What You’ll Find In this Podcast
Nikki Grimes joined George Brown to discuss the Nikki Grimes Cottage on campus, her most recent book birthday, her works in progress, and her push to get people thinking about banned books.
Nikki decribing an overview of the Nikki Grimes Cottage:
“It should look like me and have a little bit of my flair, my sense of color. So I have a cobalt glass in in the window, because the way you find my house is to find the house with cobalt glass in the windows. All of the windows [in my house] have them because I find the color really soothing, and I love it. When the light hits the glass, it’s just marvelous. And I wanted also some African fabric; the African kind of piece to be part of that cabin. So I introduced that element, and Heidi Stemple just hopped up and said I’ll do the valances for you, and it was so wonderful.”
Nikki on rediscovering her draft for her latest book, Lullaby for the King:
“[The book] wouldn’t have happened had I not been just going through my files. It was a story, actually, that I come up with at least 30 years ago, maybe more. One of those things that just for whatever reason, didn’t sell at the time. And so I just filed it away and forgot about it. Now it’s out in the world as of today. Soyounever know people–check your files!
Nikki on a current project (a guide for the publishing industry), and finding a mistake that helped her recover missed compensation:
[It includes] a lot of really hard things like that, but also things like self advocacy and what that looks like. What kinds of questions you should be asking, and how you represent yourself. [There is] so much to this business that isn’t taught. …The focus is always on craft and that’s fine as far as it goes, but there’s this whole other aspect that no one teaches that people need to know to both survive and thrive. There are too many people who fall out of the business.
Nikki, discussing book bans:
“It became necessary. I mean, I had no intentions of being an advocate for anything at this point in my life; I thought, those days are over. Yeah, not so much being an activist of any sort. But the fact of the matter is we have this kind of laissez faire attitude about banned books and, you know, people tend to think of it as a good thing. Well, if you’re, you’re banned, you know then. “People are going to pay attention to the book,” and “you’ll probably sell more books,” and you know, it’s couched in this kind of positive, quasi positive way. And we’ve had that idea for decades. But we’re not in a space like that even remotely anymore, because now it’s a whole new ball game, and these bans are quite serious, and it’s led to legislation in some states making it just a horror to be a librarian or a teacher.”
George: Hi listeners, this is George Brown at the Highlights Foundation. Just did an interview with Nikki Grimes, who’s been here on campus at the Highlights Foundation here in October 2023. I hope you’ll take a listen and enjoy the conversation as much as I did. Welcome to the Highlights Foundation gather podcast, where our mission is to positively impact children by amplifying the voices of storytellers who inform, educate, and inspire children to become their best selves. Today’s guest is Nikki Grimes. Welcome, Nikki.
Nikki: Thank you.
George: Nikki, the list is so long I don’t typically read, but I’m going to read your bio from your website because it’s so impressive. Nikki has been honored with the NCTE Award for poetry, the 2016 Virginia Hamilton Literacy Award. In 2017, she was presented with the children’s Literature Legacy Award for her substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children. In 2020, Nikki was chosen to receive the Allan Allan Award for outstanding contributions to the field of adolescent literature in 20/21. She was presented with the 2022 Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award and most recently, I think I just saw this on Facebook. An induction into the Black Authors Hall of Fame. So wow, we’re so glad to have you here, Nikki. Thank you. Tell me a little bit about that Black Authors Hall of Fame, I think. I saw you was just recently in New York.
Nikki: It was just recently, but it’s just started, so this is this is the Inaugural Hall of Fame and I got to be in it.
Nikki: And it was so exciting for me because I was born in Harlem. I haven’t lived in New York in, in a lot of years and so I don’t often get attention from my own hometown. So when I found that out, I was really psyched. Super psyched. Yeah.
George: Congratulations. So the we’re glad to have you back here at the Highlights Foundation. You’ve been a friend here for a long time. You are staying in the Nikki Grimes Cottage.
Nikki: So glad to be back. I am, I’m lucky that way.
George: I think it was maybe two or three years ago. When we started the Nikki Grimes scholarship. And then shortly thereafter, you contacted us about sending some of your personal effects. And so over that period of time, you helped to curate the Nikki Grimes Cottage. Last year, I think you were here and did a little decorating and added some pieces.
Nikki: I did.
George: Can you just for listeners who haven’t had the opportunity to see the cabin, can you give a little maybe an overview of what it looks like from your view?
