Show, don’t tell: Poetry, relevance sell middle schoolers on reading


By Dawn Miller

“What would you say to the kids in the room to encourage them to read?” Newbery Award winner Kwame Alexander was asked at the West Virginia Book Festival in Charleston.

“I wouldn’t say anything,” Alexander answered.

“Who wants to be told? If you really want to connect and make somebody feel engaged, show them. That’s the real way to reach anybody. Make them feel something.”

From one of the readers in the crowd, Alexander borrowed a copy of his novel Rebound, a story about a 12-year-old boy who is dealing with loss, who can’t play basketball, but wishes he could. “This is what I would do,” he said, and recited an excerpt from the novel, which like all his books, is written in almost singable poetry.

It’s so singable, Alexander’s musician best friend Randy Preston, a retired teacher, brought hs guitar and sang a song from it. The two perform together now. They have visited almost 900 schools in the last three years.

“I don’t think you have to tell kids why they need to read,” Alexander said. “I think you’ve got to show them.”

Alexander grew up in a family of readers. His parents studied literature in graduate school. His mother read to him, and as the family grew,  he read to his younger sister and she read to the baby of the family.

He listed his poetic influences for the crowd: Langston Hughes, Shel Silverstein, Pablo Neruda and Nikki Giovanni.

“And when I was 3 years old, my favorite poet of all time was,” he paused, “Dr. Seuss!”

His favorite poem was from Fox in Socks.

“Loved that. Loved it so much I wanted to read it every night and every morning. I memorized it,” he said.

Kwame Alexander: Maybe kids aren’t so much “reluctant readers” as they haven’t found the right book yet.

Over time, that enthusiasm faded. Reading was not optional in his family. It became both punishment and reward. Parents and teachers all made him read, but by age 12, he hated it.

“I don’t like this term ‘reluctant readers’,” he said. “If kids aren’t interested in a book, then yeah, they’re not going to be into reading it. I wasn’t into Tuck Everlasting. I wasn’t into Moby Dick.”

“For some reason, the teachers and librarians and parents never understood that books are amusement parks. And sometimes kids have to be able to choose the rides,” he said.

Then he discovered The Greatest by Mohammed Ali, and books were cool again. It was 400 pages. He described it as “unputdownable.”

Adults must find the books that connect with their children, that are accessible, relatable and interesting.

His first novel, The Crossover, is the book Alexander would have liked for an adult to have put in his middle school hands.

After it was published, he learned from a teacher in Dallas that she had to lock up her copies because the boys were stealing them. They would read them, then raffle them off to the girls.

“How cool is that?” he said.

His publisher gave him 150 copies, and Alexander flew to Dallas. He gave every student a book. “I felt like I was Oprah Winfrey,” he said.

More than 20 years of writing for kids and visiting them in schools has taught Alexander that for many, poetry is that accessible, relatable entry to a reading habit.

“Poetry is so concise,” Alexander said. He held open a copy of his book Swing, with narrow lines of text set on the left and blank space on the right, visible from across the room.

“Look at all that white space on the page,” he said. “It’s misleading. It’s cool because kids will build confidence. They’ll get through it ASAP. The white space is for the journey that the reader takes.

“The words that are there are cool, but it’s the words that aren’t there that make the kids really get engaged and make them think and use their imagination.”

“As educators and adults we’ve got to connect with our kids in a way that we know what kinds of books will interest them,” he said. “We’ve got to know our kids so we can help them find books that are going to make them want to read. Right?

“That’s what it’s about, making kids want to read,” he said. “Not making them read.”

Dawn Miller, a classroom reader in Kanawha County, is Read Aloud’s communications director, and a former writer and editor at the Charleston Gazette-Mail.