At Break of Day

Posted October 23rd, 2012

At Break of DayHow do you retell a story that’s been told a thousand times? How do you make it new, and fresh? Those were the questions I asked myself when I got the idea to write a creation story. But I didn’t get to that point on my own.

I hadn’t been sitting around thinking about writing any kind of creation story. It was nowhere in my file folder of ideas. But one of my publishers asked if I could apply myself to the retelling of a story from the Old Testament. They were thinking more like David and Goliath, or Noah and the Ark, but no bells went off in my head at the thought of those well-told tales. The creation story, though, was something I believed I could sink my teeth into. In other words, it was the greater challenge, and, as I’ve said elsewhere, I love a good challenge!

I opened the Bible and reread the creation story in Genesis, making notes as I went along. Apart from Genesis, I remembered several references to the creation story throughout the New Testament, as well, most especially in Hebrews. There it says “God…in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world.” In other words, the Son, Jesus, was involved in the creation. This idea is reiterated in other books of the Bible, as well.

The key, then, to telling this old story in a new way, was perspective. I decided to write this story from the points-of-view of both Father and Son.

At Break of Day

A detail from one of Paul Morin’s mixed-media paintings in At Break of Day.

My original text was more than matched by the textual, mixed-media illustrations of Paul Morin. He spoke life into each scene by creating mass, and depth. In one painting, for example, he imbedded lace in the shapes of flowers and butterflies, which he then painted over in brilliant colors. He laid pieces over a tree, as well, and used lace in the leaves to remarkable effect. This kind of texture lent great weight to the story.

At Break of Day made the CCBC Choices list, as well as the CBC Not Just for Children Anymore list. Reviewers said of the final product, “A lovely and poetic recasting of the Biblical creation story in a modern spirit…” (Kirkus) “Overall, a vigorous addition to the Creation canon.” (Booklist) “…I find myself once again prowling the children’s section, looking for magic, for lightening in a bottle. I may have found it in At Break of Day.” (Bookpage)

This title remains, to this day, one of my favorite picture books. It’s hard to choose a passage to share with you, but this one is special to me. Have you read this book already? If not, enjoy!

At Break of Day

The son could hardly wait for the fifth day to begin. At
dawn, he headed for the seashore. Then, while his father
watched, the son filled the seas with sharks and seals, starfish
and stingrays, whales and walruses, and short-finned and
long-finned creatures that glided through the clear water

The father nodded his approval. Then the son whispered,
and the word he whispered became a feather, and the
feather traveled on the warm wind of his breath.

In an instant, the whir of wings beating the air echoed
through field and forest, and scores of birds soared and
skimmed and swooped across the sky. The birds looked
left and right but could not find the place where the wind

It’s Raining Laughter

Posted October 16th, 2012

It's Raining LaughterIf there’s such a thing as a backwards approach to creating a picture book, I’m something of an expert. On three separate occasions, I’ve crafted books in precisely that way. First, there was Something On My Mind, with art by Tom Feelings. Next came From a Child’s Heart, with art by Brenda Joysmith. And last was It’s Raining Laughter, with photographs by Myles Pinkney (yes, that’s right, of the Pinkney clan, a dynasty in the children’s book world). The latter is the subject of this week’s blog.

It’s Raining Laughter is a collection of color photographs and poetry, organized around the theme of joy. Mind you, when I first began work on this project, there was no theme. There were no poems. There was not even the hint of an idea for a book, as far as I could see. It’s Raining Laughter began with the visuals.

An editor at Dial Books, with whom I’d published previously, sent me a binder of photographs by Myles Pinkney and asked me to consider creating a storyline to turn these loose photographs into a book for young readers. I liked the photos I saw, but didn’t find any connecting theme that I could work with. Was it possible, I wondered, if Myles could send me additional photos? The answer was yes. The problem, though, was knowing what kinds of photos to ask for. I wasn’t at all sure since I had, as yet, no theme. “Just start sending me photos of children,” I said to Myles, “and I’ll tell you when to stop, all right?” This was a very unorthodox way to work, but Myles graciously agreed.

As the photos came in, I taped them to a wall of my apartment, eventually covering the wall completely. I probably had close to a hundred photos by the time a germ of an idea began to form.

