BEHIND THE BOOK: Kwame Alexander and Melissa Sweet, creators of How to Read a Book

How to Read a Book
by Kwame Alexander
art by Melissa Sweet
On Shelves Now!

A note from author Kwame Alexander:

I wrote this poem for World Read Aloud Day in 2010. My friend Pam Allyn, founder of the global literacy organization LitWorld, commissioned me to write a poem about the joy and power of reading. In my excitement, I wrote three for her to consider. “How to Read a Book” was one of the three, and it was, by far, my absolute favorite. But she didn’t choose it. In all fairness, the one she selected was pretty cool too. It had a clever metaphor about finding inspiration on the corner “Where the Sidewalk Ends” (see what I did there?).

I’m not sure where the idea for “How to Read a Book” came from. Maybe I was eating a clementine. Or reading Langston Hughes and Shel Silverstein. My daughter was two at the time, so it’s very likely I was spending a lot of time in our local park, under a tree, on a blanket, doing both.

Every parent knows that there is always that one book that the kid wants to hear over and over again. For mine, it was Miffy. We read it in the mornings, at naptime, in the car, and at bedtime. She simply never wanted it to end, and each time she smiled and laughed and wriggled and ahhhed, like it was always the first time. I think writing the poem that became this book was my way of capturing our family reading experience on paper. Of painting a picture of the journey readers take each time they crack open a book, get lost in the pages, and wander through the wonder.

A few months after I archived it, Loudoun County Public Library in Virginia asked if I had a poem to celebrate reading that they could put on a poster for National Poetry Month. I’d learned my lesson, so I only gave them one poem. They loved it. I hope you do too.

A note from illustrator Melissa Sweet:

When I first read Kwame’s poem, it put into words how captivating it can feel to read a book. As the illustrator, and a collage artist, I wondered: What kind of images would best reflect Kwame’s words?

My collages often include pages from discarded books, tattered book covers, along with paint and other materials (in this book there's also a paint can lid, and bits of wood). After trying all sorts of materials, I began using the pages from a worn-out copy of Bambi within the collages. I chose it because I loved the imagery of the fawn, the paper was a beautiful color, and because it was a beloved children’s book.

Then one day, well into making the art, I read a poem by Nikki Giovanni that began:

poetry is motion
graceful as a fawn

That was the perfect affirmation. The serendipity of using Bambi as part of the art made me trust the imagery was heading in the right direction. Nikki’s poem also inspired the three-dimensional collage incorporating her words at the beginning of the book, setting the stage for Kwame’s lyrical text. Finally, I began painting with neon colors, not just to convey how exhilarating and electrifying it can feel to read a book, but, as Kwame writes, to find “the last drop of magic.”

I’m grateful to Kwame, and to everyone at HarperCollins, for making this book all that I dreamed it could be. I hope you never reach the end.


★ “ engaging and mesmerizing ode to reading…delightful and appealing.”
ALA Booklist (starred review)

★ “A linguistic and visual feast.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

★ “A beautiful book not to be rushed through, but to be enjoyed morsel by tasty morsel.”
School Library Journal (starred review)

love poem to literacy conjures up startling, luscious images...By turns dreamy and ecstatic.”
Publishers Weekly

“This is a party for a select (but hopefully large) list of like-minded young literati, who know how to ‘squeeze every morsel of each plump line until the last drop of magic drips from the infinite sky’ and revel in their fandom.”
— Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books


Kwame Alexander is a poet, educator, and the New York Times bestselling author of 29 books, including Rebound, the follow-up to his Newbery-medal winning middle grade novel, The Crossover. Kwame writes for children of all ages. His other picture books include Undefeated, Animal Ark, and Out of Wonder. A regular contributor to NPR's Morning Edition, Kwame is the recipient of several awards, including The Coretta Scott King Author Honor, The Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Prize, Three NAACP Image Award Nominations, and the 2017 Inaugural Pat Conroy Legacy Award. He believes that poetry can change the world, and he uses it to inspire and empower young people around the world through his Writing Workshop, THE WRITE THING. Kwame is also the host and producer of the literary variety/talk show, Bookish.


Melissa Sweet has illustrated more than one hundred books. Her work has been in magazines, on greeting cards, and on her living room walls. Melissa has received the Caldecott Honor Medal twice, among many other awards, including the Sibert Award, and is a New York Times bestselling author and artist. Melissa lives in Maine.


This mesmerizing ode to reading invites you to “let your fingers wonder as they wander” while it gives instructions on how to read a book. First, find a comfortable place to sit. Will you choose a spot under a tree, or a stoop like Langston Hughes? Next, peel open your book like you would a clementine, with care and delicious anticipation. With the opening of the book begins a brand new adventure into reading. Lyrical text and intricate collage illustrations combine to take readers on a sensory journey that will delight all ages. A colorful instruction manual that encourages readers not to rush: “Your eyes need time to taste. Your soul needs room to bloom,” How to Read a Book is an ideal book for individuals and groups alike.