#44: Nikki Grimes 2018
Empathy in Story, July 3, 2019
Recorded at Festival 2018, Nikki Grimes speaks here about the potential story and poetry have to teach us empathy. Drawing examples from her own work, Grimes talks about the way that words can connect people across time and across cultures. When it feels like empathy is in short supply, Nikki Grimes urges us to turn to story and poetry.
- Nikki Grimes,
- Garvey’s Choice
- The Watcher
- The Road to Paris
- Chasing Freedom
- Bronx Masquerade
- Between the Lines
Natalie Rowland (host): [00:00:01] Support for Rewrite Radio comes from the Fetzer Institute, helping build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Fetzer envisions a world that embraces love as a guiding principle and animating force for our lives—a powerful love that helps us live in sacred relationship with ourselves, others, and the natural world. Learn more by visiting fetzer.org.
When it feels like empathy is in short supply, Nikki Grimes urges us to turn to story and poetry.
My name is Natalie Rowland, and I’m a program coordinator at the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing.
Today on Rewrite Radio, we bring you Nikki Grimes, speaking at Festival 2018 about the potential story and poetry have to teach us empathy. Drawing examples from her own work, Grimes talks about the way that words can connect people across time and across cultures.
The 2017 recipient of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for a “substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children,” Nikki Grimes has written many award-winning books for children and young adults, including Bronx Masquerade, winner of the Coretta Scott King Award in 2002. Her books Jazmin's Notebook, Talkin’ about Bessie, Dark Sons, The Road to Paris, and Words with Wings each received a Coretta Scott King Honor. In addition, the National Council of Teachers of English honored her with its Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children in 2006.
Grimes’s other books include the Dyamonde Daniel chapter book series, as well as New York Times bestseller Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope. Her most recent books are One Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissance and The Watcher. Her memoir, Ordinary Hazards, is written in verse for young adult and adult readers and will be available in October 2019.
In addition to her work for children, Grimes has written articles for Essence, Today’s Christian Woman, Image, and The Journal of Arts & Religion, among others. During a six-year stint in Sweden, she hosted a radio program for immigrants, Grunslöst, as well as another program for Swedish Educational Radio, and during the 1970s, Grimes co-produced and hosted The Kid’s Show on WBAI FM in New York.
And now, here’s Nikki Grimes from the 2018 Festival of Faith & Writing.
Nikki Grimes: [00:03:03] I want to open with a poem from One Last Word titled “Emergency Measures.”
My sister and I watch
the five o’clock news,
which spells out
our worth in the world.
According to reports,
it’s somewhere on the minus side.
That may be only hearsay,
but how can I live long enough
to disprove the lie?
How can I stay strong
in a world where fear and hate
wait outside my door?
My teacher tells me
to go in search of counsel,
back, back, back
to the Harlem Renaissance,
when poetry bursts like a dam
and a river of wisdom-words
rushed through the streets
I call home.
Can I really find
fuel for the future
in the past?
Less sure than desperate
I dip my spoon
into the bowl of years,
stir till I reach the Renaissance
and find a few choice lines
to chew on,
and I think:
[00:04:18] When I was young, I was called to a broad range of artistic pursuits. I was drawn to music, dance, theater, and literature, the last being my primary focus. Some of the adults in my world counseled me to just pick one art form to pursue, but my father said something otherwise. He encouraged me to explore all the arts that called my name. He assured me that once I determined which discipline I wanted to focus on, I would be able to make use of every skill I had developed along the way. And he was right.
My forays into music and dance surely impacted the lyricism of my poetry. My explorations into theatre are in large part responsible for my facility with character and voice and my organic use of dialogue. Through theater I learned to climb into my characters’ skins and look at the world through their eyes. That’s the very process I use in crafting every story I tell. And every poem I pen.
And by writing it precisely that way I not only invite readers to see the world from someone else’s point of view, but I enable them to do so. That nexus, that moment of emotional connection between character and reader is the very point at which seeds of empathy and compassion can be planted. Empathy is something we’re woefully short on these days, and that worries me. It worries a lot of people I know, but worry is not enough: we have to do something about it.
As an author of books for children and young adults I write to tell stories, stories that entertain, stories that I hope inspire, stories that help readers find meaning in their lives. Because my own youth was a difficult one, a search for meaning was always central to me, both on and off the page. But even more vital to me is the attention to the ways in which we humans are more alike than we are different. Our stories may vary widely but our humanity is the same. As are the emotional experiences that we share. Our paths to those experiences are unique, but their sameness at the core is what matters and what makes compassion and empathy possible. We desperately need those elements.
