- East Chapel Hill High School
JOY: Author and Illustrator Event Lights Up Northside Elementary School
The word “JOY” was used countless times in the hours and days following the January 6 Northside Elementary School (NES) event with author Kwame Alexander and mixed-media illustrator Dare Coulter. Joy was abundant from the moment the brightly colored “KwameMobile” pulled up in front of the school, when Alexander and Coulter practically bounced out onto the sidewalk, both attired in canary yellow, their smiles even brighter than their outfits. Students in third through fifth grades had already been patiently assembled in the library for more than 20 minutes, and when they saw all that brightness through the windows, their excitement was vibrant and contagious.
NES Principal Coretta Sharpless received a huge hug from the internationally-acclaimed author, and then she called out, “In our presence today, we have none other than Mr. Kwame Alexander!” The children roared and clapped, and the event was underway.
In her welcome, librarian Kathryn “Kat” Cole said, “What a treat, what a treat! 2023 is the Year of Joy.” She provided a summary of publication highlights among the 37 books Alexander has written, including the newly released “An American Story,” narrated in the voice of a classroom teacher who struggles to navigate the topic of slavery with students. She then shared details about the recent murals and paintings by Coulter, and pointed to the brand new yellow Affirmation rug in the library, a creation by the artist.
“We have spent the last week learning about Kwame Alexander and Dare Coulter,” Cole said to the students and guests. “We have viewed beautiful art that Dare told us is meant for feeling, healing and celebrating, and we got a taste of the many books that Kwame has put into our world and our hands, and we even got playful with poetry as we wrote creative couplets and crowd-sourced a poem on the topic of joy.”
Every part of Alexander’s presentation was interactive and celebratory of language, rhythm and collaboration.
When Alexander stepped in front of the rapt audience, he yelled, ”Hello… Hola… Bonjour… Buon Giorno,” with the students repeating each greeting. He led them through counting to 10 in English, and then Spanish, and when he said, “Let’s do that in Swahili - BOOM, let’s go!” the students giggled. “Okay, how about I teach you to count in Swahili? Repeat after me…” and their voices rang out.
Then Alexander sat on the floor amidst the captivated students and asked, “Can I read you a story?” The assembled children called out their approval. “Which one should I read?” he asked. More than half the students held their own Alexander books in the air. He divided the audience for a call-and-response “reading,” in which Alexander read lines from the first pages and waited for students to supply the words he left out at the end. “I see Heather under the hoop, so I serve her up my alley…” “OOP!” the children shouted.
His tone and expression became more serious as he introduced “An American Story,” reading the first words, “How do you tell a story/ that starts in Africa/ and ends in horror?” Alexander said, “This was the hardest book to write, and the most awesome experience, because I got to work with Dare!”
A student asked, “Why did you write the book?” and he replied, “So we could have discussions like this.” Alexander continued, ““I wrote it for my daughters. Most teachers don’t know how to teach slavery. It’s so hard to talk about.”
Coulter said of the collaboration with Alexander, “Most of my work focuses on joy, but this book deals with difficult and painful subjects, and I wanted to make sure to do the history justice.”
Cole said, “They [Alexander and Coulter] have given educators and parents such a gift with this story - providing language and images to discuss hard truths, but truths that are so necessary for us all. When words fail you, a book can create a bridge to facilitate discussion and understanding.”
A brief Q & A brought forward students’ curiosity about the writing process. “How do you make these books?” one student asked. “Well, I have two daughters who inspire me A LOT. And I have two tuitions to pay for college and that inspires me A LOT. And every time I come to a school with students who ask really cool questions, that inspires me. I want to write books that will help y’all imagine a better world.”
A student asked, “Do you ever find it hard to make the books, due to racism?” Before he answered, Alexander said, “First of all, teachers, this is the most amazing school I have ever been in,” and a round of whoops and shouts went up through the library. Then he answered the student by simply saying, “I have experienced racism in every aspect of my life,” Alexander said, “but I choose not to let it impact my work.”
“Kwame and Dare's new book is an exceptional tool that teachers can use to teach the truth about slavery in our country,” said Equity Specialist for Instructional Equity, Liz Vail. “It was evident through student questions that teachers at Northside are really doing the work with their students-- having courageous conversations and teaching with a social justice lens.”
Many might say Alexander is at the pinnacle of his already-long career, with an upcoming Disney+ series based on “The Crossover” and a steady stream of awards already under his belt. Raleigh-based Coulter, however, is a rising star, and her illustrations for “An American Story” are spectacular - her sculpture forms and paintings capture historical content, in an interplay with charcoal drawings on yellow paper that convey the present day exchanges in a classroom. After Alexander read from “An American Story,” Coulter circulated through the seated students with several sculptures used in the illustrations, and in that way, children were able to place their hands on the powerful pieces, to see them up close.
Before Alexander and Coulter climbed back into their KwameMobile, they signed books for students in the school lobby.
Cole thanked Prism Design Lab for organizing and funding much of the event, as well as Flyleaf Books for filling an order for hundreds of Alexander's books during the busiest shopping season.
“We feel honored that Prism Lab provided an opportunity for Northside students and educators to experience the brilliance of powerful Black creators,” Vail said.
This event at NES came together through the creative efforts of parent Heather Ferrell, founder of the new nonprofit, Prism Design Lab, as well as Cole, Sharpless and others at NES. Said Ferrell about arranging the event, “I knew that Dare and Kwame were kicking off their book tour in Raleigh on Jan 5,” Ferrell said. “I saw that Kwame was stopping by schools, and I simply messaged him about visiting Northside - and he was down. Kat took it and ran with it.”
Cole said, “We want our students to be able to reach for and open up his work across the building. Kwame’s books deserve a prominent place in every library big and small. Thanks to Principal Sharpless for dedicating funds to support growing the school and classroom libraries in this way.”
On the Monday after the event, Cole posted to social media, “The Kwame Alexander books are FLYING off the shelves this morning. Our Northside students can’t get enough! Author visits make such an incredible impact when students get to meet the brilliance behind the books on our shelves. What a day, what a day our students will always carry with them!”
CHCCS District Headlines stories are written on a regular basis by the CHCCS Division of Communications, with assistance from a network of school-based “storytellers” who share tips and ideas throughout the school year. The goal is to share real-world examples of the CHCCS Strategic Plan in action. Know about a story worth telling from your school? Contact the CHCCS Communications team at email@example.com.
Photos by Briana Brough for Prism Design Lab