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

Aneesa Lee and the Weaver’s Gift

Posted August 31st, 2012

Aneesa Lee and the Weaver's GiftI’ve been working in textiles since my late teens. First, it was sewing, then crocheting, then on to knitting. Along the way, I’ve made beaded jewelry, done peyote beading, made handmade books and journals, decorated wooden boxes, and collaged handmade cards. I continue to make cards, pads, and journals, and knit now and then. But I’ve never tried my hand at weaving, though I find this skill particularly fascinating.

One of my best friends is a consummate weaver, and I’ve had the opportunity to watch her work: hand-dying her own yarn, dressing her loom, and producing a rainbow of cloth from which she’s gone on to design jackets, vests, scarves, and more.

One thing I’ve discovered by attending to the lengthy process of weaving is that, unlike other forms of textile art, it requires a high level of mathematic acumen. (I’m no math whiz, so I troubled my friend to explain it all to me, more than once. Clearly, my decision to leave the art of weaving to someone else was a smart idea!) The more I learned about the process of weaving, the more I wanted to write about it. Aneesa Lee and the Weaver’s Gift was the result.

Nikki Grimes and Ashley Bryan

Ashley Bryan and me at a conference

Aneesa Lee is a young girl who is born into a family of weavers. She is just beginning to discover the joy of weaving for herself. Along the way, she not only develops the skills required, but also learns that the loom can be a place where she can give vent to her emotions. In so doing, she transforms even dark thoughts into brilliantly colored cloth, with intricate patterning.

One of the challenges in writing this book was figuring out a way to best describe the process of spinning yarn. Not every weaver spins, mind you, but many do. I called a friend who spins and asked if I could come by and watch her work. She obliged, and demonstrated spinning using a hand-held tool, and then sitting at a spinning wheel. It was her time on the wheel that, ultimately, gave me the poem “Aneesa at the Wheel.” The rhythm of her movements at the wheel reminded me of dance. Once I realized that, I was off and running.

Aneesa Lee

This lovely painting now hangs on my wall.

Artist Ashley Bryan brought the journey of Aneesa Lee to life, both for me, and for the readers. Who better for the job? One of the lovely paintings form the book hangs on my wall, and it always makes me smile.

Aside from “Aneesa at the Wheel,” one of my favorite poems in this book is “Sunset.”

Thoughts of Grandma make Aneesa smile.
 But sorrow’s shadow hangs there all the while.
Aneesa weaves her sad and sweet remembering. 

Through heddles, shed, and reed,
Joy and sadness blend.
The beater presses them together,
End to end.

Aneesa leaves her sorrow in the cloth
And, when her evening handiwork is done,
Glowing pin and coral from the loom,
Appears a woven square of setting sun.

I hope you’ll discover, or rediscover this book. Like most of my other titles, you’ll find a teachers guide for it on my website.


Meet Danitra Brown

Posted August 14th, 2012

Meet Danitra BrownIn 1991, I left my job as an editor for Disney Publications to work on my own books, full time. One of the first books I wrote after my exit was a story of friendship titled Meet Danitra Brown.

When I sat down to write this book, I was very clear about the small stories I wanted to tell, many of them drawn from my own childhood. I was equally clear about my characters, namely the spunky, self-possessed Danitra Brown, and the smart and sensitive Zuri Jackson. You would think, then, that the book would have been a snap to write, yes? But it wasn’t. I poured over the manuscript for weeks, writing and rewriting chapters that didn’t seem to be going anywhere, and I couldn’t figure out why. Finally, I grabbed a highlighter and went though the manuscript, marking those passages that were working, in the hopes that the exercise would give me a clue.  And it did.

I carefully reviewed my work-in-progress and noted that each and every one of the passages that were working read like poetry. Ding, ding, ding! This story wanted to be told as a collection of poems! I’m a little slow, but I’m no dummy. I obliged! I’ve been telling stories in suites of poetry ever since.

Strangely, I never stopped to ask myself if one could, or should,  write a story in poetry. Was that even a thing? I didn’t know, but I wrote one anyway. Years later, of course, I realized there was, in fact, a very long tradition of storytelling through poetry. I, however, had never read The Iliad or The Odyssey. Instead, I’d stumbled upon the idea of the form—as simplistic as mine may be—out of necessity. I had a story to tell, and my story refused to be told in any other way.

Meet Danitra Brown, which won a Coretta Scott King Honor Award for Illustration, has been a popular title for poetry lovers, and a staple in poetry units, for more than a decade. It was followed by Danitra Brown Leaves Town and Danitra Brown Class Clown.

Fans of the books hold Danitra Brown close to their hearts, and I especially love how real she’s become to young readers. I’ve explained to countless students, over the years, that Danitra is a fictional, composite character. They all nod their heads as if they understand, and then they turn right around and ask, “So, when was the last time you saw Danitra?”

One of my favorite stories to share, in that regard, comes from a young woman who wrote to tell me how special Danitra was in her life.

