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Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
In his poem “Mother to Son,” Langston Hughes set one of his most vivid images. It might also describe the early life of another poet whose climb out of childhood was similarly studded with tacks, splinters, and “boards torn up.” In her teens a friend asked Nikki Grimes how she could still believe in God. “What kind of question is that? How could I not? If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t even be here. I’d either be in prison, or the grave” (Ordinary Hazards).
With over 65 children’s novels, picture books, and poetry collections to her name, plus articles, accolades, and honors (The Watcher was WORLD’s Picture Book of the Year in 2017), success seems crystal-clear. From her home in Corona, Calif., Grimes keeps a demanding speaking and writing schedule, taking time for church, art projects, and connecting with readers through her website, where she invites prayer requests.
But splinters can lodge deep, and her latest published book, a memoir called Ordinary Hazards (WordSong, 2019), prods painful memories.
“I’ve cracked the past / like a door.” The door opens to a little girl born in 1950s Harlem to a protective big sister, a musically gifted father, and a paranoid schizophrenic mother. Within a few pages rats are nibbling the leftover bread, and Daddy, unable to take his wife’s instability, moves out for good. While at work, Mother relies on unsuitable babysitters, one of whom locks Nikki and her sister in a closet all day.
When their mother’s alcoholism leads to rehab, the girls go to separate foster homes. That’s how Nikki, age 7, comes to the only haven of stability she would know as a child: the Buchanans of Ossining, N.Y. “Search my life for luck, / and bad is all you’ll find. / Keep an eye out / for grace, though. / Hard evidence appears / round every corner.” In Ossining she receives a notebook and begins to record her thoughts.
After returning to her mother at age 9, grace often seemed elusive; indifference, abuse, and gang violence were closer at hand. By her teens her father had become her best friend, introducing her to art and artists, planting seeds of beauty and purpose—which made his death in an auto accident all the more bitter.
Ordinary Hazards is a book for older teens, not children. It’s often raw and angry as the author digs up neglect, loss, and harm. The blessings that sprouted in the cracks sometimes took years to bloom. But she kept climbing, and eventually settled on her calling as a writer.
Her wide-ranging body of work includes humorous novels for middle graders, chapter books for early readers, serious fiction for teens, Biblical narratives for Easter and Advent, and picture books for reading aloud. Many include hints of her early sorrow, but all end in hope. Sometimes even a hope beyond this world.
All authors write their experience into their work, but few, in today’s secular culture, include their faith so explicitly.
In Ordinary Hazards, you sense God’s presence from an early age. Have you always been a believer?
Absolutely, though it would be some time before I entered into a personal relationship with the Lord. But I always believed.
Has memory been more a blessing or a burden to you?
I don’t think it’s that simple. There are painful memories that I’d just as soon erase. At the same time, I grieve the memories that are lost. The most agonizing thing about writing my memoir was having to grieve those lost memories, and having to figure out how to navigate those blank spots. In general, though, as we are all made up of our memories, I would have to say each one is a blessing, in some sense—not the painful events, perhaps, but the fact that we can remember them.
Why a verse memoir?
Why not? Poetry is my second language. It is the genre I reach for when I need to express the deepest things of the heart, or share those experiences that were the most difficult. I didn’t choose the form of this memoir. The choice was unconscious, organic, natural. I don’t know that I could have written Ordinary Hazards any other way.
What would you hope a young reader takes away from Ordinary Hazards—even, or perhaps especially, a reader who has not experienced similar trauma?
Ah! My least favorite question! There is no single answer, here. Every reader, no matter the age, takes away something different from each book. So much depends on what that reader brings to the story, in terms of experience, mindset, emotional circumstance. In a general sense, I hope readers are inspired, are empowered to own their own stories, are encouraged to know that, no matter their circumstance in life, there is always light at the end of the tunnel, if you are stubborn enough to hold on to hope. How’s that?
—The next story in the Children’s Books of the Year section is “Worthy YA.”