Verse Novels: WORDS WITH WINGS by Nikki Grimes
and I go back to the
that saved me.”
-Gabby in Words with Wings
A couple of years ago, I “discovered” verse novels and fell headlong into a love affair that is still going strong. One of the first novels in verse I read was Words with Wings by Coretta Scott King Award-winning poet
Nikki has written dozens and dozens of books for young readers, and across the board, she creates very real characters with very real problems — characters that very real kids can relate to and see themselves in. Her work in Words with Wings is no different. I was immediately taken by the hope present in Gabby, the charming main character who finds solace in her daydreams. And those daydreams play a major role in this moment of Gabby’s life, when everything she’s known has been turned upside-down and she must re-imagine herself and her world.
Here’s what this lovely book is all about, from a Kirkus starred review:
I’m so pleased that Nikki agreed to read us some selections from Words with Wings.
[heading style=”1″]QUESTIONS for NIKKI GRIMES[/heading]
When and why did you begin writing poetry? Can you share with us your first (or one of your first) childhood poems?
I began writing poems at age six, while I lived in a foster home in upstate New York. I wrote out of a need to express thoughts and feelings I didn’t feel free to share with the strangers all around me.
I don’t remember my first poems, nor do I have copies of them because all of my writings were thrown away when I was sixteen. (Another story for another day!)
The one poem I do remember is one I included an excerpt of in my first book for young readers, Growin’:
I’m Black. You don’t like that, do you?
Liar. Who’s that I see on the beach
with suntan lotion? Is that you?
Yeah, I’m Black.
But you like it.
Can’t have it, though.
It’s all mine!
Let’s talk a bit about your middle-grade verse novel, Words with Wings. This novel deals with the main character Gabby’s sense of loss when her parents divorce. What are the challenges of writing about difficult subjects for young readers, and why is it important to do so?
The challenges are similar to those when writing for adults. The text needs to be balanced, needs to be both light and dark. For children, especially, there need to be places of rest, moments of humor and fun, mixed in with the heavier material. Besides, that is true to life. Our days are a blend of slight and serious, light and heavy, tragedy and comedy. I think if you approach any subject with that in mind, you can address almost any issue in a way that is age-appropriate for children. And the truth of the matter is, they are affected by death, by divorce, by violence in the community, or even in the home. Remaining silent on these issues doesn’t make them go away, or help young readers cope with those realities in their own lives. When we act like ostriches, and avoid these subjects in children’s literature, we are doing young readers a disservice.
Daydreaming also plays a big role in Words With Wings, and is both a hindrance and a salvation for Gabby. Why is daydreaming an important theme for you? What are you hoping kids take away?
Daydreaming is an important theme for everyone! We have lost a sense of how critical it is. We use and enjoy things in our daily lives that were all created by daydreamers, that all had their origins as daydreams. The automobile was first a dream. The airplane was a dream. The light bulb, the telephone, the microwave, the computer, the Internet—these all lived first in someone’s daydream! We need to nurture the daydreamers among us, encourage those who dare not dream to practice doing just that. If we don’t, where will our next creators, inventors, out-of-the-box thinkers come from?
As for what I hope readers take away from Words With Wings, I hope they feel inspired to spend time allowing their own daydreams to rise to the surface. I hope they begin to understand that, while studies and homework are very important, so is the work of the imagination.
The character of Mr. Spicer, Gabby’s teacher in the novel, is based on a real-life teacher by the same name. Can you tell us how that came about?
When I was working on this novel and was beginning to shape it, I thought a lot about how my teachers responded to me when I would daydream in class, and I wondered how teachers today responded. I posted a question to teachers on Facebook, asking them how they handled the daydreamers in their own classes. One of the people who responded was Mr. Spicer, who shared that he incorporated a special time for students to daydream and to write about their dreams in class on a regular basis. I thought this was wonderful, and decided to incorporate that idea in my story. I informed Mr. Spicer of my decision, and asked permission to model the teacher in my book after him, and to use his name. He agreed, heartily, and I was off and running!
What do you think is the best approach to introducing poetry to children so that, as you write in the title poem, they find “words with wings that wake [their] daydreams”?
So much of our attitude about poetry is shaped by the way it was presented to us. I counsel teachers to keep that in mind by saying: If you present poetry as if it were Casteroil, no one will like it! So my best piece of advice is to find poetry that you, as a teacher, enjoy, connect with, resonate with in some way. If you like the poem you share, students will pick up on that energy. And it is so easy to do that today. The poetry market is incredibly rich now. There are collections of poetry on almost any subject you can imagine. If you have students who love baseball, there are baseball poems. If you have a reader who loves math, there are math poems. Science? Yup. Nature? Got it. History? No problem. Biography? Sure thing! The choices are enormous.