Day and night, I studied the photos, and I found myself drawn to the images that were happiest, images of children playing, running through sprinklers, climbing, exploring, and laughing. It suddenly came to me that joy was the element that connected them all, and so that became my theme.

That decided, I culled the photos I most wanted to use, then focused on creating a narrative about the child, or children, captured in each photo. I drafted the narrative in paragraph form, at first, then worked to craft each narrative into a poem.

Once I had the polished draft, I sent it to my editor. She and the art director made the final selection of photos, but they did end up using roughly 85-90% of the photos I’d chosen.

What a fun project! I love the idea of marrying poetry to art or photographs. I look forward to doing so again.

Have you ever read It’s Raining Laughter? Here’s one of my favorite poems from the collection.

The Laughing Bug

I caught the laughing bug
the other day.
Who spread the germ to me
it’s hard to say.

My brother told
a yucky monster story,
and had to laugh himself
it was so gory.

My sister squealed
with joy, and giggled when
Dad tickled her. Did I
start laughing then?

Someone infected me
with glee that day.
I wonder if God’s love
could spread that way.

A Pocketful of Poems

Posted October 9th, 2012

Pocketful of PoemsTrue confessions: I have an obsessive-compulsive personality. Fortunately, I channel in mostly healthy ways. A Pocketful of Poems is a prime example.

Back in the 1990’s (was it that long ago?) I came across The Essential Haiku, edited by Robert Hass. Once I planted my face in this collection of poems by Basho, Buson, and Issa, I barely came up for air. I was in Haiku heaven!

I’d fallen in love with this form of poetry as a child. I was forever challenging myself to paint a picture or tell a story using as few words as possible, so haiku was right up my alley. But I hadn’t read much haiku as an adult, so this collection was a special treat.

After I read this book, I became absolutely obsessed with writing haiku. I couldn’t help myself. Before I knew it, I had a collection of nearly 100 poems! (If I were the Batman’s sidekick Robin, of television fame, I’d say Holy Haiku, Batman! And yes, I’m showing my age. Whatever.)

The focus of my collection was contemporary-urban, rather than traditional, giving it my own twist. I wanted to use this ancient form to create poetry that contemporary children, especially those living in the inner city—an important audience for me—could embrace as their own.

I was happy with the manuscript, and was convinced some lucky publisher was going to snap it up.

Not even.

One publisher after another returned the manuscript with some version of the question, “Why are you writing haiku?”

First, I was dumbfounded. Then, I was irritated. What kind of question was that? (I used lots of colorful language in the moment.) No one was forthcoming in explaining what he or she meant by that, which only annoyed me further. But I had a few wild guesses.

As an author of African American descent, I am routinely put in a certain box. I am expected to write either African folktales, or books featuring African American historical figures, or “problem” books about contemporary African American life. On a more personal level, as Nikki Grimes, I am expected to write character driven, narrative poetry, primarily because that’s what I’ve published in the past. If I dare veer off into themed collections, or such exotic forms as sonnet or haiku, well, off with my head! That’s not supposed to be in my wheel-house, right? Wrong.

Be that as it may, no publisher was biting, and I felt deflated.

I sat down to think about what kinds of manuscripts I’d been most successful at selling, and realized the narrative thread was the key that might make even a collection of haiku by me more palatable to publishers. So, I pulled out my hefty manuscript, chose a small number of haiku to work with, and settled in for a brand new draft.

I opened my file folder of names, and chose one for a character who would lightly narrate my picture book collection of haiku. I decided to shape this book as a collection of paired poems, writing free verse poems from the character’s P.O.V., and pairing each with a haiku on the same theme. I organized the collection seasonally, and added a simple author’s note about haiku. Once the new version of my haiku manuscript was complete, I sent it out again.

I hit pay-dirt almost immediately, but the publisher’s offer was too lowball for me to consider. So I was on to the next house. And the next. And the next. And the next.

Had I made a mistake by rejecting that first offer? I was beginning to wonder.


I was thrilled for this opportunity to grab a photo with six of my wonderful illustrators. Javaka Steptoe, who illustrated A Pocketful of Poems, is to the far right of me in this shot.

