DC at Night

DC at Night

Friday, April 11, 2014

Acoustic Rooster and His Barnyard Band

Welcome to Flashback Friday. Each Friday we showcase a post that deals with days gone by or has appeared previously in The Prices Do DC. Today, we feature an entry that has received more views than any other post we have ever posted. It 1st appeared on Aug. 12, 2012. 

When Kwame Alexander started Virginia Tech University majoring in bio-tech, he was all set to become a doctor. But 2 developments in his sophomore year altered those plans. The 1st was organic chemistry. "It kicked my butt," Alexander says with a laugh. The other was the elective poetry course he took with famed African-American poet and author Nikki Giovanni. "That  changed my life," Alexander says.

Alexander decided to become a writer and 2 years after graduation he completed his 1st book of poems entitled Just Us. Always gregarious and outgoing, Alexander began appearing at churches and libraries. He would hold readings at any place that would have him. He sold 2,000 copies of his book. "That gave me the bug," he says.

More than a decade has past since that 1st volume, but Alexander still enjoys promoting his books in person. Last weekend, we caught up with the author at his display table at Eastern Market in the Capitol Hill section of D.C.

"These are my 2 latest children's books," he would proclaim to any passersby who appeared interested. He would then give them the highlights of Acoustic Rooster and His Barnyard Band, where a group of animals with names like Thelonious Monkey, Mules Davis, and Duck Ellington have a late night jazz contest, and his latest creation, Indigo Blume and the Garden City, in which a young outcast teaches her community to "go green."

So how did a poet, whom his mentor Nikki Giovanni praised by saying "If I can have a literary son, I like to think it is Kwame Alexander. Hard worker, truth seeker, soul sharer," become a writer of children's books? Alexander begins the story this way. In 2008, his daughter was 15 and fell in love. Alexander's knew he should be supportive as a father, but he was perplexed. His wife suggested that her husband write about young love "to understand it." The book became popular with the teenage set. At a book talk, an editor asked Alexander if he had considered writing for young adults. Now, he has a novel coming out for middle-school age students in 2013 and the high school set the following year.

Kwame Alexander talks about his work
But that still doesn't get us to the children's books. For that impetus, he needed his 2nd daughter, who is now 4. When she was even younger, she would implore her father to read to her constantly. "I noticed with all the reading, the tone of my writing began to change," Alexander noted.

The idea for Acoustic Rooster actually came 2 years ago during the time Alexander was taking advantage of a writing fellowship in Italy. "Every day I would walk past this chicken coop," he said. "One day I began thinking, what if the animals had a party - what kind of party would they have? I was listening to all this jazz and bossa nova at the time and there were all these musicians jamming every night. I can't take credit for Duck Ellington - I had heard that somewhere. I just started creating the whole idea. It was dream-like."

But what is a successful author and publisher (Alexander runs his own publishing company) doing hawking his books in the hot August sun? "It's a great way to stay in touch with the readers and the buyers," he said.

And there are other benefits to personal appearances, too. In the hour I spent with Alexander one man stopped by and promised to hook him up with a friend who was involved with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, a woman from NPR said that she would get him on more NPR programming, and a fellow writer who said he had really wanted to meet Alexander, said he would be getting back to him about a special project. And that's not to mention all the books that Alexander was sellling.

So what's next? "I think I will continue to write for readers between kindergarten to high school," Alexander says. "I have a 4-year-old at home. She's my audience. I'll grow with her."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Since we've moved to the D.C. area, I have met many of my favorite writers including George Pelecanos,  Bob Woodward, Douglas Brinkley, David Maraniss, and Colson Whitehead. But thanks to my 3-year-old grandson Owen, none of them had quite the impact as my chance encounter with Kwame Alexander. In June, my wife and I were watching our 2 grandkids for a week. Both Judy and I are constantly buying books for them. Since I love music almost as much as reading, many of my purchases deal with music. I picked up Acoustic Rooster and His Barnyard Band the 1st time I saw it in a bookstore.  I read it to Owen for the 1st time at his June visit. It quickly became his favorite book. "Grandpop, read the Rooster one again," he would say. Two weeks later, I was walking through the Eastern Market and saw a table of Acoustic Rooster books, along with its author. Alexander was headed to Brazil for a writing event, but promised we could get together when he returned. Now I know a 3-year-old clamoring "read the Rooster one again, Grandpop" isn't quite as prestigious as a Pulitzer or a Nobel. But, for a grandfather like me, it's about the best endorsement a book can have.

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