Nikki: Oh well I thought if the cabin’s gonna have my name it should look like me and have a little bit of my flair, my sense of color. So I have a cobalt glass in in the window because the way you find my house is to find the house with cobalt glass in the windows all of the windows have them because I find the color really soothing and I love it when the light hits the glass, It’s just. marvelous. And I wanted also some of the African fabric, the African kind of piece to be part of, part of that cabin and so I introduced that element, and Heidi Stemple just hopped up and said I’ll do the valances for you and it was so wonderful. So she did that and some other pieces in the room. Which is really cool and I was able to bring some of the art related to my books into the space and a few of my awards as well. So they have a happy home here.
George: Yeah, and it has a real feel. I know we’ve had a number of guests who have stayed there. The one of my favorite parts is when someone who knows you gets to stay there and they’re sending you pictures of. They’re talking about, my goodness, I get to be in Nikki’s cottage, but I think almost equally as impressive as when somebody is not as familiar with your work and they come into that space and your books are on the shelf, the artwork. There’s a poster there that talks a little bit about your career and your bio. And so people get to know, know you. And so even when you’re not here, you’re here and you’re part of those writers’ journeys.
Nikki: I love that one of the first things I did when I got in last night as tight as I was I read through notes that people wrote in the in the guestbook.
George: Yeah, sure.
Nikki: Of past visitors and yeah, it’s such a an encouragement to me to read how people were inspired.
George: And so at lunchtime I see you were sitting with someone and she was just having a general conversation with you. And then she happened to look over and see your name tag and she said, Oh my goodness. Nikki Grimes. And I made a joke with her and I said, oh, I didn’t know, I thought this was just a person who’s here to write. But in reality, kind of what we’re trying to do with the Highlights Foundation is have a space for all writers and to feel like a writer and to take the time. So you have a plan while you’re here. Are you working on a specific project?
Nikki: I have a specific project that I’ve been trying to get back to for a while. Was one of those that I have so many things that end up in my files and then I forget they’re there. I’m sure other writers do that as well. You need to go back and look at what’s in your files and a couple of years ago, because I was working on estate planning, I started going through my files so that I could identify, identify the literary products that were there, so that in one coming after me, we’ll be able to find them easily. You know and not have to wade through all. the other ephemera that’s in the files. And one of the things I came across and so I had to read everything to see what it was and one of the things I came across was the original draft of Lullaby for the King, and that book just came out today. It’s a book, birthday and that wouldn’t have happened had it not been just going through my files and it was a story actually, that I come up with at least 30 years ago, maybe more.
George: It’s your book birthday. Happy birthday.
Nikki: One of those things that just for whatever reason, didn’t sell at the time and so I just filed it away and forgot about it and I pulled it out and there’s something here, I don’t know if maybe I could do something with this, you know, now I mentioned it on Twitter. And got a response from Naomi Krueger at beaming books saying, well, I’d like to, I’d be interested in seeing that. And I’m like, just like this is not happening. So I’m like, yeah, she’s pulling my leg right. And then I get an e-mail from her later. It turns out she had reached out to me some months before requesting that I possibly do a blurb for one of her authors, so she had my contact information. So she just wrote to me and said I was really serious about that. I’d like to see it. I’m like, OK. Yeah. And I ended up sending it to her, and now it’s out in the world as of today. So you kind of never know people, check your files!
George: Well, and that’s right like the resonance of something. If you can come back to it in your files and feel like it still has.
Nikki: Yeah, there’s something there. There’s something there. And I did some tweaks, you know, because you’re going to do that overtime but it was all it was all there, which, you know, was a good reminder for me, but I also found some poems I had written as part of a public arts project that I’ve been involved in in my community. One of the communities near my church, actually, where a group of us artists went into the community for about 9 or 10 months and did all kinds of programs and projects. Photographers, you know, different photography of the of the community, but also taught classes for kids and photography. There were musicians who wrote songs inspired by their connection with people there. And so it was happening on a lot of different levels. And I was paired. With one of the visual artists who does a lot of work sort of upcycling things and working you know, those things into his art, into his paintings and so on. And he was sort of hanging out at yard sales and he’d find items that he thought he could work into something but he’d also talk to the seller. to get some of the story about that piece and why they were selling it and I would then go behind him and I would go interview these people at lanes and then write poems about the whole story of this piece and how they felt about it and what it meant to them and all of that. And then at the end of this nine months.
George: Oh wow.
