February 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

It Begins with Listening | Up Close with Kwame Alexander


Photo by Brian La Rossa

Newbery winner Kwame Alexander and prolific photographer Joel Sartore are teaming up on Animal Ark (National Geographic, Feb. 14, 2017), an exploration of Earth’s endangered creatures through poetry and photography. Alexander’s verse acts as both guide and muse, introducing students to the animals while inspiring further contemplation. SLJ caught up with Alexander to discuss this ambitious project.

For unfamiliar readers, can you provide a bit of backstory on Animal Ark?
Animal Ark is part of the National Geographic Photo Ark Project, which is committed to documenting every endangered species in captivity through the eye of renowned photographer Joel Sartore. Over 6,000 of the 12,000 animals that are on the endangered list have been photographed. Animal Ark was created as a sort of visual conversation for children. My coauthors, Mary Rand Hess and Deanna Nikaido, and I toured the entire [Photo Ark] exhibit and were blown away. We then set about the task of creating words that were inspired by each animal. We chose poetry in the form of haiku because we felt it would add literary snapshots to help engage and inspire questions from readers. Our hope was that the combination of the exquisite photographs and the verse inspired by them would act as a two-dimensional megaphone for the voices of these precious animals.

Haiku was an excellent choice.
We knew instinctively that with 30-plus animals to write about, and not wanting too much text on the page (so that readers could really fall in love with the image of each animal), haiku seemed like a perfect fit. Not to mention that in traditional haiku, nature is at the center. What better way to honor these animals, these pictures than through this form?

Does the book aim to get students more involved in and passionate about conservation efforts?
Our goal was to capture these almost instantaneous poetic moments and bring them to life, [to] keep these animals alive in the hearts and minds of readers, to engage [readers] in a way that will pique further interest in knowing more and doing more. How can we help this world be a safer, healthier, and cleaner place for “our” creatures, for all of us, to live and thrive for years and years to come?

1611-upclose-cover_animalarkThe “Chorus of Creatures” section, which appears about midway through the work, is such a fantastic representation of biodiversity. Was the team partial to any specific animals?
It’d be nice to take credit for this, but alas, it wasn’t my idea. The beauty of a team is that when you’re working together, when you’re really gelling, everyone brings a little piece of magic to the project. It’s like jazz. This decision I think was made by our illustrious editor, Kate Hale.

At first, we may have been partial to some of them, such as the tiger, mandrill, or panda bear, but with thousands of creatures in the running to be featured in this book, we felt they all deserved our respect and love.

Any suggestions on how librarians can use this title to inspire and motivate potentially reluctant poetry readers?
Presentation is key when introducing anything to anyone no matter the age. The beauty and magic of poetry is in its conciseness. It’s like taking a bite of your favorite cake and knowing what the entire cake tastes like. It’s that potent and can address any subject matter no matter how silly or serious in as little as a 17-syllable Japanese haiku. Poetry is a language of connection. You understand with your heart first and then your head. Animal Ark is a very beautiful visual experience with many educational components. It is a book that should be shared aloud because there is an important conversation threaded throughout its pages. It emphasizes our interconnectedness to one another and the planet we live on. Our first involvement begins with listening.

This article was published in School Library Journal's November 2016 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Della Farrell About Della Farrell

Della Farrell is an Assistant Editor at School Library Journal and Editor of Series Made Simple