SCHENECTADY — When Alix Rolon got to school Thursday, he knew he would have a chance to see one of his favorite authors in person. He didn’t know he would be sitting down for lunch with him.
“My teacher tells me, 'What if I told you you are going to have a VIP lunch with Kwame Alexander himself?'" recalled Rolon, a seventh-grader at Oneida Middle School.
Alexander, the author of award-winning young adult books such as "The Crossover" and "Booked," visited Schenectady to meet with hundreds of students who have been reading his books this school year as part of voluntary book clubs.
But a group of 14 students — handpicked by teachers looking for kids particularly motivated by Alexander’s stories — earned the special lunchtime privilege.
“It really knows how to get to someone’s heart,” Alix said of his favorite Alexander book, "Crossover." “It’s definitely the best book I’ve ever read.”
In the morning, Alexander gave a presentation to around 1,300 students from the district's 11 elementary schools. After lunch, he did the same for hundreds of middle school students. Many had read Alexander's work through book clubs that meet after school or during lunch periods, an effort by district staff to give kids more freedom to read what they want to read.
One-by-one, the students at the lunch asked Alexander about what inspired him to write about basketball or other sports, how he came up with a certain character’s name — he landed on the name Sweet Tea for a character after his third sweet tea while working in Charleston — and what the life of a writer is like.
For Alexander, the writing process can take some time to get to, he told the students.
“I wake up, take my daughter to school, talk to my wife, go to a coffee shop, check Facebook, messages and Twitter. I order some food and call my wife. An hour and a half goes by, and I haven’t done any writing,” Alexander admitted to the students.
But eventually, after checking Facebook again, Alexander gets to work. Though the first words that land on the page are never the same words that to go to the printer.
“I start writing and the stuff that comes out is pretty crappy, and it starts to get a little better,” he said. “Then four or five hours later, I’m still writing and I’m in the rhythm, and I don’t want to ever leave this place.”
Those words, after months and sometimes years of editing and reworking, make their way into books that make their way into the hands of students.
“I could relate to it,” Elijah Bethune, an eighth-grader at Oneida Middle School, said of "Crossover," “It wasn’t my mom who moved away, but my dad moved away for a while; I don’t play soccer, but I do play football.”
Alexander said he meets with students or visits schools two or three times a week, and finds himself writing on planes and in cars to and from those visits. But he is on a mission of sorts to inspire young readers of all stripes.
“I hope they leave my assemblies … wanting to pick up any book, thinking that reading can be fun, that I want to be a part of that writerly life,” Alexander said. “If I can do that, I’ve accomplished my job.”