The second thing I would say to teachers is to avoid the “shoulds.” Yes, there are classical poems they should learn about eventually. But don’t start out with diagramming and memorization. And don’t give them poems so complex they cannot aspire to write such themselves. Start with more accessible verse, poetry that touches their own lives, reflects their own realities. It need not all be light, mind you, or humorous. Their lives are made up of more stuff than that. The poetry you share with them does, however, need to be accessible.
The first order of the day is to get readers hooked on the genre. Everything else follows, after that.
You write for young people in every age group, from picture books to young adult. What types of characters do you most like creating? What draws you to them and compels you to write about them? How much of yourself do you put into your characters?
Every character has a piece of me in them, but each is his or her own person. I like characters who refuse to be defined by their environments or limited by their challenges in life. I’ve always battled the low expectations others had of me, as a child, so you’ll see some of that in my characters. I never quite fit the mold, or adhered to the rigid limitations others set for me, and you’ll see that reflected in my characters as well. Mostly, I create characters who I didn’t see on the page when I was a young reader, and I want more children to be able to see themselves on the pages of a book.
What attracts you most to the verse novel form? How did you come to write your first one? What is the biggest advantage and challenge of writing in this form?
My first story in verse was Meet Danitra Brown. I did not intend it to be a story in verse, but my attempt to follow a traditional story format failed. I went through the manuscript with a highlighter, marking those passages that were working, and realized they were poems! Fine, I said. If you want to be told as a collection of poems, I can do that! I’ve been storytelling in this format ever since.
In every novel I’ve written, poetry has played a role, in some novels more than others, of course. Jazmin’s Notebook has each chapter opening with a poem, Bronx Masquerade was written half in prose, half in verse, and Dark Sons, Planet Middle School, A Girl Named Mister and Words With Wings were all written completely in verse. Dark Sons was the first full novel-in-verse, though.
The form frees me to tell a story from a variety of perspectives, and allows me to go deeply into the hearts of my characters. The element I consider the most important in my work is to make an emotional connection with my reader, and poetry allows me to do that more consistently, and more effectively, than my prose does. As for the biggest challenge, it is to balance lyrical, beautiful writing with accessibility. I never want the form to scare off reluctant readers who might find some poetic forms intimidating. I try to create work that invites every reader to the page, not just budding poets.
What are your criteria for a good children’s poem? What advice would you give to budding poets?
I look for children’s poetry to be respectful of the audience, to reflect the complex emotional people that they are, to address a wide range of subjects. I look for poetry that has weight, not just humorous light verse. There’s more to childhood than that. I look for poetry that is written in a rich way, exploring a variety of forms and techniques, rather than relying on rhyme as a default for children’s poetry, which it is not!
A poet writing for children should put as much effort into his/her craft as if writing for adults. Use metaphor, simile, assonance, alliteration, internal rhyme. Mix it up! Challenge yourself to write sonnets, tanka, villanelles. Young readers are worth it. They deserve the very best we have to offer.
As stories in verse, remember that Story is key. Don’t let the poetry get in the way of telling the story. Lovely lyrics are no substitute for sound storytelling.
Do you have formal training in poetry, and/or did you have a mentor? How did this shape your writing?
I didn’t have any formal training, as such, but I did attend various poetry workshops. They were all workshops for adults, though, as I had no designs on a career in children’s literature! I read ravenously, though, and studied a wealth of poetry on my own, always paying attention, taking notes, trying my hand at various forms along the way. My mentors were all writers of prose, the primary one being novelist, essayist, and playwright James Baldwin. From him I learned the importance of honoring my gift, of mastering my tool, which is the English language. And he taught me to produce work of which I could be proud, so that I would always like the person I saw in the mirror. Those ideas permeate all my work, I think.
Thanks for stopping by, Nikki, and for adding Words with Wings to No Water River’s video poetry library!
[heading style=”1″]More Stuff about Nikki[/heading]
- Nikki’s bio
- See a list of all of Nikki’s books.
- Listen to more readings by Nikki.
- 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:
Laura Purdie Salas has today’s Poetry Friday roundup at Writing the World for Kids.
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Selections from WORDS WITH WINGS © Nikki Grimes. All rights reserved.