Cover Reveal & Interview: 'An American Story' by Kwame Alexander

SLJ shares an exclusive first look and cover reveal for An American Story by Kwame Alexander, which publishes in January 2023. Additionally, we chat with him about the inspiration for the book, his reaction to Dare Coulter's art, and how he envisions the book's use in classrooms and libraries.

Kwame Alexander


We are pleased to share an exclusive first look and cover reveal for An American Story by Kwame Alexander, which publishes in January 2023. But first, we spoke with him about the inspiration for the book, his reaction to Dare Coulter's art, and how he envisions the book's use in classrooms and libraries.


Shelley Diaz: Can you tell SLJ readers what inspired you to write this difficult but hopeful narrative?

Kwame Alexander: There was an incident at my daughter's school that involved a conversation around slavery. The teacher was not comfortable engaging with the students in the conversation. And to a certain degree, she was also afraid. When you are afraid of engaging in a conversation, you run the risk of saying things that you shouldn't have said, or allowing things to be said and not addressing them.

So, during this conversation in my daughter's fourth grade classroom, some students became upset. And then there was a big parent-teacher conference to talk about it where the teacher cried, and it struck me: She wasn’t necessarily trying to defend herself in how she mishandled the situation. She just didn’t know. She didn’t know how to handle the situation.

For the most part, teachers are unprepared to teach difficult topics, like slavery. In particular, slavery. This is something they don’t teach in graduate school. There should be a course called “How a Teacher Teaches Slavery,” because it's going to come up. And until we can acknowledge it and deal with it, we can't necessarily heal from it, learn from it, grow from it.

I wanted to write a book that would give teachers an entry point into how to teach slavery. Simple as that. So we can all heal and learn and grow together. That was my plan with An American Story.


SD: Interspersed throughout the book are questions from children who are hearing this poem in a classroom. How did you decide where to place those interstitials within the text?

KA: The poem allows us an entry point to the topic. It hits us emotionally. It hits us immediately. It hits us in the heart. You want to change the way people act, then change the way they think. You want to change the way they think, change the way they feel. What better way to make people feel than through a poem?

So, I decided to write this poem, but as I wrote it, I said, "Well, wait a minute. This isn't just going to be a metaphoric, figurative, poetic narrative. I also have to give the teacher a way to enter the text, as well as give the students a way to enter the text and make it personal."

My job is to make my personal your personal. There were points in the narrative when I said, “OK, I'm going to bring the students in here. I'm going to interrupt the flow of the poem and bring students and teachers into the conversation.” So, I created the story within the story.


Dare-CoulterSD: What was your reaction when you first saw the pages with Dare Coulter's art?

KA: I wrote a book called How to Read a Book, illustrated by Melissa Sweet. I wrote a book called Surf's Up!, illustrated by Daniel Miyares. And I wrote this book called The Undefeated, illustrated by Kadir Nelson, that won the Caldecott Medal. I've had the luck, the good fortune, the honor to work with some of the world's greatest and most inspired artists.

Before I saw Dare Coulter’s artwork, I thought to myself, well, there's no way she's going to be able to top what's been done with my earlier books. I knew it would be a tough book to illustrate, especially as Dare is a debut illustrator.

And then I saw the first piece, which reads, “To steal them away from their lives and sell them in America.” Four lines, twelve words. What she did with that page blew me away. I couldn't figure out what the medium was. Was it photography? Was it illustration? Was it oil and acrylic? Was it sculpture?

But here's what it was: It was magnificent. She did something I was not expecting with this book. She made it hers. You know, the goal of any writer or any poet is to be highly original, to say things that have already been said in a way that only you can. She created art for this book that I've never seen in a children's book. I think I wrote a pretty good poem that told a pretty good story, but her art, hands down, is majestic, magical. Magnificent. It's a masterful piece of work.

That's what I think about Dare Coulter’s illustrations. Boom.

SD: Kwame, you dedicated this book to teachers who are now more than ever being pressured to not share the untold stories of our country's past. How do you envision this book being used in a classroom or library?

KA: I tried to write this book so it would carry the weight that's necessary to lift our kids out of ignorance when it comes to the history of our country. Teachers, librarians, parents: All you have do is read the story. Literally, just read the story. Stop every few pages, or stop when you get to the points in the book where the students ask questions of the teacher and let your students ask questions.

This book is a teaching tool. I wanted it to be engaging and educational, informational and inspirational. Let the book do the heavy lifting, and just read it to your kids, read it with your students. And be open to the discussion, because the book is really about a teacher who doesn't know how to teach slavery. And that is an issue we all face—parents, teachers, librarians, all of us—at some time or another.


SD: This is an amazing, striking cover. What do you hope the image conveys to potential readers?

KA: My hope is that this cover just makes you want to pick up the book and find out what is going on inside. How you interpret the cover, the conversations you have around it, the discussions you have, the arguments you have, that's on you. I just want you to pick up the book because there's something inside that is going to enlighten us and inform us in a way that is highly original.

Children's picture books need to entertain us, engage us. They have to move us. Picture books are powerful, and we need them now more than ever, especially in this time and age when the world is not so beautiful. So, what do I hope? I hope this beautiful cover engages and moves you.


And now, without further ado, here is the cover of An American Story, which will be out in January 2023. 

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