2022 CSK–Virginia Hamilton Award Acceptance by Nikki Grimes

When I thought about what I wanted to say on this auspicious occasion, I knew where I wanted to begin, and where I wanted to end.

I open with lines from Psalm 16:5-6. I thought about using a contemporary translation, but I prefer the poetry of the original — no surprise there!

Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup;
you make my lot secure.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places…

If you’ve read my memoir, Ordinary Hazards, you know my road has not been an easy one. And yet, at the end of the day, I can honestly bear witness that the boundary lines of my life have fallen for me in pleasant places. Receiving the Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement today is one more proof of that.

When I got the news, one of the people I most wanted to tell was…Virginia. I knew she’d be happy for me. We celebrated each other’s wins.

From the time I first read M.C. Higgins, the Great, I knew I had found a literary kinswoman. I studied her work, marveling at the way she made her characters leap from the page, and knowing that’s precisely what I wanted my characters to do. Virginia Hamilton’s books showed me the way. Even so, it was the gift of her friendship that I cherished most. Both she and her husband, poet Arnold Adoff, were champions of my work early on, and that meant everything to me. As a Black author, I couldn’t imagine anyone’s opinion mattering to me more than Virginia’s, and as I talk about my work today, I do so imagining her here, cheering me on!

This audience is more familiar with my work than most, because it was the Coretta Scott King Author Award for Bronx Masquerade in 2003 that helped bring my books to the attention of a wider readership, as did the CSK Author Honor citations I’ve received over the years.

The very first book of mine that came to the attention of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Jury was Something on My Mind. This was the result of an unusual collaboration. I was introduced to Tom Feelings by our mutual friend Pepsi Charles, a radio producer who frequently read my poetry on her show. I’d popped by to visit Pepsi and found her sharing some of my work with Tom, who then asked if I’d consider writing poems to accompany some of his previously unpublished candid portraits of Black children.

Flash back to my teen years, when my father took me to my first art opening to see the works of two of his favorite Black artists, Leo Carty and Tom Feelings. I was familiar with Tom, especially, because I’d noticed his work in copies of the journal Liberator, which my father kept on his coffee table. Now, flash forward to the moment I met Tom Feelings, in the flesh, and immediately broke out in goosebumps, thinking about my dad and how excited he’d be, and the serendipity of it all. There were fireworks going off in my head!

I had to act cool, though. So, instead of jumping up and down on the outside, like I was doing on the inside, I told Tom I was open to exploring the idea — as if I hadn’t already decided to do it. I asked him to set out the art in question in his studio and said I’d come and take a look. And then I basically kicked him out of his own studio for a while, so that I could sit with the portraits and arrange the pieces into groups of drawings that seemed to be in conversation with one another. The group I decided to work with I cataloged under “Thoughts and Feelings.” I had Tom make Xerox copies of these selections, took them home, and mounted them on the walls of my studio apartment, where I lived with them for six weeks. As they began to speak to me, I began to write. The result was a book for which Tom won the 1979 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award.

My next brush with the jury came in 1995, when the late Floyd Cooper was honored for his illustrations in Meet Danitra Brown, my first effort at storytelling through poetry. Floyd’s win gave me an appetite for a win of my own, and that came in 1999 with the publication of Jazmin’s Notebook, for which I received an Author Honor. Both books are still in print, I’m happy to report!

Then, in 2003, my prayers were answered: I won an Author Honor for Talkin’ About Bessie, which was lovely, but I also took the top Author Award for Bronx Masquerade. It’s hard to believe that book has been in the world for twenty years.

The Coretta Scott King Book Awards Jury has celebrated five of my books with honors — so many, in fact, that I am constantly having to correct interviewers. “No, it’s not four honors. It’s five, thank you very much!” They are: Jazmin’s Notebook; Talkin’ About Bessie; Dark Sons; The Road to Paris; and Words with Wings. Every single one of them counts!

What these books, and all of my others, have in common is my endeavor to faithfully and truthfully represent Black life, past and present, whether fictional, historical, or biographical. I do not shy away from the difficult, or the complex, or the uncomfortable, because I believe children deserve truthful storytelling. Obviously, that storytelling needs to be age-appropriate and, where necessary, delicate, and I strive to craft poetry and prose with those concerns in mind. But whether the topic is joy or social justice, it’s imperative that authors and illustrators be honest in the work we create for young readers.

Sadly, we’ve entered a period in which we must advocate for children’s right to read. There are now laws on the books, in far too many states, that limit what teachers can bring into the classroom by way of books or discussions that honestly address the history of slavery, ­racism, and social injustice in America. To receive this award at such a time is especially significant, because it’s fuel for me. I will continue to hold the line, to create more books like One Last Word, like Legacy, like Bronx ­Masquerade, and the rest, books that reflect the reality of Black life in America, past and present, warts and all.

Why I write the books that I do can best be summed up in this passage at the end of Ordinary Hazards. It says everything you need to know about me, and my work.

I want to write books about
some of the darkness I’ve seen,
real stories about real people, you know?
But I also want to write about the light,
because I’ve seen that, too.
That place of light — it’s not always easy
to get to, but it’s there.
It’s there.

My heartfelt thanks to the Coretta Scott King–­Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement Jury for honoring me with this award.

Nikki Grimes is the winner of the 2022 Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement. Her acceptance speech was delivered at the annual conference of the American Library Association in Washington, DC, on June 26, 2022. From the July/August 2022 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles, click the tag ALA 2022.

Single copies of this special issue are available for $15.00 including postage and may be ordered from:

Kristy South
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Phone 888-282-5852 | Fax 614-733-7269


Nikki Grimes

Nikki Grimes has received the ALAN Award, Children’s Literature Legacy Award, CSK-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement, Virginia Hamilton Literary Award, and NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children, among others. Her memoir Ordinary Hazards (Wordsong/Boyds Mills & Kane) was a Printz, Sibert, and Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor Book.

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