Author Interview: Nikki Grimes on The Power of Words

By Traci Sorell

Memoir is one of my favorite genres to read. When Nikki Grimes shared some poems from hers last summer, I knew I must read Ordinary Hazards (Boyds Mills & Kane, 2019), the entire book.

Written in verse, her words captivated me much as the act of writing did her at an early age. The acclaim she’s already received in starred reviews and from fellow powerhouse creators speaks to the truth telling found within its pages.

Boyds Mill & Kane

Nikki, I’m going to jump right in with questions because I couldn’t put down Ordinary Hazards once I started reading. Although we faced different challenges growing up, I reflected on the observations you shared of grownups in this memoir in verse and they were spot on. Your experiences cultivated self-preservation and a sage outlook early in you. Tell us what prompted you to write this book at this time.

The answer is multi-pronged. First, Time is what prompted me. That is to say, the passage of time, and as I age, I’m increasingly in touch with my mortality.

In the last couple of years, I’ve begun working my way down my personal list of critical to-do projects, and this memoir was at the top. I’ve always believed that the most important story I have to tell is my own, and I felt the clock ticking.

The second answer to the question is also Time, as in the times in which we live. For many of us, this is a dark season, especially in our country. So many of the ideals we hold for America—some of them realized, some of them aspirational—are under attack by the current administration, and it is easy to succumb to the fear that the darkness will win.

But the God I know teaches me otherwise, and so does my personal experience. Light always wins, in the end. It doesn’t win easily, it doesn’t win without a fight, but it wins.

Ordinary Hazards is a story about light overcoming darkness, and I think that kind of story is needed now more than ever.

Lastly, Ordinary Hazards is a testimony about the power of words. At a time when truth-telling journalists and bold citizens are under attack, it’s important to be reminded that our words matter, that they carry power, and that we have a right to own them, and to speak the truth we know.

Powerful. Imbued with truth—your words here and in the book. What do you hope a reader will take away from Ordinary Hazards?

As is true with any book, each reader will resonate with a different aspect of the story. In that sense, there are many takeaways.

Nikki and Traci at the Coretta Scott King 50th Anniversary Awards Ceremony

Hope, of course, is a main ingredient of every story I tell. No matter what challenges you may face in life, you have reason to hope. Aside from that, there are three general takeaways I long for readers to grasp.

  1. Your past need not dictate your future. We can be informed by the past without being tethered to it.
  2. There is always light at the end of even the darkest tunnel.
  3. The responsibility, and the power, to create the future you choose lie within you. We are all stronger than we know!

I also hope readers walk away from my story feeling empowered to own theirs.

You’ve definitely communicated all of those with strength and authenticity. Now that you’ve completed the first entry on your must accomplish list, I’m curious. You’ve written for every age group in children’s-YA literature. What have you not done yet in your career that you still want to accomplish?

That’s easy: a collection of adult poetry and a novel or short story collection for adults.

I’d also like to attempt a graphic novel. I’m not sure I can pull it off, which is, of course, why I feel driven to give it a try!

Harriet Tubman’s descendants with Nikki and her Chasing Freedom picture book, illustrated by Michele Wood (Orchard Books, 2015).

I have no doubt you’ll do all of those! What craft and career advice do you have for writers just entering this field?

First and foremost, honor your audience. Writing for young readers is a precious responsibility. Give these readers your very best.

Second, stretch yourself as an artist by trying a variety of genres. You may not succeed at them all equally, but in the attempt, your craftsmanship will grow.

Third, if you get an idea that frightens you, walk into your fear. Whenever I’ve walked into my fear, the result has been some of my very best work.

Lastly—and this connects to the first—remember that good enough isn’t. Don’t settle for competence in your work. Go for greatness, every single time. You may not always hit it, but you’ll continually raise the bar in your own work, and that is something that will give you, and your readers, enormous satisfaction.

Illustrator Bryan Collier and Nikki signing Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope (Simon & Schuster, 2008)

That’s advice I needed to hear right now, so thank you for that. What do you have coming out next?

Something completely different! A picture book titled Bedtime for Sweet Creatures, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon [(who also illustrated Nikki’s book Poems in the Attic (Lee & Low, 2015)] and published by Sourcebooks comes out in January 2020. I love being able to move back and forth between genres and age groups! I find it refreshing.

I look forward to reading that one! I do too and your work inspires me to keep pushing myself. Thank you for this interview and sharing your childhood through Ordinary Hazards with all of us.

Cynsational Notes

Author Nikki Grimes, photo by Aaron Lemen

New York Times bestselling author Nikki Grimes is the recipient of the 2017 Children’s Literature Legacy Award, the 2016 Virginia Hamilton Literary Award, and the 2006 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children.

The author of Coretta Scott King Award-winner Bronx Masquerade, illustrated by Christopher Myers (Penguin Random House, 2001), her most recent titles include the much-honored Words With Wings (Boyds Mills & Kane, 2019), Garvey’s Choice (Boyds Mills & Kane, 2019) and Boston Globe-Horn Book honor, One Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissance (Bloomsbury, 2017).

Her much-anticipated memoir in verse, Ordinary Hazards, released last month.

Traci Sorell covers children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She also covers fiction and nonfiction picture books.

Traci is the author of We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, illustrated by Frané Lessac (Charlesbridge, 2018), a 2019 Sibert Medal Honor, a 2019 Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor, and 2019 Orbis Pictus Honor award-winning nonfiction picture book with four starred reviews.

Her newest works include: At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre (Kokila, Sept. 17, 2019); Indian No More, a historical fiction middle grade novel co-authored with the late Charlene Willing McManis (Tu Books, 2019); and “College Degree,” which appears in Thanku: Poems of Gratitude, edited by Miranda Paul, illustrated by Marlena Myles (Millbrook, 2019).

Traci is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation and lives in northeastern Oklahoma, where her Tribe is located. She is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency. Follow Traci on Twitter and Instagram.