As writers, teachers, and librarians, we are uniquely positioned to plant those seeds of empathy, to teach the young to feel the heartbeats of races and cultures other than their own. We can endeavor to replace any possible fear of the unknown with knowledge of the knowable. We can teach them the ways in which we humans are more alike than we are different. We can teach them that the most important common denominator is the human heart. To do that, we start with a book.
For me part of the wonder of good literature is its ability to bridge hearts over the span of history, the gulf of gender, and the chasm of racial and cultural difference. It’s one of the reasons I got excited about creating a conversation between Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony for the book Chasing Freedom. Here was one black woman and one white woman, both historically significant. What could they possibly have in common? As research taught me, more than I’d ever imagined.
In 1988, I was asked to develop monologues of historical figures for dramatic performance to take place in China. I chose Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Susan B. Anthony as my subjects and as I was in the process of researching them individually I came to discover that not only were their contemporaries but that they all knew each other. And that got me thinking one day, “What would it be like if Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony sat down for a conversation?” Well, I’m a writer, so I could make that happen. [laughter]
Within the boundaries of my book I was able to explore that possibility and to display their amazing connection: a source of wonder for a new generation. Achieving that particular brand of wonder is what I’m after, and one of the vehicles I use for making that connection is poetry. Sometimes they are poems of place, as in Tai Chi Morning: Snapshots of China, the Forbidden City where a royalty was once hidden from view is a place to tiptoe. “I follow the buzz of bodies swarming over acres, a paved walkway, and greet a bronze lion guarding the ancient temple. I pat his burnished head, close my eyes, and hear the footfalls of the last emperor echoing through the courtyard. His ghostly shape waltzes in front of me, he lifts a wavy finger to his royal lips and whispers shh.”
At other times the poetry’s focus is people. Here the person in question is a young Air Force brat who, constantly uprooted, uses poetry to capture special moments she experiences along the way. “Cherry Point, North Carolina: Any day is perfect for walking the river’s edge. I slipped over rocks, gathered bruises, and shark’s teeth to show Dad when he’s on leave. Gone hiking, Germany: Saw my first castle hiking in Hohenecken. Queen of the hilltop, I commanded my brother cease his laughing and bow.”
As a reader, the poetry I love has no colour. It’s not black or white. It is simply beautiful. But as a child I understood that something was missing. I rarely saw myself reflected in the books I read. That is finally changing though, ever so slowly, and here’s why it needs to: With a population that is increasingly more diverse, a population in which the percentage of peoples of color has blasted out of the minority column, the audience for multicultural books has never been larger. And the need for such books is only growing and I would know because I’ve been speaking into this breech for 40 years.
What’s often missing, though, when we discuss diversity in children’s literature is how important these books are for everyone. Such books help readers better understand and engage with one another, but also show readers how much we all have in common. Which brings me right back to the issue of cultivating compassion.
In the novel Garvey’s Choice the main character finds himself teased and bullied by a character designated Too Skinny For Words. Garvey himself is overweight and Too Skinny For Words never lets him forget it. “Too Skinny For Words bumps into me on purpose. ‘Oops,’ he says, ‘Sorry. It’s kind of hard to squeeze by since you take up so much space.’ Under the stairwell I take a beat, close my eyes, and hum loud enough to drown the ordinary sound of meanness flung my way.”
As you might imagine, Garvey has no love for this boy who routinely causes him pain. But later in the story, Garvey glimpses a flicker of sadness in his tormentors eye, enough to reveal that this bully has pain of his own, and that causes something in Garvey’s heart to shift. It happens following a concert in which Garvey sings a solo and crushes it. “Compliments: Joe comes, no surprise, pats me on the back. ‘Garvey, my man, you killed it.’ The stars round Mars have nothing on me tonight. I shine bright. ‘Kid, you got some pipes.’ This from Too Skinny For Words, I watch his eyes turn an envy green, a color I have never seen him wear. Less than perfect, grim shadows, problems haunt us all: round, thin, short, tall. Too Skinny For Words is unhappy to the core, never noticed that before.” The opening of Garvey’s heart towards his enemy is subtle but it is there. That little something is the beginning of compassion.
