New York Times bestselling author Nikki Grimes is the recipient of the 2006 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children. Her distinguished works include ALA Notable book WHAT IS GOODBYE?, Coretta Scott King Award winner BRONX MASQUERADE, and Coretta Scott King Author Honor books JAZMIN’S NOTEBOOK, TALKIN’ ABOUT BESSIE, DARK SONS, THE ROAD TO PARIS, and WORDS WITH WINGS. Creator of the popular MEET DANITRA BROWN, Ms. Grimes lives in Corona, California.
For what age audience do you write?
I write books for all ages, from board books to adult historical fiction. My books run the genre gammit: poetry, prose, biography, historical fiction, novels and novels-in-verse.
Tell us about your latest book.
My latest book is POEMS IN THE ATTIC, a picture book story-in-verse about a little girl who discovers poems written by her mom when her mother was a girl. Mom grew up as a military brat, and her poems reflect special memories of the places in which her family was stationed. The book is written in paired poems, one set from the daughter’s point of view, the other set from the mother’s. The form of poetry switches back and forth between free verse and tanka.
Henry: Wikipedia helpfully offers: “Tanka is a genre of classical Japanese poetry and one of the major genres of Japanese literature. Tanka consist of five units (often treated as separate lines when romanized or translated) usually with the following pattern: 5-7-5-7-7.” An example by Ishikawa Takuboku:
On the white sand
Of the beach of a small island
In the Eastern Sea
I, my face streaked with tears,
Am playing with a crab
What do you hope readers will get from that book?
Growing up in a military family, with the frequent absence of one parent, plus the constant reassignment from one post to another, one city, or even one country to another, can be challenging for a child. There’s nothing children can do to change that circumstance, of course, but they can control how they mark those times of transition, and those periods of parental absence. Capturing their thoughts, feelings and experiences in poetry can be a powerful, positive way to navigate the challenges. Writing is also a way to celebrate the unique and wonderful adventures of living in different places. In fact, poetry can be a powerful tool for any child facing his or her own challenges, whether they’re from a military family or not.
What aspect of writing do you find most challenging?
The first draft of a novel, because it can be excruciatingly difficult to power through the story, from beginning to end, without stopping, and I need to do that. Otherwise, I risk losing the thread of the story. The temptation is always to stop and make corrections, or edits along the way. If you do, you lose both the momentum, and the thread, which is always tenuous, in the beginning. Think spider’s web. So, my rule is to write first, edit second! Rewrites are for revisions, not first drafts!
Henry: Thank goodness I write picture books of 500 words or less.
What is a powerful lesson you’ve learned from being a writer?
Words matter. I get letters from readers around the corner, and from around the world, who write to tell me that my words have inspired, moved, comforted, or challenged them in some significant way. Sometimes my words have changed the way they think, or motivated them to change the way they behave, or how they treat their classmates or their parents. They tell me that my words have turned them into avid readers where, once, they didn’t like to read at all. At other times, my words have awakened in them a desire to write, themselves.
Words are powerful. That’s the lesson!
Henry: Can I get an Amen!
What has been a memorable experience that you never would have had if you had not been a writer?
Dinner with President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush, at the Library of Congress, and breakfast with the First Lady at The White House. I attended both as an author invited to the National Book Festival. I’ve been three times, but this first was most memorable.
Henry: Um, AWESOME!!
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
Read, read, read and write, write, write. You cannot be a good writer without first being a good reader. Read broadly and deeply because every genre has something to teach you. And write voraciously because writing is a muscle that needs to be exercised. Otherwise, you won’t grow as a wordsmith or a storyteller. Finally, hone your craft patiently before seeking publication. Don’t shortchange yourself, or your audience, by sending your story out into the world before it is the very best that it can be.
Henry: Ah, but that raises the follow-up question, “How do you know when it’s ready to submit?”
Do you have any favorite quotes?
I don’t have any favorite quotes, but there is a Swahili saying I’m partial to: “Pole, pole, tu ta fika.” It means “slowly, slowly, we will arrive.” It reminds me to be patient with myself, and with my work. Patience, as I like to tell young writers, is the difference between a good book and a great one.
Henry: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time” and “Patience is what you get, when you didn’t get what you wanted”
Do you have any strange rituals that you observe when you write?
Not really. I often pray over my work, but I don’t consider that strange. I pray over every important aspect of my life. It’s just natural.
If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
I wouldn’t want a superpower—too much responsibility. It’s tough enough being a regular human being, trying to live with integrity. A superpower would just throw me out of balance.
Henry: Clearly, you are not cut out to become a villain. The image of Galadriel refusing the One Ring of Power just flashed in my head.
If you could have three authors over for dinner, who would it be?
Anne Lamott, Toni Morrison, and Lucille Clifton. I’ve met two of the three, but would relish the opportunity to spend an evening with them all because I admire their strength, their faith, and their full immersion into the world of lyrical language and linguistic invention. They not only move me, but they all excite a sweet literary jealousy. They make me want to be a better writer! That is reason enough.
Henry: Wikipedia helpfully offers:
Anne Lamott is an American novelist and non-fiction writer. She is also a progressive political activist, public speaker, and writing teacher. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, her nonfiction works are largely autobiographical. Marked by their self-deprecating humor and openness, Lamott’s writings cover such subjects as alcoholism, single-motherhood, depression, and Christianity.
Toni Morrison is an American novelist, editor, and professor. Her novels are known for their epic themes, vivid dialogue, and richly detailed characters. Among her best known novels are THE BLUEST EYE, SULA, SONG OF SOLOMON and BELOVED. She won the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award in 1988 for BELOVED and the Nobel Prize in 1993. On May 29, 2012, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Lucille Clifton was an American poet, writer, and educator from Buffalo, New York. From 1979 to 1985 she was Poet Laureate of Maryland. Frequent topics in her poetry include the celebration of her African-American heritage, women’s experience, and the female body. She was also nominated twice for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
What is your favorite creature that exists only in literature?
Unicorn because, like the wild horses that inspired them, they are noble creatures.
Henry: With notable exceptions, as in UNICORN THINKS HE’S PRETTY GREAT by Bob Shea. :)
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
Usually some form of art. I knit, make beaded jewelry, make hand made cards and journals, paint watercolors, and mixed-media art pieces. I enjoy nothing so much as making art.
What would you like it to say on your tombstone?
Here lies a woman of integrity.
Henry: “lies” and “integrity” are giving me cognitive dissonance. :)
Where can readers find your work?
My books can be found at independent bookstores, bookstore chains, Barnes & Nobel, and Amazon.com. If a brick and mortar store doesn’t have the title you want, (I’ve published more than 60), just ask them to order it for you. If you’re not sure what titles are available, check my website. There you’ll find titles, reviews, excerpts and, in a few cases, audio clips.
This interview is also posted on the San Diego Children’s Books Examiner.