Student excitement grew as the February Newbery Medal announcement neared — two out of three classes picked The Crossover to win. A snow day scuttling a classroom party for Newbery day didn't dim excitement. "I got emails from students when Kwame won," said Rattner. "They went online and searched for the Newbery winner — on a snow day!"
After learning about students' enthusiasm for his writing, Questar III BOCES helped fund and arrange Alexander's visit.
Polos launched her Newbery program two years ago as fifth-grade enrichment while serving on the Newbery committee. "Students read books, fill out forms with pros and cons and select a winner through three rounds of voting."
Classroom Newbery winners receive the ROARY award, named after the school's lion mascot. This was the first year an author personally received his award. "He was so welcoming; it was amazing," Polos said.
Both Polos and Rattner were struck by Alexander's connection with students. "It's really special to have a book resonate with kids like this," said Polos.
Letting the no's go
Seated in a rocking chair before the Castleton crowd, Alexander intersperses his journey to the Newbery with poetry riffs.
"I got 22 rejections for The Crossover from people who said that kids wouldn't be interested in a book about basketball and poetry," says Alexander. He eventually fired an agent who refused to send the manuscript to publishers, claiming it "wasn't that good."
"You've got to let the no's go, because only one yes needs to happen," he says, explaining that success is impossible if you don't give yourself opportunities. "No one is bigger than your dreams."
Alexander thanked students and quipped he felt like "Miss America" when he arrived in the morning.
The entire CES student body waved signs, wore sports jerseys and shouted his name as he drove in. The prize-winning author walked a red carpet into the school building, starred in a morning assembly, visited classrooms and lunched with fifth-graders before finishing the day at the reception.
For a man who struggled to have his work accepted, the boisterous Castleton welcome was gratifying.
"Somewhere in the universe you need this kind of stuff to happen to balance things out," he says with a grin.
DID YOU KNOW
The Newbery Medal, awarded by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, is given annually for the most distinguished contribution to American children's literature. For more on 2015 winner Kwame Alexander, or to see previous winners, visit www.ala.org/awardsgrants/john-newbery-medal-2.