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

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?