The Magical Language of Literature: An Interview with Author Nikki Grimes
New York Times bestselling author Nikki Grimes says the most empowering part of literature for children and young people is that it helps them see that they are not alone in the world.
“It’s the most empowering part for anyone,” she says. “And it certainly is that for children – to know ‘I’m not alone.’ It is also a place where the seeds are planted for compassion and empathy, where you get to climb into somebody else’s skin and get a sense of what their life or their experience might be.”
Grimes says that one of her favorite letters came from a high school reader who had read Bronx Masquerade, a Coretta Scott King Award-winning book about students who are invited to share their vulnerabilities through open-mic poetry in their English teacher’s classroom. The young reader wrote that the book helped him understand how his classmates were more alike than different, and he was seeing them in a different way.
“He was transformed by the experience of this book,” Grimes says. “One book. That’s what literature does. That’s why literature is important.”
Anne V. Zarrow Award for Young Readers’ Literature
Nikki Grimes is the winner of the Tulsa Library Trust’s 2022 Anne V. Zarrow Award for Young Readers’ Literature. She is the author of numerous award-winning fiction, nonfiction and poetry books for elementary, middle-grade and young-adult readers. Grimes will accept the award at a free presentation on Friday, May 6, at 6 p.m. at Connor’s Cove in the Hardesty Regional Library, 8316 E. 93rd St. She will also present the awards to winners of the 2022 Young People’s Creative Writing Contest. [Editor’s Note: Nikki Grimes’ visit to Tulsa will be postponed to a later date. However, the May 6 presentation of the Young People’s Creative Writing Contest will still take place.]
Difficult topics such as racism, bullying, foster care, abuse, pregnancy and more are all fair game for Grimes. Her books have been on banned book lists and targeted for removal from shelves.
Grimes, however, respects the difficulties of childhood as well as young peoples’ ability to overcome them.
“Childhood is not easy,” she says. “Your child is not experiencing everything that every character in that book is experiencing, but they’re experiencing some. They have been bullied. They have been socially isolated. These stories are where you get to see the character come through the experience, where they grow and learn, and they find life and they experience grace. Whatever the problems are that you face, you can come out of that, and come through those experiences stronger, better, more enlightened and more joyful.”
Poetry: A First Language
Besides reflecting the lives of young readers in her books, Grimes wants them to develop a love of reading and writing. Grimes says that poetry is her first language, and it allows her to deal with difficult subject matter using symbolism, metaphor and imagery.
“If you want to go someplace that is deeply emotional,” she says, “poetry will get you there in a way that no other form will. It goes straight to the heart.”
Children and youth respond to the natural rhythm of poetic language, what Grimes calls the “music of language,” pointing out that poetic language shows up in all types of good writing. She says that teens love song lyrics, so it’s natural for them to love poetry and to write poetry, even if it is never shared. It’s a form for them to share what’s in their hearts.
As a child, Grimes loved word games and puzzles and started writing at age 6. Words were playful, fun and magical.
“I just needed an outlet for my thoughts and emotions. I needed someplace to put them, and poetry became that vessel for me.”
Grimes encourages parents to share poetry with their children and to invite children to share poems they like.
“The field is so incredibly rich right now,” she says. “If you have a kid who’s into soccer, there are soccer poems. Science, outer space, you name it, there’s at least one collection of poetry that speaks to that. Find poetry that dovetails with the interests of your child. Start there.”
Books by Nikki Grimes
Children’s fiction by Grimes includes ALA Notable Books Come Sunday, What Is Goodbye? and the 2018 Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award Honor Book Garvey’s Choice; the Danitra Brown series; the Dyamonde Daniel series; ALA Notable title Southwest Sunrise; and Kirkus Best Book Bedtime for Sweet Creatures; among others.
Young-adult fiction includes novel in verse and Coretta Scott King Award-winner Bronx Masquerade; its companion and YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults title Between the Lines; Coretta Scott King honor books Words with Wings, Jazmine’s Notebook and Dark Sons; and many more.
Grimes’ nonfiction includes New York Times bestsellers Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope and IMAGE Award Nominee Kamala Harris: Rooted in Justice, Coretta Scott King honor book Talkin’ About Bessy: The Story of Aviator Bessie Coleman, Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor One Last Word and its companion Legacy: Women Poets of the Harlem Renaissance, and Printz and Siebert Honor book Ordinary Hazards: A Memoir.