For over forty years, bestselling author Alex Kotlowitz has been telling stories of struggle and perseverance. Recognized for his perceptive portrayals of poverty, race, and immigration, Kotlowitz has brought an acute and empathetic lens to on-the-ground reporting in many forms of media—print and radio journalism, documentary film, and books—from his breakout book, There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America to his latest An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago.
A national bestseller, There Are No Children Here garnered national recognition for its compassionate, unflinching portrait of Pharoah and Lafeyette Rivers and their lives growing up in a public housing project. In unforgettable storytelling, Kotlowitz deploys what Tracy Kidder terms “a powerful argument against the politics of inertia, hopelessness, and greed, and for a real war on poverty, violence, and racism in our country.” It has received many awards, including the Helen B. Bernstein Award for Excellence in Journalism, the Carl Sandburg Award, and a Christopher Award. In 1993, There Are No Children Here was made into a television movie starring Oprah Winfrey. It continues to be taught at high schools, colleges, and universities across the nation, and was selected by the New York Public Library as one of the 150 most important books of the 20th century.
In An American Summer, which Wes Moore calls “revelatory and brilliant,” Kotlowitz returns a generation later to some of Chicago’s most turbulent neighborhoods to offer a spellbinding collection of intimate profiles of people and communities touched by gun violence. Among others, we meet a man who as a teenager killed a rival gang member and twenty years later is still trying to come to terms with what he’s done; a devoted school social worker struggling with her favorite student, who refuses to give evidence in the shooting death of his best friend; the witness to a wrongful police shooting who can’t shake what he has seen; and an aging former gang leader who builds a place of refuge for himself and his friends. Known for his immersive, deeply textured reporting, Kotlowitz investigates the impact of this violence on the spirit of individuals and community. In an interview with Vice, Kotlowitz explained, “I realized I was writing about all these people who were still standing. Kind of standing erect in this world that is slumping around them. And many of them are not only moving on, they are moving on with force.”
“A masterpiece of real-life storytelling. With each unforgettable story, Kotlowitz draws us into the lives of people living and working in some of Chicago’s most abandoned communities. The stories of suffering and revenge unsettle and enrage; those of grace and forgiveness warm and inspire. Together, they dispel with cheap explanations, offering deeper sense to acts thought senseless and revealing people’s depth and humanity lost in the headlines.”
—Matthew Desmond, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Evicted
Kotlowitz previously examined the stubborn persistence of urban violence in his Emmy Award-winning documentary The Interrupters—a collaboration with Hoop Dreams director Steve James. It was praised by The New York Times’ A.O. Scott for its ability to “open up” the topic of urban violence and not limit the story to “the comforting clarity of easy conclusions.” The film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and appeared as a two-hour special on Frontline. The Interrupters was cited as one of the best films of the year by The New Yorker, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, and Entertainment Weekly, and received the Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary. Time called it “an enthralling experience… heroically life-affirming.”
Kotlowitz is also the author of The Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, a Death and America’s Dilemma, which centers on the mysterious death of a Black teenager named Eric McGinnis in St. Joseph, Michigan, a primarily white town across the river from his home in the primarily Black town of Benton Harbor. The New York Times called it “a vivid American microcosm, a telling tableau of the way we are… important, essential even, for the rest of us to contemplate.” His 2004 book Never a City So Real: A Walk in Chicago uses “his immense skill for capturing stories of those who are often overlooked to paint a compelling portrait of one of America’s iconic capitals” (O Magazine). The Chicago Sun-Times called Never a City So Real “a fine successor to Nelson Algren’s Chicago: City on the Make as a song to our rough-and-tumble, broken-nosed city.”
He is the creator of the podcast Written Inside, produced by WBEZ Chicago, which brings to life essays by men incarcerated at Stateville Correctional Center. After a visit to the maximum-security prison to lead a writing workshop, Kotlowitz was so taken by the stories of the men there that he ended up working with some of them on their pieces for nearly a year, shuttling drafts and edits back and forth via a colleague from Northwestern who also taught at the prison. NPR’s Laura Ober, who selected Written Inside as one of the top podcasts of the year, praised it as “an intimate look at life behind bars that will likely change the way you think about incarceration.”
Kotlowitz’s work has regularly appeared in The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine and on This American Life (notably, the Peabody Award-winning “Harper High School” double episode). His articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, and Granta.
Kotlowitz teaches journalism at Northwestern University. He has also taught at the University of Notre Dame, the University of Chicago, and Dartmouth College, where he was a Montgomery Fellow. His work is widely read in programs focusing on social work, education, psychology, urban affairs, race, housing issues, and journalism. He has lectured at hundreds of organizations and universities, including Harvard, Princeton, and the Aspen Ideas Festival, and has keynoted for numerous conferences, including those of the Neighborhood Housing Services, the Federal Reserve, and the National Association of Social Workers. A graduate of Wesleyan University and recipient of eight honorary degrees, Kotlowitz grew up in New York City and now lives in Chicago.
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