Book Review: The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander and illustrated by Kadir Nelson

I’ve been a fan of Kwame Alexander since I read his Newbery Award winning novel The Crossover. “Fan” might be a bit of an understatement. I confess that I follow him on all his social media platforms, have a Google alert set up for news about him, follow him on Amazon and on Goodreads – basically I could practically tell you what he ate for breakfast this morning. (Just kidding…no need to get a restraining order or anything like that.)

Reading The Crossover changed me as a teacher. It changed me as a reader. And, it most certainly changed me as a writer. In fact, I wrote about my experience with this ground-breaking book for Nerdy Book Club’s blog. Initially, I incorporated The Crossover into my 7th grade curriculum to try to reach a group of reluctant readers. Boy, did I do that, and then some. If you haven’t read The Crossover and its prequel Rebound, I highly recommend you do so. 

Just a week prior to the shut down of life as we knew it in March of 2020, I had the opportunity to hear Kwame Alexander speak to a group of school librarians. The setting was a high school library (one of my favorite places on earth), and the star of the evening was Alexander himself, along with his musician friend, Randy Preston, who plays background guitar for Kwame Alexander’s appearances. You know, sort of like a rockstar on tour with his backup musicians. He talked about his writing life, his books, his family, his recent move to London to be “poet in residence” at the international school his daughter attends. The icing on the cake was his reading of his most recent book, The Undefeated, a picture book illustrated by Kadir Nelson. 

When I say “reading,” it was more like performance art. Alexander doesn’t just read his work, he breathes life into it so that it dances and sings all around you, sort of like staring up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and experiencing Michelangelo’s famous painting The Creation of Adam, where with one touch of his finger, God gives life to Adam. Am I fangirling a bit too much to compare Kwame Alexander to Michelangelo? Maybe, but when it comes to getting kids to read for pleasure, to getting kids hooked on books, to creating stories where kids of color can find  likenesses of themselves, I don’t feel embarrassed at all by stalking following the career path and creative brilliance of Kwame Alexander. 

The Undefeated, with its gloriously bold illustrations, tells the stories of Black Americans who persevered and endured to become the artists, athletes, and activists who brought color to the history of this great country. In the pages of this picture book you will find the never quit attitudes of MLK, Jr., Maya Angelou, Jesse Owens, Langston Hughes, Louis Armstrong, Muhammad Ali, and more. The illustrations jump off the page at you, and the words – like poetry – envelop you and propel you forward in time. 

Picture books are not just for kids. If you are a middle school or high school teacher, The Undefeated can be wonderfully paired with studying slavery or the Civil Rights Movement or analyzing MLK, Jr.’s “I Had a Dream Speech.” Reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings? It works great to set the stage for that. Looking for “official” validation of this work of art? How about a Caldecott Medal, the Coretta Scott King Award, and a Newbery Honor Award? Sure, this book also ticks all the boxes for Black History Month, but why wait for February? Read it now. Experience it now. Breathe life into its words and its portraits of these movers and shakers, these “dreamers and doers” as Alexander puts it, who were, in fact, The Undefeated. 

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