About one year later—yes, I said one entire, bone-crushing, ego-deflating, twelve-month period—I received contract offer number two! This time the amount suggested was roughly eight times that of the first publisher! I screamed yes over the phone. I think my agent has finally gotten her hearing back!

It took a few years to bring A Pocketful of Poems to the marketplace, but it went on to make the Bank Street College Best Book of the Year, and the CCBC Choices list. More importantly, it continues to be a staple in classrooms across the country. Call this another lesson in the old saying, “good things come to those who wait.”

If you haven’t read A Pocketful of Poems yet, I hope you will. Besides my poetry, I know you’ll enjoy the extraordinary illustrations by Javaka Steptoe.

I’ll close with one of my favorite pairs of poems from the book.


Pumpkin is an orange word.
I set its roundness out
where others can enjoy it.
I help Mama carve
a crooked smile on its face.
Come Thanksgiving,
we bake others like it for dessert.
But first we have to wait
for them to arrive.

Pumpkins catch a bus
to town. How else could they get
here by Thanksgiving?

The Road to Paris

Posted October 2nd, 2012

The Road to ParisI spent several years in and out of foster care when I was a child. Little wonder, then, that foster children pop up in my poems and stories. I didn’t explore the theme in a fuller text, though, until I wrote The Road to Paris.

The Road to Paris is a novel about Paris Richmond, a young foster child who is separated from her only sibling, Malcolm, and sent to live in her next foster home, all alone. She has to come to terms with this difficult separation, and must struggle to find a place for herself in a house full of strangers. The novel explores that journey, and the strengths Paris develops along the way.

Of all the foster homes I lived in, myself, the last and best was in Ossining, NY. I chose that as the setting for much of The Road to Paris. And yes, I drew heavily from my own life experience in creating the story of Paris. There are wholesale differences, though. The number of homes Paris lived in, versus the number I lived in, is a perfect example. Before I landed in the good foster home, I had to survive half a dozen hellish ones. That was reflected in an early draft of the book. However, my editor strongly urged me to roll back that number to limit the bad experiences to one or two, and to move the story more quickly to the good home. I grumbled quite a bit, as is my want, but I eventually caved. I wouldn’t do that, today. Too much truth and authenticity was lost in the bargain.

Nikki Foster Care

Here’s a photo of me when I first arrived at my foster home in Ossining, NY.

One thing I definitely wouldn’t change is the ending. In it, Paris is faced with the choice to either return to the birth mother, who has already let Paris down in more ways than she can count, or to remain in the foster home, where she is well loved and cared for. Readers, yearning for the traditional happy ending, were rooting for the foster home. Paris, however, opted for her birth mother, risky though that choice might be. (Her mother struggled with alcoholism.) Notwithstanding, the choice Paris made is the choice I made, is the choice most children make. It is the choice that is true.

Several older readers have asked me about the tag line, “Keep God in your pocket.” I love that line, and it came to me in a moment of pure inspiration. I was looking for a non-intrusive way to express the element of simple faith that sustained Paris on her journey. I wanted something organic, yet something potentially powerful. After all, faith was a critical element in my own survival, and I thought it should be in Paris’s, as well.

Three Children

My foster brothers, Ken and Brad, were the models for the brothers in The Road to Paris.

I wrote The Road to Paris for all children, but especially for those struggling with problems outside of their control. They need to know that, despite their current circumstance, they can come out on the other side—whole, healthy, and happy.

Here’s one of my favorite passages from the book.

The next morning, Paris was on a platform at Penn Station, waiting for the train that would take her to her new foster home.

Paris’ heart beat so loudly, the noise filled her ears. For the first time, Malcolm’s hand was not at her elbow to steady her. His arm was not across her shoulders to calm her. His smile was not there to tell her everything would be all right.

The caseworker tried to hold her hand, but Paris snatched it back. She needed her hand to wipe away her tears. She’d never felt so alone in all her life.

Sometimes I wish I was like my name, thought Paris, somewhere far away, out of reach. Somewhere safe down south or on the other side of the ocean. Instead, she was neither Paris nor Richmond. She felt like a nobody caught in the dark spaces in between. A nobody on her way to nowhere.

The train rolled into the station, and she took one last look around before boarding, hoping to see her brother running to catch up.

Malcolm, Paris asked the wind, where are you?

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