Nikki Grimes is an artist, poet and author. Over the years she’s written numerous children’s books, many that have been award winners. She is the recipient of the 2020 ALAN Award for outstanding contributions to young adult literature, the 2017 Children’s Literature Legacy Award, the 2016 Virginia Hamilton Literary Award, and the 2006 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children. Her work includes the Dyamonde Daniel chapter book series, Bronx Masquerade (Dial, 2002), Garvey’s Choice (Wordsong, 2016), biographies of Bessie Coleman, Barack Obama and Kamala Harris, and her memoir, Ordinary Hazards ((Wordsong, 2019).
Nikki was kind enough to send a link to the National Coalition Against Censorship’s School Book Challenge Resource Center.
You’ve had quite a roller coaster year from awards and recognitions to book challenges. How are you doing? What do you do to cope?
NG: Rollercoaster indeed! Sometimes it’s been hard to catch my breath. My emotional pendulum keeps swinging from joy to mourning and back again to joy. The heart-wrenching losses of friends in the business this past year, combined with the vagaries of that business has been a lot to process, but I focus on the good. I focus on hope. I focus on the gift of health and life and one more day to try to make a difference.
It couldn’t have been easy to decide to write a memoir. What made you decide to write Ordinary Hazards?
NG: Ordinary Hazards is the one story I had to write. It’s my story, and I’ve always believed it to be the most important story I had to tell.
Life is not easy for children today, but the truth is, it has never been as easy for children and teens as most adults imagine. I experienced parental separation, divorce, wrestled with abandonment issues, and was shuffled from one foster home to another. I had a mother who periodically suffered from alcoholism and mental illness, and I was a victim of sexual assault. One of the reasons I chose to write my memoir in verse is that the form allows for the delicate treatment of difficult subject matter, such as the aforementioned. But my memoir is also a story of light and love, of faith and friendship, and, above all, a story of grace. During my journey, I met adults who loved and nurtured me, teachers who encouraged and guided me, strangers who were unutterably kind to me. My father introduced me to the wonders of the art world, and I learned the awesome power of the written word. My story ends in triumph—or should I say continues in triumph. I have not only survived, but thrived. Despite all I’ve been through, I am whole, and healthy, and intimate with joy. Who couldn’t use a story like that?
Is my memoir difficult? In places, yes. But it is woven with care, and grace, and humor because I love the young people I write for, and I would never write anything that would harm them.
When you speak to young children, what do they tell you they’ve gotten from your books?
NG: As you know, I write for children of all ages, and so the takeaways depend on the age of the reader. However, one common thread, no matter the age, is that readers learn from my books that they are not alone in their experiences. They learn that they can not only survive but thrive, no matter what difficulty they may face in their own lives. And, as one student expressed in a letter to me, they learn that we humans are more alike than we are different, no matter the color of our skin.
What have you come to understand about this wave of book censors, what they hope to accomplish?
NG: The current wave of censorship has less to do with literature and more to do with erasure. Some of that erasure is personal, and some of it is political.
On the personal side, some parents seem intent on eliminating any books that might hurt their children’s feelings, or make them sad, or cause them to feel discomfort. Stories tackling sexual assault certainly fall into this category. Let’s just not talk about these things, the thinking seems to be. That is, of course, a parent’s prerogative—for their own child. Parents do not, however, have the right to make choices for someone else’s child, yet that is precisely what they’re doing.
On the political side, members of the dominant culture do not wish to acknowledge, or be reminded of slavery, genocide, or ongoing instances of social injustice. They are more interested in forgiveness than repentance, and so they’d rather just “move on.” For them, censorship is a political football. Some politicians have realized that raising a hue and cry over the teaching of critical race theory is an easy way to rally support as they head to the polls. What we’re talking about is fear mongering, of course. Keep in mind, almost no one who calls for the removal of books has actually read the books in question. They have simply been told that Book A contains difficult, objectionable, or uncomfortable material which is neither age-appropriate nor consistent with their religious values. And, it just so happens, most of the authors and illustrators of these books look nothing like those in the dominant culture. Surprise, surprise.
Here’s the thing: children’s authors write books to encourage, inspire, uplift, inform and engage readers. We write stories to engender a love of literature. We write stories to plant seeds of compassion and empathy. We introduce readers to the authentic, diverse cultures that make up our republic, and the stories we tell help to fill in the whole picture of who we are, as Americans. To give readers less than the whole truth is to lie to them, and we can’t afford to do that, not if we wish to grow whole, healthy citizens capable of sustaining, and improving upon our democracy.
In your most recent book, Legacy, you bring women of the Harlem Renaissance to the forefront. What is it that attracts you so strongly to this era?
NG: I was born in Harlem, gave my first poetry reading at the Countee Cullen Library when I was 13, and have breathed in all things Harlem Renaissance as far bas as I can remember. For Black people, the period then was as challenging as it is for us today. Not surprisingly, I resonate with many of the themes the poets of the Harlem Renaissance tackled, as I wrestle with the same issues of identity and social justice prevalent in their work. We are kin. The only thing in this literature that was missing for me were the voices of women. I’d come across far too few female poets of the Harlem Renaissance for my liking, and I suspected there were more to be found. Writing Legacy was about addressing that issue, about finding some of those voices and introducing them to young readers of today. I want readers to connect with this history and be inspired by these remarkably talented, highly educated and accomplished Black women of the past so that they could begin to understand their own limitless potential in the present and the future.
What are you planning for 2022?
Oh, my goodness! I’ve got a lot of kettles on the stove. Lovers of Garvey’s Choice will be happy to learn that Garvey in the Dark, a novel set against the pandemic, is due for a fall release. Readers can also look for Playtime for Restless Rascals, the third picture in a series with illustrator Elizabeth Zunon. A possible chapter book that I can’t talk about just yet is on its way. There are other titles scheduled as far away as 2024, as well as a several exciting anthology projects I’ve contributed to. One of the most important is ABsolutely Normal, a YA anthology about mental illness, a topic we are overdue to address. So, there’s a lot to keep me busy! Our children need good books, and that’s what I mean to keep writing. Reading and writing were my survival tools, and I know the same is true for many young people today.
Nikki has become a strong advocate against censorship and in addition to her interview here, you can read more of her writing in Publishers Weekly