In my newest picture book, The Watcher, a little girl makes a little boy’s life a misery. The girl is a bully named Tanya and the boy, her victim, is Jordan. Jordan has something Tanya lacks, namely faith in God. That faith pushes Jordan to try to befriend his tormentor. The reader might well consider Jordan’s attempt to befriend Tanya a useless proposition until some of the heartaches that have made Tanya the bully she is are revealed. “Wish I was some other ‘who’ living where stutterers aren’t treated like spit. Does that place even exist? No, so I switch off my hearing when grandma says to ask you for help. If you care, maybe you can tell me how come kids tease me into meanness I can’t run from.”
Once the reader understands Tanya’s hurt, empathy and compassion become possible. “Jordan: People are puzzles, even Tanya. Not all good, not all bad, but mixed. I try not to care, but the Lord pokes me with his word, mentions the moon Tanya and I both sleep under, dream by. God loves us the same, tucks us both in at night. The truth is bullies are made, not born. There’s always something beneath their actions, some problem left unresolved, some wound left to fester, some pain masquerading as hatred of another. I flip my angry switch, push Jordan whenever the kid comes close, but he won’t scare now, just whispers, ‘Lord, I hear you,’ then smiles, sometimes he tells me, ‘I will pray for you,’ won’t even laugh at my stutter, and why does he keep bringing me cookies? One night I ask grandma, ‘Did you tell his mom to make him be nice to me?’ She looks up from her Bible beaming. ‘Maybe you should ask Jordan. All I can tell you is that asking can’t do any harm.’”
How we respond to a bully, whether we deflect the arrows they aim in our direction or not, depends in large part on our ability to understand them or to know them. Without that knowing, that understanding comes a level of empathy, of compassion. There’s something mystical that transpires, something transformative that takes place when we walk in another’s shoes. When we slip into another skin and view the world from their perspective. The experience alters us in ways that are sometimes subtle, and at other times quite substantial.
Story can be a powerful catalyst for such transformation. The letters I receive from readers confirm this for me. I love fan mail, and I get letters from readers as far away as Afghanistan, Japan, and Goa, but most of the letters come from somewhere within the United States. These letters tell me that if we share diverse books with all young readers each will find something in those books that speaks to them.
Dear Miss Nikki Grimes, I like My Man Blue. Some of the book made me laugh my head off.
Dear Miss Grimes, I read your book Shoe Magic and I liked it because the poems made me laugh.
Dear Miss Grimes, I really like your book The Road to Paris because there’s drama in the book. It was kind of sad and happy. I mostly like when Paris and her brother stick together through rough and bad times.
Dear Miss Grimes, I think your book The Road to Paris is a page-turner. I could never put it down and I read it in one night. You made the book so fun to read.
One of my all-time favorite letters comes from a young man in Holland, Pennsylvania. He says everything I want you to understand about the importance of sharing diverse books with all readers.
Dear Miss Grimes, I’m currently reading your book Bronx Masquerade. In the beginning of the school year I hated reading, but reading your book made me want to read more and more. Reading is now one of my hobbies. I’m very happy I read this book. You made me realize that even though we look different on the outside, we are pretty much the same on the inside. Everybody should read this book to help them change the way they think about other people they make fun of. I know it changed the way I think of people.
[00:20:35] This letter is all about transformation: first, transformation from a non-reader to an avid reader, and then more deeply transformation in one young reader’s thinking about classmates who represent the other. His preconceived notions about fellow students of another race were, according to him, completely upended. That transformation was made possible simply by reading a book. Stories can be that powerful, and for those of us who just love to read I think we forget that.
What does it mean for those of us who traffic in literature? It means we have in our hands tools for change. We have implements for planting empathy, for cultivating compassion, and those implements are books. Books that help readers understand at a deep emotional level that we are more alike than we are different. Books by and about people of races and cultures other than our own speak this truth to our hearts. Even though we may look different on the outside we’re pretty much the same on the inside. And that my friends is the beginning of compassion.
This is why I say diverse literature is important for all readers. Books put us in touch with realities other than our own. How can a reader who has never been poor or in need understand what that feels like? The mother in the poem “Lessons” can give them a taste of that reality.
Home was nothing but two rooms and a pullout bed, though there were worse places. At least we had cupboards with a little something inside. No steak on the table or rich man’s carpet ‘neath our feet, but still we kept the heat on and we throw dance parties for rent when the money got tight, push back the sofa and clear the floor, truth, life can be sadder than a willow stripped bare.
