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Q&A with Nikki Grimes
Hopkins winner talks about how one can find fuel for future from the past
Schlow Centre Region Library is hosting the 26th annual Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award on Thursday, July 12, starting at 2:30 p.m. This year’s winner is New York Times bestselling author Nikki Grimes.
Established in 1993, the Lee Bennett Hopkins Award is presented annually to an American poet or anthologist for the most outstanding new book of children’s poetry published in the previous calendar year. The award is a joint collaboration between the Pennsylvania Center for the Book, Penn State University Libraries, and Lee Bennett Hopkins.
Grimes is receiving the award for her book, One Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissance. In this collection, she shares poems from poets of the Harlem Renaissance as inspiration to create new poetic forms. She connects the struggles of the past with current challenges in the world today.
Grimes is the recipient of the 2017 Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal, the Virginia Hamilton Literary Award, and the 2006 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children. Among the award-winning books she has written for children and young adults include Bronx Masquerade, Talkin’ About Bessie, and What Is Goodbye? Her latest book, Between the Lines, was published earlier this year and is a companion to Bronx Masquerade.
In early June, Grimes took time to talk with Schlow Library about her work.
Q: In One Last Word, you share poems from poets of the Harlem Renaissance? What inspired you to write a book based on the works of writers such as Langston Hughes and Georgia Douglas Johnson?
Grimes: I’m a child of Harlem and grew up with a keen awareness of these poets, and have loved them ever since. The primary motivation, though, was to do a book about the Harlem Renaissance in which I had an opportunity to introduce young readers to some of the women poets of that period with whom most are unfamiliar.
Q: I read where you started writing when you were 6 years old. Did someone influence you as a child to write? Were there writers who inspired you?
Grimes: There were no writers that influenced me that age, but there was a need inside me to express what was in my heart and mind at a time when I felt there was no one I could talk to but God. Writing allowed me to share my thoughts on the page. In addition, I had an intrinsic fascination with words, their vast variety and power. I would spend time playing with puzzles and word jumbles, and this word play was the beginning of my journey as a poet. Word play is, after all, the very basis of poetry.
Q: From the book, you believe one can find fuel for the future from the past. Can you describe examples of that, and do you enjoy looking to the past to find fuel for you?
Grimes: We all learn from the past, do we not? We are fueled by the lessons we learn from parents and teachers who bring us knowledge from earlier generations, and we are motivated by the experiences and lessons of our own pasts. In one way or another, we all have the ability to find fuel for the future in the past. If we are wise, that is what we endeavor to do. I certainly have.
Q: Are there challenges or rewards with working with illustrators who are creating illustrations based on your words?
Grimes: I don’t actually work with illustrators, per se, but I am involved with selecting them. With this particular book, I gave my publisher a wish list of artists who I knew would resonate with this material. I know I chose rightly because the work they produced in response to it was extraordinary.
Q: You came out with a new book this year — Between the Lines. Can you talk about that a little and what the reaction to it has been like?
Grimes: Between the Lines is a companion to the novel Bronx Masquerade. This new novel follows a smaller group of students over the course of a year as they discover ways to explore their thoughts and feelings through poetry and prepare work for a poetry slam at semester’s end. As in the earlier novel, here students learn they are more alike than they are different, and the form strong bonds and a sense of community along the way. This newer book also explores some hot-button issues like immigration and criminal injustice. Reviewers and readers have welcomed a return to the Bronx classroom of Mr. Ward, I’m very happy to say!
Q: You have written books for different age groups. Do you find one group more rewarding or challenging to write for than the others?
Grimes: Every book has its own challenges, no matter the genre or age target. I’m fine with that because I love a good challenge. I thrive on challenging myself and stretching myself as an artist. For me, it is the only way to go. I’m working on a manuscript for YA and adult right now, and it is, hands down, the most challenging work I’ve ever attempted. Pray for me!
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The Lee Bennett Hopkins Award ceremony is sponsored by the Pennsylvania Center for the Book, Schlow Centre Region Library, and the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts. It will be held in the Downsbrough Community Room and is free and open to the public. Grimes will receive the award and read from One Last Word.
For more information, visit schlowlibrary.org. For more information on the Lee Bennett Hopkins Award, visit pabook.libraries.psu.edu.