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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Jazmin’s Notebook

Posted September 4th, 2012

Jazmin's NotebookJazmin’s Notebook, a Coretta Scott King Award Honor Book, was the first novel in which I featured a character who’d been in foster care. Unlike The Road to Paris, which came later, this novel didn’t focus on the foster care experience itself, but did illuminate some of the emotional effects of a child impacted by it.

Reviews talked about the book being hard-edged, yet hopeful. It’s a combination I prefer for most of my work, but I think Jazmin’s Notebook was the first time I struck exactly the right balance. Writing the book wasn’t easy though, not even a little bit.

Early in my writing career, prose was my staple. I wrote countless articles and editorials for magazines like Ms., Essence, and Today’s Christian Woman, as well as for newspapers like Soho Weekly, The Voice, and The Amsterdam News. But, by the time I set pen to paper to write Jazmin’s Notebook, I’d been writing poetry exclusively for several years. As a result, writing work that went all the way across the page felt awkward, strange, and ultimately paralyzing.

The stories themselves came easily enough. I’d left my mother’s home, once and for all, when I was sixteen and moved in with my older sister. I lived with her until I graduated from high school, and my stories were drawn from those years. No problem there. The format, however, was another story altogether. I had to figure out a way to get unstuck.

Nikki Teacher

My high school teacher, Mrs. Evelyn Wexler, was the model for the kind Mrs. Vogel in Jazmin’s Notebook. I was thrilled to meet her again, later in life. After all, she was my favorite teacher!

The problem was clearly prose-centered, so I asked myself, why not write the text in poetry, just to get the story down?  I could always reformat it as prose later. And that’s precisely what I did. I wrote the first two-thirds of the novel as if each chapter were a very long poem, then reformatted the text afterwards. By the time I was that far into the novel, I was once again comfortable enough with prose to drop the artifice.

What this exercise taught me is there is no right way or wrong way to write a novel. There is only what works. Whatever works for you, run with that. Period.

Many, though by no means all, of the stories in Jazmin’s Notebook are drawn from memory. As such, some of the characters were composites of real people from one of my old neighborhoods in New York City. I enjoy the process of spinning fictional characters from real ones. The single person for which that is difficult, though, is my mother.

Nikki at 16

Here’s what I looked like at 16 when I lived with my sister, Carol—CeCe in the book.

As I delved deep into the story of Jazmin and her complicated relationship with, and feelings for, her mother, I began to cross the line between the personal and the fictional, and didn’t even realize it. My editor, who was somewhat familiar with my personal history, realized what was happening, though. I’d stopped writing about Jazmin and her mother, and had started writing about my own! Once my editor brought it to my attention, I stepped back from the manuscript to get some perspective. In the end, I had to scrap nearly two chapters, climb back into Jazmin’s skin, and write them again. It was a good lesson for me.

I love poetry, as everyone knows, so I especially enjoyed creating the poems that open each chapter of the book. The poem “For Sale” is one of my favorites. When you read Jazmin’s Notebook, perhaps you’ll find a favorite of your own.

I pass the used-goods store
peek at
the bronzed baby shoes
useless and dusty
in the window.
It’s legal
to sell such things,
I know.
But it feels wrong
to me,
someone selling
someone else’s