How can a reader who has never experienced criminal injustice know what that feels like or even recognize what that looks like? Marcell Dixon in Between the Lines could make it plain.
I wake up this morning, find Pop slung across a kitchen chair, throwing back a beer. The table is a mess of empty cans, some crushed, some dents in the middle. Go to pick up the empties and throw them away but Pops snaps, “Leave them, leave them right there. I don’t need you picking up after me, boy. You think I can’t do it?” “No it’s—it’s not that, Pops, I just thought—” “You thought what?” he snarled. “Nothing, Pops,” I said. “You think your old man is useless now just ‘cause he can’t get a decent job.” I shake my head and look away, no point in speaking. There ain’t no right thing to say to Pops these days, no vocabulary that’s gonna take away his pain.
Sweep by Marcell Dixon. Sweep, that’s a good word. The way cops roll up on the hood treating black boys, black men like dirt, that’s what you sweep up right. I’ve seen them swoop in billy clubs swinging, the only kind of brooms they need to gather up anybody’s unlucky enough to be at the wrong place at the wrong time like my dad. Too bad, so sad, your dad got busted in a war he never enlisted in. I watched his face get shoved to the ground never mind that no drugs were ever found on his person. He is a person, remember? Did they? Either way, his arrest was hardly what you’d call a waste: after all, it did help one cop make his quota for the night.
How can a reader far removed from his ancestors’ immigrant experience understand what it feels like to be first or second generation American to constantly be made to feel like the outsider even in the place you call home? The character of Valentina Alvarez can tell that story. “What You Don’t Know.”
Mi padre, Ignacio,
is a book you haven’t read.
It’s filled with poetry
that can curl its fingers
around your corazón
and squeeze out joy.
Pero you’ve never
cracked the cover.
You scribble crítica
the measure of the man
but you’ve never
peeled back the pages
of his biografía.
You toss el libro
on to the trash heap
Y ustedes dicen it has no value.
But, of course,
you are categorically incorrecto,
which you would know
if only you could read las palabras.
If only you, too,
to be bilingual.
Lately I keep seeing signs in my neighborhood instructing me to go back home. Since I am home already, apparently some definition is required. Home: village, house, social unit formed by family living together, place of residence, a congenial environment where I lay my head. Is any of this ringing a bell? A place of origin, as in where a person was born, that person being me. Do you see what I’m getting at? I could make it plainer, but I’m not that sure you’re paying attention. How about base of operations, habitat, location, station, nation of which I am a citizen by birth, not accident, in case you were wondering. Intendentes, no? How about this: americano, su casa es mi casa. Sorry if that rocks your boat. Chances are it was leaking anyway. [laughter]
If a reader’s family speaks only one language, how can she understand what it feels like to miss having a second language, the language of your parents. Li Cheng could explain it.
I love my first name. Depending on how you spell it, it can either be Chinese or American or both, like me. I’m all Chinese and all American. That’s a lot of contradictions to squeeze into one small body. My facial features scream Chinese, but my lips can’t even whisper an entire sentence of Mandarin because my parents did not encourage it.
“Threads” by Li Cheng.
How can I explain
the duality of Li?
The muffled sounds
of mah-jongg tiles touching,
flips a switch in me
as my parents follow
of the ancient game.
The Mandarin calligraphy
clinging to our walls
sends my soul sailing
to rice paddies
to the land of silk,
and the jade mountain peaks
often speak of.
through their blood,
You are part mine.
And I nod, silent
that my untrained
with my ancestors’
Books take us to other worlds. Some on the other side of the universe, some down the block or right around the corner. Each story shows us something we never knew before. And maybe it’s not about another culture, maybe it’s about a life circumstance that is different from our own, like being shorter or thinner or rounder than everyone else around us.
[00:29:35] Day two: My mirror throws back reflections of a round boy whose face looks like mine. Who is he? And how if I disappeared inside his skin? I search through my shirts for tan, brown, gray, colors that can help me sneak past any rough wall of words I’m at risk of slamming into. Maybe it’s about knowing what it’s like to be afraid of your own shadow. I’m afraid. That’s all you need to know about me: I’m afraid of everything and I don’t know why. I’m afraid to ask. I’m afraid to wear a new style before somebody else does first. I’m afraid to meet new people. I’m afraid of not meeting new people. I’m afraid of looking like a dork. I am a dork [laughter] but I’m afraid of people finding that out. I’m afraid to wear heels because I might tip over and break my neck. I’m afraid if I don’t wear heels no cute boy will look at me. When a cute boy does look at me, I’m afraid to look back. [laughter] Mostly I’m afraid of always being afraid.
