Kwame Alexander, an esteemed children’s book author, took the time to speak with L.A. Parent about his children’s book “Acoustic Rooster and His Barnyard Band,” which will be transformed on stage April 22 and 23 at the Wallis Annenberg Center For The Performing Arts. Some of Alexander’s awards include the 2018 and 2020 Coretta Scott King Book Award.
Throughout the interview, his liveliness and passion for his work shone through.
You have an extensive list of publications, including children’s books, novels and poems. Your children’s book “Acoustic Rooster and His Barnyard Band” is now a stage production. This book was published around 10 years ago. What has it been like to revisit this story?
“You know, I started writing it 15 years ago, and it was published in 2014, so I was done with the story. I had exhausted all of my creativity. It took me five years to write it, and I felt really good about it. Adapting it allowed me to expand and extend the story and create new characters and help breathe life into it, so it really shined for the screen. It was almost like telling a different story or telling an extended story of a story that I wrote that I had grown up with, and now I was able to have a rebirth as it were in the storytelling process, so that was exciting.”
“Acoustic Rooster” puts an emphasis on jazz, introducing different musical terms as well as having some correlations to some real-life musicians. Can you talk about why introducing children to music, jazz specifically, is important to you?
“I’m a huge fan of jazz music, and when I started writing “Acoustic Rooster,” my daughter was 1 year old, and I had been laid off from my job, so I was at home with her, and in an effort to get her to stop crying, which she did a lot of, I would play music on the record player. The music would range from hip-hop…there was even some country…but none of that seemed to work, none of that seemed to soothe her. When I played Ella Fitzgerald singing “I Got You Under My Skin” and “With a Song In My Heart,” she stopped crying and her eyes got big. So I played some Billie Holiday some Miles Davis, and it was apparent that the jazz music really soothed her, it really did the trick. And it was sort of interesting to have the parallel not only with my writing but with my life. Whenever I am working with a book, I am listening to jazz. Music is that thing that keeps me inspired on a soul level, and I guess it worked with her.
“Jazz is America’s first music — it’s a bonafide American creation. I like to think it’s a metaphor that we can all learn from, and that is there are all these musicians that are all on stage at the same time and they work together to create this beautiful [sound], but in given time everyone has their opportunity to solo, to shine, and everyone else takes a step back and lets that person do their thing and support them. How great would it be if that is how we lived our lives, giving everyone their opportunity to shine? We all get the opportunity, and we realize that we are better united than we are not. Of course, kids don’t get all that, but, on a soul level, I think they do get it. We all get it. Not to mention how gorgeous and delicious the music is itself. It’s the closest thing in music that allows us to appreciate our unanimity.”
How did you narrow down what songs and artists to showcase in your book?
“I was in Tuscany, Italy, when I was writing that story, and I just happened to be in a villa. Of course, if you’re in Tuscany, you’re going to be near a vineyard, and I happened to be near a vineyard and also a farm. I remember walking by the farm one day on my way to a cafe and seeing these roosters and these hens. They were running around the coup, and it was almost as if they were partying. And so I remember saying, ‘Man, that’s kinda cool, they’re partying. Perhaps they’re listening to some really cool jazz music.’ And I don’t know how it came to me, but the idea of “Acoustic Rooster” just sort of hit me. Once I had that, I went ‘Oh, we got a rooster and he plays guitar and he’s got a name that rhymes, so maybe I can do something similar with the other characters, ‘cause, again, when you’re playing jazz it’s a team sport, it’s a band, so who are some of the other characters that are gonna be in the band?
“Then it was a matter of me brainstorming. What are some of the other animals whose names are going to lend themselves to names that either rhyme or have puns attached to them that the kids will like because of the way that it sounds, but the parents will get? The parents will be the ones who understand, and from there it was Mules Davidson and Duck Ellington…I think those were the first ones. And then, I just had fun with it and started looking at all kinds of musical genres. Charlie Pride, a.k.a. Collie Pride. Dolly Parton, a.k.a. Dairy Parton. That was a lot of fun to brainstorm.”
Have you had a favorite moment watching your original story come to life on stage?
“Oh my goodness, in musical theater you got these different sorts of templates for songs. You got the ‘Who am I?’ song, the ‘What is the problem? song. There are all these templates for these songs. And the song that’s the finale, that’s that grand song, and when we wrote the first couple drafts of the musical — Randy Preston, Mary Hess and I — we didn’t have that big song at the end that sort of tied all together that makes us cry or laugh, you know, feel ebullient. And we realized that maybe a week or so before we went into rehearsal, and I remember Randy and I talked about the song, and he went off and wrote it. When I watch that show and I get to that last number, the grand finale, that is going to take us home, I just feel like I can do anything. And, of course, that’s the message in the play. It’s how do you remember to be a star in your mind and to always let it shine? And when I hear that number, I am blown away. I’ve heard it 30 or 40 times, and it still feels like the first time. It still feels as empowering as it felt the first time. And the way Kanysha [Williams] blows with that song – she’s incredible.
You will be participating in a talkback for the final performance. What are you looking forward to discussing with the younger viewers?
“I love Q&A’s. I speak a lot, and my favorite part of speaking is the Q&A. I love answering questions. I love the wild questions kids ask. And I love being able to come back with answers that are going to engage them and inspire them. So, I’m not looking forward to one thing in particular; I’m just looking forward to engaging with the young people and the audience and answering any and every question they have — from the silliest question to what size shoe does rooster wear to the questions that ultimate are going to be educational… So, I’m looking forward to the questions more than the answers.”
“Acoustic Rooster and His Barnyard Band” will show 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Sat., April 22, and 11 a.m. April 23 with a talkback with Alexander. Watch the trailer.