Welcome Precious

Posted December 4th, 2012

Welcome PreciousWhere do ideas come from? It’s not always easy to say. Take Welcome Precious. One day, someone—I don’t remember who—said “You should write a baby book.” I snickered. I had exactly zero interest in writing another baby book. Years earlier, I’d done one for Essence Magazine. That one was a work-for-hire, but still. Surely one baby book was enough, right?

Ideas are stubborn things. Like seeds, once planted, they tend to grow and take root. In no time, I found myself thinking about nursery rhymes, and lullabies, and goodnight books. Soon thereafter, I was asking myself, “Well, if I were to write a new baby book, what would my focus be?” I mulled that one over (for days? for weeks?), then hit upon an idea that held some appeal: I could write a text welcoming a newborn into the world of sensory delights.

childOnce that was decided, I needed a name for my book’s baby, and Precious sprung to mind. After all, every newborn that comes into the world, without respect of race, culture, or gender, is precious. That idea was important to me because I was not crafting a book specifically for black babies, although obviously women of color would find it especially appealing. Rather, this was intended as a book celebrating the sensory experiences of all babies. Of course, if you’re going to feature a black baby in a book, who better to bring on board than artist Bryan Collier?

I was so excited when Bryan agreed to be the illustrator. As it happened, right about the time he signed the contract, he had just learned that he and his lovely wife, Christine, were about to have their first child. Soon, Bryan would have his very own personal frame of reference to guide him as he worked on the paintings for Welcome Precious!

Timing, as they say, is everything.

babyIn most of my story told through poetry, I write a series of individual poems, woven together by plot or theme. In this case, however, I wanted to create the feeling of, well, not a lullaby exactly, but something of a lyrical text. A book-length poem seemed to be the way to go this time around. As I wrote the piece, I imagined myself holding a newborn, and reading this book to him or her, enjoying the taste and feel of the words in my mouth. I heard myself singing, rather than saying, each line. With that in mind, the text very nearly wrote itself.

This book has become a popular baby shower gift in my circle, and perhaps in other circles, as well. Have you read it, yet? I’ll leave you with one of my favorite passages.

Welcome Precious …
ChinaWelcome to sun-sparkle and moonlight.
Welcome to the cool delight
of ice cream,
the sticky joy of peanut butter,
and the hint of honey
in chocolate fudge.

Welcome to the warm circle
of your daddy’s arms,
the slippery kisses
of your giddy grandmother,
and the cool tickle
of Mommy’s nose
rubbing against your
belly button …
Welcome, Precious …

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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