Nikki: We had a dia de los artes day where all of the art created through this period of time was on and exhibited for anyone, for the public to come and see, and it was great for the people who we had interviewed, photographed, work with us some way to then come out and see their work, you know, in this public kind of way. And you know, it was honoring for them and for us. And so I have these five, I think they have 5 pieces, five different people I interviewed and I found these pieces in my files. I was like oh these were so good do something with them. There must be something I could do with them right. And so I started playing around with ideas and developing something additional stories. Not by doing interviews, but out of my imagination to make this part of a, you know, collection full collect. But I knew there was just, there was a piece that was missing. Sometimes you have to put something down. For a while. And you know, think about it, sort of come back to it and it took me a while to figure out what the piece was like. What is this? What are these pieces all about? What do they have in common. And what I finally hit upon. was redemption. These were all redemption stories.
George: Oh wow.
Nikki: Right. And so like OK, now I have to go back in and introduce that idea. And so now I have like a new vision for this whole thing. And so I’m working through all the pieces to find the connection to this theme so that I can kind of undergird it, you know? Organically, where it fits, that kind of thing, but I started off with the idea of these what I call yard sales stories. I have a new name for it now. But I thought this in addition to having stories about the items that were being sold. I thought, well, what about the people who are buying them? What is that story? And so now I have both perspectives and having and once I put those two pieces together, this idea of redemption started to bubble up. And then I was. able to see. that’s what this is about, you know? So I’m that’s the thing I’m trying to hone and tighten and get to a place where it’s ready for submission.
George: I’m curious, as you talk through this creative process because it sounds like this is a long process. So yeah, right. The poems and the project of some time ago. And then how much intentionality did you put into looking at those five pieces and saying?
Nikki: It is a long process.
George: Now what am I going to do with it and how much like were you sitting there saying I want to think about this or was it meditating and it was simmering on the back in the background.
Nikki: Well, at first it was a simmering and then I, I went back and I said OK let’s go with yard sales. Let’s see where that takes me. And so I made copious lists about the kinds of items you find at yard sale and thought about why somebody would let those things go all the different reasons and so I I’m big on lists. It’s usually where I go to start out and then began to think about the various characters who would own these pieces that they were letting go and what the reasons were and. You know what the stories might be drawing on? You know, life stories of me. I certainly have heard enough and I have let enough things go in my own life to know, to have a sense of, you know, some of the reasons somebody might do that and what that could mean and we have such an attachment for our stuff that they’re always stories that are just that are there. We don’t think about them, but there’s there are stories connected with, you know, almost everything. So it was just rooting around for those stories. The stories that felt organic. I’m always looking forward to feel organic. So that there’s a real sense of authenticity about it. And then as I said, I had, you know, accumulated the stories. First about the seller and then about the buyer and you know looking to the future and can send realize there’s still something missing. I’m not sure what and so I just had to put it away for a while. They’ll do other things and you know, come back to it from time to time and kind of look at it again. It’s like. OK, what’s there? And every time I would have a thought, I would just kind of jot it down. Yeah, and then slowly you get there.
George: And so have you figured out how it’s going to manifest itself? Is this in verse? Is it poetry or story form?
Nikki: Ohh it’s it’s all in verse, it’s all yeah, it’s all free verse.
George: And do you know what age range you’re gonna address it to? Yet? Like, when does that part play into the process?
Nikki: Well, that happened when I had the initial idea and the first sort of draft and I shared it with one of my editors who was the one who pointed out to me that this actually is a book for adults. I had a child in it and he had a part in it and she said, well, if you just want to work with this kid, you said this isn’t something that a kid is necessarily going to be interested in. It wasn’t the writing level it’s the interest level and I’m like what cause, you know, I’ve been excited about through stores and 2nd handing forever. But there’s a reason for that. My grandmother led me into that because she loved that and so I’m bringing that aspect into this, this writing as well into the introduction of it, because that’s where I got it from. Initially she would take me into stores and teach me to value pre owned items and you know and then the some of the stories, well, I came up with this, you know, stories that go along with it. But I learned to appreciate yard selling from my grandmother. So I’ve had this since I was a kid. But that’s not a normal thing. I mean, most kids are not into that. So I was like, oh, yeah, you’re right. But adults appreciate that stuff, so maybe somewhere I might as well. Especially I can, I can see it especially for girls who are into creating their own style, well, boys do it too. Create their own looks and they’ll go yard sailing and use those things and then I’ll cycle them whether it’s clothing or jewelry or whatever. I know that they’re teenagers who do that for sure. So I I could see it for that audience, but not that audience exclusively. It would appeal in a more general sense to adults. So I’m kind of skirting that line there.
George: And I wonder if you can explain a little bit like what will your time here look like will you be thinking about this project the whole time. Do you take a break and think on a different project through part of it? How does that process work for you?
Nikki: No, this this is about focusing on the one thing while I’m here. Yeah, I mean, I take breaks as I have to take breaks and my brain is going to explode.