Mrs. Wechsler thinks if I get up and read my poetry in front of a classroom of strangers it will help me be less afraid of things. Did I tell you that Mrs. Wechsler is insane? [laughter] If I get up in front of class and read my poetry, I’ll die. She’ll be sorry then. [laughter] Of course it won’t matter because I’ll already be dead.
“Anxiety” by Angela Marie Bailey.
Anxiety would be easier to slay if the things I feared were outside of me. I could take karate lessons to fend off muggers, learn to repel rapists with a swift kick in their tender places, but it’s not fear of these that get my knees wobbling. No siren blare or nightmare of gunshots send me running. It’s the shivering person within who feels too thin, too tall, too plain Jane—not at all what’s popular, acceptable, respectable, stylish enough, smart enough, brave enough, loveable enough—enough! It’s time for me to tell that mixed-up girl in the mirror that as a matter of fact, she’s more than enough. She’s plenty.
[00:32:24] Each story expands our thinking, gives us a new view of the other, opens up the possibility of relationships we never considered. Good stories, all stories are good for us. They nourish our souls in fundamental ways. That can’t happen if we ghettoise literature, if we decide that some books are for some people and some books are for others. If I were to suggest that Charlotte’s Web should only be read by white students, preferably those who lived on farms, [laughter] you’d say that was patently absurd. If I told you that The Diary of Anne Frank was written for readers who were Jewish, you’d laugh in my face. If I said Arabian Nights was strictly for students of Arab descent, you would scoff, and rightly so.
And yet somehow literary gatekeepers have determined that good books featuring black or Latino or Asian or Native American characters are only to be read by black or Latino or Asian or Native American readers. Guess what? That’s equally absurd. [applause] A good book is a good book is a good book, period.
I frequently encounter teachers who say they personally admire or even love my work and yet they’re hesitant to share it with their students predicated on the assumption that they’re predominantly white student body will not be drawn in or be able to relate to my stories merely because my main characters are African Americans. Oh, please. [laughter] Based on the many letters I receive from children all over the country of every conceivable race and culture, that simply is not true. If a story is well-told, well-written, and age-appropriate, that story should be enjoyed by the widest possible readership.
We often learn about other peoples, other worlds between the pages of a book. That is not to say that we can’t garner information through our eyes via television and film, but it’s not the same. When we read a book we experience the plight of the characters in a deep emotional way that isn’t matched by viewing a film, even when the film is an adaptation of a book. It’s just not the same.
[00:35:16] Why does any of this matter? Why do books matter? Why specifically does diverse literature matter? What is its true significance? Our nation becomes more divided by the hour and there are those in power who daily stoke the flames of racism and classism, not to mention the schisms in gender. As purveyors of literature, you and I have the tools to rewrite the story of our nation. We have the implements to plant seeds of empathy, to cultivate compassion in this generation of young people so that we may create a future we all long to see.
I think the key for us is to remember the awesome power of words. Thank you. [applause]
I’m gonna end with a poem that you already heard, but I had it here so I’m reading it anyway. “Getting Started” from Words With Wings:
and I go back to the
that saved me.
there were screams,
a plate crashing
to the kitchen floor,
and angry words
ripping the air.
I pulled the pillow
over my head,
dove deeper under the covers.
Still, I could hear the awful sound
of their raised voices.
“Lalalalalala,” I said aloud.
Still, I could hear them.
If only I could fly, I thought.
If I could fly, fly, fly away,
I’d go to the window,
step out on the ledge,
spread my wings and fly way
high above the city,
higher than the clouds.
I’d fly straight to Virginia,
fly to Great-Grandma’s house.
I’d land on the porch,
hop on her swing,
and listen to her hum,
hum, humming to me.
And just then
I could almost hear
could almost feel the gentle sway
of the porch swing.
And for a few moments
my parents fighting.
The word fly
had set me free,
and I wondered,
Were there other words
that could carry me away?
[00:38:17] I think we have time for questions, if there are any questions.
Audience Member 1: Hi, I’m Nathan Roberts and I just want to ask you: as a white person growing up, I wasn’t really ever taught how to talk about race. I was taught to ignore race, either because the answers were shameful or my parents didn’t know the answers. And then I grew up and I only had childlike answers to complex questions and I’m wondering, for adults who are looking to help their kid have effective conversations with young people about race but they themselves lack confidence in talking about race, are there books that you can recommend that families can read together or books that you could read as an adult and then have your kid read a similar book?
