Interview by Robyn Hood Black
New York Times bestselling author Nikki Grimes received the NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children in 2006. Her many books are trailed by awards, including the Coretta Scott King Award (and several honor books), ALA Notable Book awards, the Notable Social Studies Trade Book, American Bookseller Pick of the List, NCTE Notable, CCBC Choices and Junior Literary Guild Selection designations, NAACP Image Award finalists, and several state lists, among others (Whew!).
She writes picture books (think Danitra Brown and Barack Obama, Son of Promise, Child of Hope), chapter books (the Dyamonde Daniel series), middle grade (The Road to Paris, Planet Middle School), young adult (Jazmin’s Notebook, Bronx Masquerade, A Girl Named Mister), and books for adults. Her poetry has been widely anthologized.
Born in Harlem and raised in and around New York City, Grimes has drawn on her early life experience for much of her work, experience which came with hefty doses of struggle and sorrow. And yet, there is a hopeful thread throughout her work, her life. Her books squarely face harsh realities and conflicts among people of different backgrounds. But she doesn’t leave it there. Little bridges are constructed throughout her works, between characters who must stretch themselves to appreciate and often learn to enjoy the differences found in others.
A Rutgers graduate, world traveler, and self-described “Jane of All Trades,” Nikki Grimes has sung, danced, and spoken to audiences in Tanzania, China, Russia, and Sweden—where she learned to knit and also hosted a radio show for immigrants! She now lives and writes in California. Her photographs have been exhibited stateside and abroad, and she makes jewelry, creates sculptural peyote beading, and turns recycled paper treasures into handmade cards. And, she writes poetry. Lots of poetry.
Let’s get to know our guest of honor, Nikki Grimes.
What did poetry mean to you as a child—as a reader/listener and as a young writer?
I don’t actually remember reading poetry as a child, but I do remember my love of word-play. I was fascinated with language, with the idea that one word could mean several different things, and that fascination drew me to word puzzles, jumbles, and games. I even made up my own word games. I’d flip through the dictionary, eyes closed, and stab a word on whatever page I settled on, then I’d look down. I’d take the word closest to my finger and do a word-study, creating a list of words using the same letters, and then using one word in several different sentences. Eventually all that word-play turned into poetry.
How did you come to choose poetry to tell the stories in your novels?
First, not all of my novels are in verse. That aside, storytelling through poetry was, for me, a happy accident. As far back as I can remember, I’ve written narrative poetry. I’ve always enjoyed the challenge of painting a picture, or telling a story in as few words as possible. But I’d never intended to tell larger stories in poetry. That practice came as the result of a failed attempt to write a particular story of friendship in straight prose. The story in question of Meet Danitra Brown.
I’d sketched out my characters, and I’d outlined the stories I wanted to tell about them, and roughed out a first draft. The writing was stiff, though, and I couldn’t seem to figure out how to make it flow. I was stuck. Frustrated, I took a highlighter and went through the manuscript marking all the passages that were working. When I read just those passages, I realized they were poems. Well, I thought, if this story wants to be written in poetry, so be it. That I can do! I’ve been telling stories through poetry ever since.
A textile artist yourself, you’ve mentioned observing a friend spin and weave to research Aneesa Lee & the Weaver’s Gift (Lothrop) and how difficult and intricate that art is. Yet —threads—all contributing to a cohesive whole. Bronx Masquerade (Dial), featuring 18 student characters and poems and prose passages in each voice, is a true feat. With the 10th anniversary edition just released, it continues to touch countless young people. Its scope you must have wrestled with as you created it; how have you reacted to its reach?
I’ve been astonished by the impact of Bronx Masquerade. Yes, it was an enormously challenging book to create, but with every fan letter I receive—from teachers, librarians, parents, and young readers—I’m so glad I took the risk and went on that long journey. To know that students across the country are experiencing open mike poetry readings in their schools and classrooms, and that they are creating their own versions of Bronx Masquerade, is beyond gratifying. I could not have imagined it.
Here is a poem from the book, in the voice of Lupe Algarin (posted with permission).
By Lupe Algarin
I walk by a mirror,
catch my eye,
wonder at the universe
Past the flashing eyes
is a file
for yesterday’s sunset
dripping mango light,
for Papi’s laughter
tinkling in my
so many years gone by,
shed below a crucifix
on my wall.
I sort it all out,
store it under
“been there, done that”
and open a clean drawer
a place to store adventures
I’m still learning
©Nikki Grimes. All rights reserved.
