2022 was a good year for Nikki Grimes, who just published her 103rd book
Author Nikki Grimes started off her year by winning one of the top honors in children's literature. She's ending it with the publication of her 103rd book. "Pretty good for someone who wasn't going to be in children's literature at all, " she says with a wry smile.
Grimes thought she was going to be a "serious" author. After all, she was still a teenager when she was mentored by James Baldwin, one of the greatest American novelists of all time. As a young writer in the 1970s, she was encouraged by a promising editor named Toni Morrison, one of the few Black gatekeepers at a major publishing house at the time.
But today Grimes is a serious author, who takes writing for children seriously. She's the 2022 winner of the Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement from the American Library Association. Her biographies introduce kids to the lives of Black luminaries such as President Barack Obama, Malcolm X and the pioneering aviator Bessie Coleman. She writes picture books about charming little girls who refuse to go to bed, and ones that reflect her deeply felt Christian faith. And Grimes has written celebrated young adult novels, such as Bronx Masquerade (2002) and Garvey's Choice (2016)
"And then there was Ordinary Hazards, which only took me 39 years to write," Grimes reflects from her cozy, art-filled living room in Corona, Calif.
Ordinary Hazards is a memoir, intended for teenagers, set very far from Grimes' life today. Gently but unflinchingly, it takes readers through Grimes' fraught childhood in and around New York City in the 1950s. The sensitive and bookish girl was compelled to navigate street violence, rats in her apartment, threats posed by an unstable alcoholic mother, her mom's predatory boyfriends and the uncertainties that came with a charismatic but often absent dad. Since the memoir came out in 2019, Ordinary Hazards has been challenged in school districts around the country because of Grimes' honesty about her experiences.
"It was rough," Grimes says frankly. "I was in and out of the foster care system, sometimes with relatives, often with strangers. There was various kinds of abuse I was subjected to." She pauses. "Not fun."
"Ordinary Hazards is not explicit," wrote the book's editor, Rebecca Davis, in a recent open letter on the publisher's website. "There are dark moments in it as Ms. Grimes writes about true incidents in her life, but these are all handled delicately, and ultimately it is an inspiring story of how Ms. Grimes prevailed through courage, faith, and writing."
None of that mattered in Leander, Texas, where the school board removed Ordinary Hazards from library shelves. Parent and public school teacher Deanna Perkins defended the memoir before the school board. Banning a beautifully written story of survival, she says, tears down the kind of empathy it's meant to build. "When you're trying to ban a book that's actually someone's life, you're basically saying – ehh, you're not that important," Perkins told NPR.
Grimes knows how to cope with difficulty. Her time-tested strategies came in handy during the 2020 lockdown. "Reading and writing were my survival tools," says the author, who lives alone. "There were things in my head and my heart that I needed to get out, but there wasn't anybody to talk to."
Her 2022 book, Garvey in the Dark, follows the experiences of a young boy in the first few months of the pandemic. It's written in a style of five-line Japanese verse called tanka. Take one entry, entitled "Nowhere To Hide:"
Test results today
make it official: no more
work for Dad. COVID
has him in a choke hold. Now
I'm finding it hard to breathe.
In a world that can feel made of equal parts peril and human fragility, Grimes has learned to make sense of things by writing. Now she helps kids by showing them how to write their way into the world.
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