As a young girl, she’d suffered the loss of her mother. Her grandmother, who took her in, gave her a copy of Meet Danitra Brown. The young girl was convinced this book had been written specifically for her, as the names of the characters in the book and its sequels, matched the names of her own relatives.

The girl grew up, of course, and began to realize her mistake. Nevertheless, she continued to treasure her connection to this character. She thanked me for writing the book, told me how it helped her through a difficult time in her life, and singed the letter “Sincerely, Danitra Brown.”

Well kids, turns out the joke was on me. There really is a Danitra Brown! Love it.

Debra and Nikki

Meet the model for Zuri, my friend Debra Jackson! And yes, we’re still BFFs.

The story of the art is interesting, as well. The book, illustrated by Floyd Cooper, features characters loosely based on myself and my childhood best friend, Debra. When her mother saw the F&G’s, she said, “Oh!  I see you sent the illustrators photos of the two of you.” In fact, I hadn’t! Yet, somehow, through an alchemy I don’t quite understand, Floyd had chosen models to represent the characters who closely resembled me and my friend at the ages of those characters. Spooky, huh? That’s happened to me with several different books, and several different illustrators. Weird, but wonderful!

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite poems from Meet Danitra Brown. This is titledSweet Blackberry.”

Danitra says my skin’s like double chocolate fudge
’cause I’m so dark.
The kids at school say it another way.
“You so black, girl,” they say,
“at night, people might thin
you ain’t nothin’ but a piece o’ sky.”

I never cry, but inside there’s a hurting place.
I make sure no one sees it on my face.
Then mama tells me, “Next time, honey, you just say
The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice.”

Now that’s just what I do.
I sure wish I had told them that before.
Those kids don’t bother teasin’ me no more.

Tai Chi Morning: Snapshots of China

Posted August 8th, 2012
Tai Chi Morning

Tai Chi Morning

“Where do you get your ideas?” is a common question authors hear, and I’m no exception. Starting this month, I’ll be offering a weekly blog called “Backstory,” in which I’ll share the origins of each of my books, as well as the funny, quirky things that happened during the process of creating them.

In 1988, I joined a team lead by visual artists Gene and Marylou Totten on a performance tour of China. Originally, I was only intending to write some of the dramatic monologues members of the team would perform on the planned tour.  However, several times during the course of working on the scripts, the director encouraged me to audition for the team that would make the trip. I pooh-poohed the idea, but eventually decided to audition on a lark, never expecting to make the cut. In fact, I invited several friends who were actually performing artists to audition themselves. I figured I’d tag along, for fun, and maybe one of them would make the team. As it happened, none of my friends made the team, but I did! Somewhere, God was laughing. Before I knew it, I was packing my bags for Beijing.

Years later, I drafted a collection of poems from my reminiscences of that journey. When I sent the manuscript to my agent, I included photographs I’d taken, as well as maps and an itinerary of the tour, thinking they might be useful as inspiration for the illustrator, whomever that might be. (I never expected the publisher to use a photograph of me on the cover. I cringe every time I see it!  Ugh.)

I sold the manuscript and the search for an illustrator began. I had an artist in mind, but I had no real hope of securing him. I suspected he was incredibly busy, knew that he would be expensive for the publisher in question, and wasn’t certain he would even be interested.  I mean, what were the chances that I would get the great, Caldecott-winning Ed Young on board?

Tianenmen Square

Me and friend Carol Tammen in Tianamen Square

I needn’t have worried. Some things are simply meant to be.

I ran into Ed at a conference, told him I would love to work with him, someday, and learned that—gasp!—the feeling was mutual! I wasted no time in telling him that I had a particular project in mind, though I didn’t specify what it was. “I’ll have my publisher send it to you, if that’s okay,” I told him. “We’ll see where it leads.”

It led to something pretty special. Ed signed on to illustrate Tai Chi Morning and took on the job of designing it as well. Incorporating the photographs I’d taken, and adding his own sketches, Ed designed the book as a travel journal. How perfect was that? As it turned out, Ed was in China about the same time I was, and many of his sketches matched or complemented the scenes in my photographs. Can you say serendipity?

Oh, and did I mention that Ed is a Tai Chi master? I think I had him at the title!

God has a great sense of humor.

On the plane to Beijing, we were treated to the movie The Last Emperor. It was a perfect introduction to the ancient land we were about to explore, first hand.

The poems in Tai Chi Morning are my attempt to capture some of the once-in-a-lifetime experiences I had in the land of the Forbidden City. In fact, one of my favorite poems in this collection was inspired by my visit to that very place.  I’ll close with that.  If you’d like to read more, I hope you’ll find this title and share it with the young people in your life.

“The Forbidden City”

Golden Lion

the bronze figure in the poem

The Forbidden City
where royalty was once

hidden from view
is a place to tiptoe.
I follow the buzz of bodies
swarming over acres
of paved walkway
and greet a bronze lion
guarding the ancient temple.
I pat his burnished head,
close my eyes and hear
the footfalls of the last emperor
echoing through the courtyard.
His ghostly shape
waltzes in front of me.
He lifts a wavy finger
to his royal lips
and whispers