Nikki: I think the idea of finding a children’s book that you can read together is a good way to go because then you can work through things together as you go. And it needs to be situational, I mean, if there are certain subjects that interest him or her, you know, look for books on that subject that you can read together. Yeah, that would be that would be my way to go on that.
Audience Member 2: I can recommend two books that I read with my 90-year-old mother, started to experience dementia and also her eyesight. Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan and Esperanza Rising, two books that changed my mother’s life at over 90 years old.
Audience Member 3: You mentioned your book about the conversation with Harriet Tubman—
Nikki: Chasing Freedom.
Audience Member 3: —yes and Susan B. Anthony. How do you go about making history relevant? What creativity do you bring to that?
Nikki: It’s always a question of climbing into the character’s skin and looking at the world through his or her eyes and tapping into what’s happening emotionally because that’s where we connect. Yeah, that’s always going to be where we connect. So kind of tapping into their emotions in a given moment that you’re writing about. And whether or not you are well read with a particular history, you understand the emotional experience and so you write from that place and that’s how you make that connection.
Audience Member 4: So, I’m in the diversity community of my local Children’s Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators in Chicago and there and in other places online there’s a lot of conversation about own voices and whether white people have a right to write about the lives of people of color. And I really, you know, I’m trying to sort that out, and so I wondered if you and what your thoughts were on that.
Nikki: I hate this question. [laughter]
Audience Member 4: I’m sorry. I thought you probably get it a lot.
Nikki: Own voices are important. That doesn’t mean that you can’t ever write from another perspective, but when you do so you have to understand the kind of work you need to do, the kind of research you need to do, and the accountability you need to have to the group you’re writing from and have someone that’s going to double-check the work or read it for you and give you feedback yay or nay.
But the thing is, if a story isn’t personal to you, then that’s not your story to tell. You want to tell stories that are personal to you. If you come across a story that lights you up because the figure is a sports figure and the particular sport they play is a sport you love and their story goes straight to your heart and you can’t shake it, you know, I’m not going to tell you not to write that story. But if it’s just sort of a general, “Oh, well, here’s some, you know, black person over there. Hey, I’m gonna go tell their story,” ya know, let that be own voices.
Audience Member 5: Kind of along that same vein, one of the things that I’ve heard a lot is that you always try to write what you know and what you’ve experienced and what’s real to you so how do you—
Nikki: Until you run out and then you start looking for stories you don’t know. [laughter]
Audience Member 5: So how can white kids and young adult fiction authors use what they know? What’s the appropriate way to use what we know to create space and healthy conversations on diversity?
Nikki: Okay, first of all, that’s a really big question because so much depends on the individual person. Everybody has stories, everybody has family stories, things that they’ve heard growing up, you know, might be the story of a parent or a grandparent, something that just sticks in your head, it sounds interesting or a pivotal moment in your own life to draw from. Everybody has stories. The difference between a writer and somebody who isn’t is that we write them down, but we all have stories. So dig into your life, into those moments that are important to you, that stick with you, that seem to come back again and again.
And also share those ideas with friends who you trust who might recognize the value of the story more than you do yourself. Because sometimes our stories, because we’ve had them forever, you know it’s like, “Oh yeah, this thing happened,” and we don’t think anything of it when in fact it’s major and could really be a great source for a novel, for a book of some sort, so. It’s really important to have a good writing group around you, have some good readers around you that you can talk through ideas, explore ideas, play with them, and kind of see what people respond to, and then make your choices from there.
But history is also great. I love that as a source. Scientific exploration is great. Things that you have to do research for and then bring your humanity to, those are great subjects for storytelling. So that’s another way. In bringing those stories to life you’re not writing about necessarily things that are part of your personal experience but you can bring your personal experience to those characters and make them alive and contemporary and meaningful.
Audience Member 6: Did you find it more of a challenge to write from Harriet Tubman’s point of view or from Susan B. Anthony’s point of view?
Nikki: Um, equally hard. Yeah, since I didn’t live back then—I’m old but not that old [laughter]. One of the challenges with Harriet Tubman is that, depending on the book you read, her voice was different. In some places it was all heavy Ebonics and other places the English was at such a high level she would have to have been a professor and I’m like, you know, “The truth is somewhere in the middle, so let’s shoot for that.” But yeah, it was a challenge. Both were challenges.