Your work has been illustrated by some of the finest artists in the field of children’s literature (Ashley Bryan, Ed Young, E. B. Lewis, Floyd Cooper, Bryan Collier, Pat Cummings, Tom Feelings, to name a few). How does your own eye as a creative artist affect your writing of poetry?
I think of poetry in two aspects: one is to tell a story, and the other is to paint with words. The two aspects work together, and complement one another. I’m always looking to paint a picture with words, knowing that another creative person—in this case, a visual artist—will take a cue from my words, and use them to spin his or her own magic through illustration.
Your books have been widely published by mainstream houses—and also for the Christian market. Your characters struggle with faith sometimes. Does your willingness to tackle these topics open the door for readers to think about their own beliefs?
I think so. Children are spiritual creatures, too. I think of them as being closer to the source. They were in God’s presence a lot more recently than we grownups were. They have questions and doubts and opinions about faith. I would hope the natural, organic way I handle the subject opens the door for their own exploration.
How does your own strong faith inform your poetry?
My faith informs everything I do, including my writing. Christianity is the grid through which I view, and comment on, the world. It can’t help but inform my poetry.
I’ve read that you typically write for six days a week when you are not travelling, and that your favorite time to write is in the morning. How is your process different, say, for creating poetry for an anthology versus working on a verse novel or a picture book?
If it’s a single poem, I focus on the theme, sketch out my thoughts on the subject, and determine the poem’s point of view. I draft, in paragraph form, the threads of the poem, then begin to shape a poem from those threads.
A picture book requires something different. I break it down in terms of spreads. I’ll make a list of numbers from, say, 1 to 16. Next to each number 1, I write “Introduction.” Next to number 16, I write “Closing.” I know the entire story has to fit between those two points. I think through my story, sketch it out in paragraph form, then pull points from the story to fill in numbers 2 to 15. Once the list is complete, I begin the work of developing each point into a poem.
Novels-in-verse are, as you might imagine, the most complex. With a novel, I have to think about story arc, character development, time transitions, and all the other aspects of novel writing. Even when you add poetry into the mix, you still have to remember, first and foremost, your job is to tell a story. And so, I develop what I call a scenario or simple outline, for every poem. This helps me to keep track of the threads and helps me make sure I’m incorporating all the information critical to the story. In the first draft, I focus on creating a through-line from beginning to end. In later drafts, I begin to layer in poem after poem, to build the story, and paint the setting.
I like to think of my work as a jigsaw puzzle. I concentrate on creating the pieces, then worry about how they all fit together later. I’m free, for example, to work out of sequence, tackling the poems/topics that strike me the most, at any given point. Approaching a complex work this way keeps me from feeling overwhelmed by the task.
You’ve said you write the kinds of books that weren’t available to you as a child, that reflected your experience. Do today’s books for children present enough cultural diversity?
I’m happy to see a greater degree of diversity in children’s literature, today, but there’s still an imbalance. (I have Filipina-American friends who long for books featuring children from their own group, for example.) What disturbs me more, though, is the marginalizing of those culturally diverse books that do make it into publication. Sigh. But, that’s a rant for another day!
Do you think we’re doing enough to reach young people with poetry today, and what else might you like to see on that horizon?
We’re doing a far better job of introducing children to poetry today than we did in years past. However, I would like to see poetry incorporated more throughout the curriculum. The marketplace includes collections of poetry on, it seems, every conceivable topic: sports, science, math, history, nature, art—the field is a rich one. Why not use these titles throughout the curriculum, where appropriate? A book of poetry about a historical period, or person, would definitely have caught my attention in history class!
Your body of work casts a long shadow, and yet you are always taking on new challenges. Any creative projects on tap that you’d like to give a hint about? (New books? Award-winning paintings, perhaps?)
I’m a sucker for a new challenge. It keeps me excited and, more importantly, it keeps me growing as an artist. I’m delving more and more into mixed-media art, combining pencil, watercolor, paper, and acrylic. Such fun! And I’m juggling three literary works-in-progress: Poems in the Attic, a picture book for Lee & Low; Words With Wings, a novel-in-verse for the chapter book set, for Wordsong, and a YA novel for Penguin. No rest for this poet!
That all sounds wonderful. Many thanks for participating in this interview!
Nikki Grimes maintains a varied and lively website with great resources for students, teachers, and writers—www.nikkigrimes.com. Her new blog, Backstory, offers delicious peeks into how her much-loved books came to be. Warning: Of course you’ll want to read every featured title, if you haven’t already, and then some.