Spotlight on NCTE Poets: Nikki Grimes, with Lee Bennett Hopkins
“That just goes to show
it pays to listen to your own heart.“
Welcome to the fourteenth episode of SPOTLIGHT ON NCTE POETS! The videos in this series with Lee Bennett Hopkins are brief and personal looks at all the recipients of the NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children.
This series isn’t about analyzing the poets and their work, but rather about preserving Lee’s personal recollections, insights, and memories of each of these amazing people. Through these short interviews, we hope to foster an appreciation of the poets and their work by “reading it and loving it from the heart,” as Lee says.
This installment brings us to a poet whose “work reflects her own unique experiences as an African American while touching universal chords in readers across the spectrum” (from an interview with Nikki Grimes in Language Arts, 2007).
In 2006, Nikki Grimes became the fourteenth recipient of the NCTE award. As Nikki notes on her website, she actually began writing for adults, and has the incredible honor of counting James A. Baldwin among her early mentors. But then one day she got an idea for a children’s book, and then another, and then another … and we are all grateful for that! Her first book for young people was not poetry, but a novel called Growin,’ published in 1977.
(click graphics to enlarge and read):
As I wrote in my feature on her novel-in-poetry Words with Wings, Nikki has written dozens of books for young readers in which she creates very real characters with very real problems — characters that very real kids can relate to and see themselves in.
This became even more apparent to me as I listened to Lee speak about Nikki’s life and work. I knew she wrote in a wide range of genres and subject matters, but once I began sifting through Nikki’s entire body of work, I was floored by just how vast her literary reach is — and consequently, how many kids of all ages and walks of life she has touched.
Her debut novel Growin’ was followed over the years with more novels and more wonderful characters that speak to kids, both in prose and in verse …
… and sometimes in both, as with her Coretta Scott King Award-winning novel Bronx Masquerade, a collection of 18 urban teen voices who come to life and discover poetry at English teacher Mr. Ward’s Friday Poetry Slams. I love this book’s mix of first-person narrative and poetry, and how Nikki never shies away from tough topics — from teen pregnancy and abandonment to physical abuse and profound hopelessness and beyond — which is what makes her work so important and real.
As gritty as Nikki’s work can be, it can also be immensely tender. Two of my (many) favorite pieces come from two completely different books. The first is from Words with Wings, in which the main character reflects on her relationship with her father.
The second is from When Gorilla Goes Walking, a delightful collection of poetry that introduces the odd and mischievous cat Gorilla and her beleaguered owner. These two poems so perfectly capture the two sides of this cat-human friendship.
By the way, did you notice this: “My friend / packed my heart” — GAH! I never get tired of admiring Nikki’s fresh metaphors, imagery, surprising turns of phrase, and sparse verse that delivers HUGE heart. And then the fabulous pet me/let me rhyme and the image of the kitty sitting close and letting her cry — double GAH! Go, Gorilla!
Friendship is a common theme in Nikki’s work, and her talent for creating relatable characters eventually produced a marvelous series featuring the spirited Danitra Brown and her best friend, Zuri Jackson. Once again, Nikki shows life how it really is, warts and all.
After her first book of poetry, Something On My Mind, debuted in 1978 …
… Nikki continued to deliver book after book of heartfelt verse and prose on a vast array of topics, from family and friendship …
… and the sometimes unfathomable pain they both bring …
…to religion and holidays …
… to the simple joys of childhood.
Recently, Nikki was honored with this award …
… which is no surprise considering her large body of work addressing social justice themes, including her many forays into historical topics …
… including this absolute gem, Chasing Freedom, which came out this year. Besides the incredible illustrations by Michele Wood, this book captivated me with its imagined conversation between Susan B. Anthony and Harriet Tubman. Now wouldn’t that have been something?
As Lee mentions in the video, Nikki also drew heavily on her own past for her writing, including her experiences as a foster child and her near lifelong desire to become a writer, a theme reflected heavily in many of her characters and books, including her 1998 collection A Dime a Dozen.
In fact, Lee’s reflections on Nikki Grimes shed light on what shaped and inspired this poet — and how she has in turn inspired and encouraged so many young people for decades.
LEE BENNETT HOPKINS on NIKKI GRIMES
In Her Own Words: Nikki Grimes on
Becoming a Poet
“I get all sorts of questions when I visit schools or speak at young writers conferences. Most people want to know what my background is, who inspired or influenced me, how I came to be a writer.
So lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my childhood, my family, the events both good and bad which have helped shape me. I’ve chosen a few of them to write about in this collection [A Dime a Dozen]. These poems answer some of the most commonly asked questions, like Did I become a writer because everyone thought I’d be good at it?
By the way, the answer to that is no. My mother thought it was a terrible idea, and told me, ‘Writers are a dime a dozen.’ And the people in my neighborhood said, ‘Writers don’t come from ‘round here.’ Looks like they were wrong, doesn’t it? That just goes to show it pays to listen to your own heart.” (from the Preface to A Dime A Dozen)
What Is Poetry?
“For me, poetry is a literature of brush strokes. The poet uses a few choice words, placed just so, to paint a picture, evoke and emotion, or capture a moment in time, often – although not always — with the measured use of rhyme.”
More about Nikki Grimes
Dates: b. 1950 in New York, CT
Occupation(s): Writer, poet, speaker
Recognition: 2006 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children, numerous Coretta Scott King Awards and Honor Books, 2005 Golden Dolphin Award, ALA Notable books
First book published: Growin’ (Dial, 1977)
- Nikki’s biography
- Videos of Nikki reading her work
- Reading Rockets video interview with Nikki Grimes
- See a list of all Nikki’s books
- NCTE Interview with Nikki Grimes, by Sylvia Vardell and Peggy Oxley (highly recommended!)
- Join Nikki’s Facebook Fan Page
- Invite Nikki to your school or conference
- Many interviews with Nikki are accessible online. Here are a few I liked:
WINNERS of the NCTE AWARD FOR EXCELLENCE IN POETRY FOR CHILDREN
(First links go to NCTE articles about each winner; second links go to NWR video posts) (Criteria for award)
2015 – Marilyn Singer
2013 – Joyce Sidman
2011 – J. Patrick Lewis
2009 – Lee Bennett Hopkins
2006 – Nikki Grimes
2003 – Mary Ann Hoberman | See Mary Ann’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
2000 – X.J. Kennedy | See X.J.’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1997 – Eloise Greenfield | See Eloise’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1994 – Barbara Juster Esbensen | See Barbara’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1991 – Valerie Worth | See Valerie’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1988 – Arnold Adoff | See Arnold’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1985 – Lilian Moore | See Lilian’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1982 – John Ciardi | See John’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1981 – Eve Merriam | See Eve’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1980 – Myra Cohn Livingston | See Myra’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT on NWR
1979 – Karla Kuskin | See Karla’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1978 – Aileen Fisher | See Aileen’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1977 – David McCord | See David’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
NEXT IN THE SERIES: LEE BENNETT HOPKINS
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See more poems in my poetry video library.
All poems © Nikki Grimes. All illustrations © by respective illustrators. All rights reserved. Video and post content © Renée M. LaTulippe. All rights reserved. Photos of Nikki Grimes used by permission of the author.