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To Know Nikki Grimes Is to Know an Artist: Profile of 2017 Wilder Award winner Nikki Grimes by Junko Yokota

Nikki Grimes and Junko Yokota. Photo courtesy of Nikki Grimes

With the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, ALA’s Association of Library Services to Children celebrates Nikki Grimes for her lifetime contribution as a poet and novelist. From Danitra Brown to Dyamonde Daniel and more, Grimes has created characters in which diverse child readers can see themselves reflected. Who is the person behind the poetry and novels? And how does she create her work?

It’s easy to find many articles by and about her and interviews with her. A good first stop is TeachingBooks.net. There, you can hear her describe how she came to have the name by which we know her. People were having difficulty pronouncing her birth name, so at six years of age, she decided she needed a nickname. “Nikki” is short for “Nickname.” It’s also easy to learn of her many accolades: New York Times bestseller (for Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope); 2006 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children; 2003 Coretta Scott King Author Award for Bronx Masquerade as well as numerous CSK honors; a 1993 NAACP Image Award Finalist for Malcolm X: A Force for Change, among others. Her accomplishments are awe-inspiring.

Nikki was born in Harlem, the child of a violinist/composer father who encouraged Nikki’s artistic endeavors and a mother who battled mental illness and alcoholism. She grew up in a series of foster homes, separated from her older sister. She lived through crisis after crisis until high school when a teacher, Mrs. Wexler, helped her understand that she shouldn’t focus on what she couldn’t control but rather on what she could — her writing and her schoolwork. Friendships weren’t easy when moving around so often, but books and writing gave her solace. Yet, she didn’t see herself in literature. She wrote poetry and stories about her loneliness, her sense of invisibility, and whatever was on her mind. But when she said she wanted to become a writer, her mother told her that writers were “a dime a dozen,” and her neighbors told her that writers “don’t come from ’round here.” She listened to her heart, and later published A Dime a Dozen, a book of poetry reacting to the sentiment that she shouldn’t be a writer. At seventeen she attended a gathering honoring Malcolm X with the intent of meeting author James Baldwin and having him read her poetry notebook. He read it standing up, wrote down his phone number, and asked her to call him. Nikki credits Baldwin for her pursuit of excellence from that point until today: above all, she strives to create work of which she can be proud and that is worthy of his faith in her.

Nikki’s writing career shows her drive to write about a range of topics, not shying from anything difficult, but instead honestly facing the challenges that her child readers might be experiencing. For example, in the book What Is Goodbye? she explores the stages of grief through multiple perspectives of gender, age, and different family members, considering the many individual ways in which people deal with loss.

Travel has had a huge impact on who Nikki is as she explores “worlds beyond” to see what other possibilities exist. She says, “When all you see is your immediate surroundings, your sense of what’s possible is severely limited.” Nikki’s six years in Sweden were filled with experiences that shaped her vision of what is possible. Her year in Tanzania is reflected in her book Is It Far to Zanzibar?; her time in China led to Tai Chi Morning: Snapshots of China, illustrated by Ed Young.

I first “met” Nikki through her poetry. In my work as a classroom teacher, a school librarian, and a professor of children’s literature, Nikki’s words were often part of my day. I’d read her words, I’d read aloud her words, I’d talk about her words. The first book I distinctly recall making its way into my own teaching was Something on My Mind. What struck me as surprising was the way in which the book was created. Illustrator Tom Feelings had asked Nikki to write poetry based on his art. Most of my students had been used to reading the words first and then looking at the art for affirmation; instead, they learned to look at the art and consider what feelings and thoughts were evoked by those images.

Nikki creates characters that come to life in such ways that children are sure they’re real people. Children consider Danitra Brown and Dyamonde Daniel their own friends, not just characters on printed paper. Nikki attributes her success in bringing her words to life to hard work and perseverance while paying attention to the world around her — she finds inspiration and fodder for writing in everything in her life. And, throughout her life, she has read widely, eclectically, and ravenously.

Some years after discovering her through her work, I met Nikki Grimes, the person — the one who writes those words, the one who makes readers feel and sigh and smile and see. To know Nikki Grimes is to know an artist. Of course, poetry is artistry. But Nikki is also a fine artist who draws and paints watercolors. She knits: complicated things like sweaters. She makes intricately beaded pieces of jewelry that are visual statement pieces. She saves scraps of gift wrap, creates handmade paper, and crafts her own cards and journals.

Nikki’s love of color is something that reflects the range of emotion found in her life and in her poetry. She has a deep appreciation of beauty. Beauty in nature especially beckons her to pull out her camera, to engage simultaneously as both photographer and as poet. To follow Nikki’s Facebook feed is to be rewarded with gifts of flower photography and with original haiku.

Nikki is even like a piece of art in herself — through her clothing, jewelry, and her overall appearance. She has signature pieces of clothing that are wearable art. She wears not sets of earrings but artfully selected compositions of individual pieces that express harmony and/or dissonance when worn together.

In a Publishers Weekly (February 23, 2017) conversation with Kwame Alexander, she states, “I am all about hope.” Hope is what threads her stories and poems. Nikki’s latest book, published by Bloomsbury in 2017, is One Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissance, beautifully illustrated by a selection of artists. The book introduces readers to the Harlem Renaissance by presenting background history and biographical information through original poetry using the Golden Shovel form, blending Harlem Renaissance poets’ words with her own. Reading the work of women poets of the Harlem Renaissance such as Gwendolyn Brooks inspired Nikki to “sculpt” her poems based on their work. Her excitement in creating Golden Shovel poetry has inspired her to teach this form to elementary and middle-school students. In the PW interview Kwame Alexander says, and Nikki agrees, that “writing is just a tool to carve out your dreams.”

Writing is the vehicle through which Nikki pursues her larger goal, that of communicating through multiple senses what she needs to say to the world. She deeply believes in all children having the opportunity to see themselves in books, and has spoken over the years about the systematic marginalization of diverse literature such that it’s only talked about during celebrations like Chinese New Year, Cinco de Mayo, or Black History Month. For her, understanding the universality of human experience, along with its uniqueness, can only be accomplished when literature reflecting diverse experiences is more naturally and widely included in day-to-day discussions. Nikki has much to say, and her blog Nikki Sounds Off covers a range of topics. But Nikki also listens, and invites people through the “Something on My Mind” page to write to her. [Ed. note: See also her July/August 2009 Horn Book Magazine article “Speaking Out”: “If this nation can manage to put a black man in the Oval Office, why can’t the Caldecott committee see its way clear to give the Caldecott medal to an individual artist of African descent?”]

Congratulations, Nikki Grimes. You are most deserving of the honor of being named the winner of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award. We are the fortunate readers who live with the words that you have woven together to create the images and feelings your poetry offers. Now, please continue to live your poetic life, so we may continue to read more of your poetry for our future. Our world needs it.

Nikki Grimes is the winner of the 2017 Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal. Read her acceptance speech, delivered at the annual conference of the American Library Association in Chicago on June 25, 2017. From the July/August 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles click the tag ALA 2017. Read Nikki Grimes’s Wilder acceptance speech here.

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Junko Yokota About Junko Yokota

Junko Yokota is Professor Emerita at National Louis University and Director of the Center for Teaching through Children’s Books in Chicago. She is past-president of USBBY and has served on many ALSC committees. She is a recipient of the Virginia Hamilton Award for Contribution to Multicultural Literature.

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