Audience Member 7: I’m curious if you have a personal mission statement. It sounds like the cultivation of compassion and implementing empathy sounds a little bit like that, but I’m wondering if you have a personal mission statement and if you realize that you had that personal mission with your writing when you first began writing or if you developed it along the way?
Nikki: Well, this isn’t my personal mission. This is where I’m at right now in terms of what’s going on in the world. I have a general point of view about children and young adult literature. For me, it’s really about hope, that no matter what the story is that I’m writing, no matter how dark it may be, that it have an element of hope in it. And that is true because I had a Dickensian childhood and hope made the difference between me surviving and not and being at the place where I am in my life today. So hope is really key for me and I always want to have that element in everything I write.
Audience Member 8: Nikki, do you have one book that you’ve written that is closest to your heart and why?
Nikki: Ugh. [audience laughter] Another one of those questions?
Audience Member 8: I’m sorry. [laughs]
Nikki: Well, you know, what I tell kids when I visit schools and they ask me, “Which are your favorite books?” My books are like my children. [laughter] If I chose one, all the others would be jealous. [laughter] So, I’m most excited about whatever the new books are, they get to be my favorites until the next ones come along. [laughter] But right now the most important one is the one I’m writing, which is a memoir. [ooh]
Audience Member 9: I just wanted to thank you for your talk it was awesome.
Nikki: Thank you.
Audience Member 9: And also, my sister is a junior high school teacher in Brooklyn, New York.
Nikki: Oh, my.
Audience Member 9: Adores her children, adores your work. So from Miss Coutt’s sixth grade through eighth grade classes, a shout out to you from Brooklyn, New York in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
Nikki: Thank you.
Audience Member 9: So my question for you is spiritual themes in your writing for children. And just how you go about writing spiritually for children and also how they respond to that in your writing. Just the the process of it and their response. Thank you.
Nikki: I’m always surprised at how they respond. But, first of all, I’m a Christian and anything that I write is going to have that in it. There’s going to be God, there’s going to be faith, it’s just it’s a given. It’s not a story I’m trying to tell. It’s who I am and so it’s going to be part of really any story that I tell and it’s going to motivate my choices about writing a story that is redemptive or that is dealing with the importance of forgiveness or grace or it’s gonna be in there somewhere because that’s who I am.
And I don’t have to look for ways to kind of weave it in. I look for opportunities that are organic to the story I’m telling and to the character that I’m writing about where it’s just natural because I always want it to feel organic, I always want it to feel just natural so it doesn’t stand out as like, “She’s preaching here.” No, it can’t ever be about that it has to be something that’s natural and organic.
As for them getting it, there’s a passage in The Road to Paris where Paris is in this new foster home and she’s afraid of the dark and her foster brother understands this and he gives her a piece of advice on how to handle fear and he says, “Well, you know, my mom used to tell me just to think that God is in your pocket,” and she’s like, “Well, how is that possible? God is big, my pocket is small,” [laughs] you know, but he explains, “No, it’s just the idea that God is that close and if you think about that, then you have no reason to be afraid.”
So I was visiting a group—I was going to name the city but I can’t—but I was visiting a group of students somewhere a couple years ago and at the end of my presentation a girl stood up and said that that had just stayed with her and meant a lot to her. And so she had found some plastic discs and she wrote God on one side of the disk in gold and she’d brought enough of those disks, she had like a basket full of them that she handed out to everyone so that they would have God in their pocket. And that was like, [mimes, audience laughter] so you never know what a reader is going to take and run with.
And on the other hand I’ve met adults who have said for them it was everything, that they’d been through a difficult time in their life and they had read that book and that that line kept them going that year. So, you know, I was like, “Thank you, Lord.” You don’t know what he’s gonna do with something that you plant. It’s just a seed that gets planted and then it’s like whatever he does with it. And it might be a child that responds, it might be an adult, it might be both, you just don’t know. But I can only be honest and be authentic about who I am and then allow that to come through my work.
Great audience. Thank you. [applause]
Natalie: [00:53:31] Our thanks Nikki Grimes for her call to empathy and for giving us words that inspire fellow-feeling.
Rewrite Radio is a production of the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing, located on the campus of Calvin College, soon to be Calvin University, in Grand Rapids, MI. Theme music is June 11th by Andrew Star.
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