• Grace McKinney

On The Versify Bus: A Night with Kwame Alexander

What have you learned about each other on the bus tour?

Among questions about writing preferences and subject matter selection, one young member of the crowd at First Parish Church in Harvard Square wanted to know what happens when the four authors on the Versify panel aren't reciting passages from their books to an audience of rapt readers. Only on day two of the Versify Bus Tour, the panel took a moment to think, looking around at each other before they answered...

At one of the initial stops of the launch tour for Versify, Kwame Alexander brought the three first authors published through his new publishing imprint to Harvard Square. Though he admitted that he has yet to develop a clear focus, mission, or vision for the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt imprint, Alexander and his team seem to be gleefully building the plane—er, bus—as they fly—ahem, ride—it together. More than anything, the panel, and the imprint itself, was a celebration of the joy of storytelling, the power of language in both verse and prose to unite us in the human experience.

Lamar Giles, a champion and founding member of We Need Diverse Books, presented his latest read for middle grade readers. The Last Last Day of Summer is the story of Otto and Sheed, two cousins, find themselves in possession of a magic time-freezing camera, adventure ensues. His reading from an early passage included the sinister Mr. Flux, but Giles tactfully left us with the cliffiest of hangers till we can get our hands on a copy. On a mission to hook readers who could have never seen themselves represented in books published when he was a child, Giles looks to offer both middle grade and young adult readers with literature to help them feel seen, valued, and heroic.

Debut author Kip Wilson talked about her novel in verse, White Rose, which is based on Sophie Scholl's efforts in the Nazi Resistance, even reciting three poems from the text from memory. Wilson beamed as she shared about the research process that went into the novel: as a scholar in German literature, she relished seeing the original documents in Ulm and Munich, including journals and papers in which Sophie Scholl had pressed flowers. With such a "sense of her" to guide the writing of White Rose, Wilson executed a novel that's received praise all around.

Raul the Third, known for his Lowriders series, presented his picture book ¡Vamos! Let's Go to the Market, a veritable love letter to the

Cuauhtemoc mercado of his hometown. The Richard Scarry-esque bilingual romp through the Mexican mercado, guided by Little Lobo and his dog, invites readers to marvel at all the booths have to offer. Raul the Third walked the audience through a few pages of the picture book, defying the large event space, to point out just a few of the many details he'd included to add authenticity and familiarity to the illustrations.

Kwame Alexander, serving as host, moderator, and author alike, held many hats through the evening in celebration of Versify and his latest picture book, The Undefeated. First written for ESPN, the poem evolved into this iteration when Alexander realized his daughter was being born into a world where she only knew of a Black president—and he wanted her to know how they got there. When read aloud in the church sanctuary-turned-event-space, the power in Alexander's words and voice resounded deep and true.

We were thrilled to get to be witnesses to the early stages of Versify and can't wait to see what comes next for Alexander and his team.

And as for what they've learned about each other on the bus? According to Lamar Giles,"[Alexander] takes more naps than an infant," and Raul the Third jokes through a shoulder-bouncing belly laugh that it's been "like a Tom Clancy submarine novel." With these answers coming on only day two of their grand tour, we're eager to know how those answers may have transformed as the tour comes to a close next Tuesday in Nashville, TN.

Were you able to catch the tour? Have you read any of the Versify books? Share with us!

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