George: But it’s about the focus on.
Nikki: But, but it’s about the focus on this one. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, this is such a great space to do that in. So I always appreciate it. There’s a list of books I’ve finished here.
George: Oh, I love. That I love that. Can we talk a little bit, I think it was last year when you were here, you were working on a book about the business or the industry?
Nikki: Yeah, yeah.
George: Something you can share just a little bit of background with or is that one that’s still in development?
Nikki: Well, no, it’s pretty much done. Now we’re shopping it around. So it’s looking for a publisher. But it it’s funny how it grew because it initially I was just thinking, you know, kind of down and dirty, just get like a, you know, a simple guide. I don’t know why I even told myself that like just like simple little guide and.
George: That’s how you start, right? If it’s just simple, it’s easy to start.
Nikki: This little and you know, and then I kept thinking, oh yeah, we should have that and oh yeah, you know? So I have, I have chapters that I never imagined. Like there’s one on scams and all the scams that you know new writers and illustrators are privy to and I talk about the importance of place and choosing where you live and how that impacts your career. And you know the pluses and minuses of different choices and that kind of thing. And I talked to talk about, have a chapter about self-care. Never thought I’d get it that and that includes a magnificent piece from Erin Entrada Kelly dealing with caring for mental health and how that can be impacted. And you know and why it’s OK first of all to understand that other people to wrestle with this and to know that there is help out there and that it’s OK to get it and ask for it because that’s we’re not taught these things. You know, so it just kind of kept growing. Yeah, every time I thought, OK, I’m done. And then I’m like, yeah, but there’s just other there’s this other issue. Yeah. Yeah, we need to.
George: There’s one more. There’s one more. Well, it’s a life, right? It’s a whole life.
Nikki: Yeah, it’s a whole life. We need to address this and address that so. It’s been it’s been a rewarding project to work on because I know it will help a lot of people, you know and that’s whole point of it, so. And I’ve been very fortunate in in getting good responses from different authors and illustrators who have, you know, who agreed to do sidebar essays on a particular area of expertise for them, which just makes it work. You know that much richer interviewed people who are doing self-publishing, who you know doing it successfully and getting the lay of the land in terms of that and the pricing and how you make. The choices and those kinds of things, because people are doing that. So yeah, So what was this down and dirty little guide is now probably about 350 pages long.
George: Wow, yeah. Well, it sounds like the kind of the perfect book for any writer that’s trying to figure out how to navigate. There’s the thing that always fascinates me about this writing and illustrating is there’s two pieces. There’s the creative piece, and then there’s all that business piece and there’s so much to be had in the business that has been secret, right. And so we had publishing paid me and we’ve seen more people coming out and talking about. What the realities of the industry are, but to. Really understand if you’re going to make a life as an author or an illustrator. There’s a lot to it.
Nikki: It’s a lot to it. It’s a lot to it how to make a living and what questions to ask and get into breaking down contracts, what they look like, what you should be looking for, why you should be reading them. I can’t tell you how many people my age in the business as long as I’ve been in it, who have never read their own contracts, they leave everything to the agent. But there are reasons. That that’s not. A good idea there? Are things that you miss? There are things that you don’t know. There are things. That you’re not available to say no to because you don’t even know they’re there, and so, you know, kind of getting into that. I talked about the importance of reading your royalty statements and what you might lose by not doing it and give examples of that because I’ve had the experience.
Nikki: Of finding something that wasn’t jiving with me, and calling my agents attention to it and having her say yeah, that doesn’t look good to me either, and her following up with going to the publisher and you know calling for an audit and at the end of the day they had to write me a very fat check and that would never have happened if I hadn’t been paying attention.
George: Right, right.
Nikki: To the loyalty statement. So you know because. People are like well. It’s no big deal. What do I have to lose? Yeah, well, in this case. Almost $18,000.
George: Something worth losing. That’s a big deal. Yeah, yeah.
Nikki: It’s a big deal. It’s a big deal. So talk about that again, what those terms are, what they mean, why you should be looking at them. You know, that kind of thing. So yeah, a lot of really hard things like that, but also things like self advocacy and what that looks like. What kinds of questions you should be asking and how you represent yourself and you know those kinds of things is just so much to this business that isn’t taught. Everybody’s, you know, the focus is always on craft and that’s fine and as far as it goes, but there’s this whole other aspect that no one teaches that people need to know. To both survive and thrive, there are too many people who fall out of the business, you know.
George: When you were talking about the advocacy piece of being in the publishing industry, and I just saw the news clip where you were interviewed on national news about banned books, and I see you’re doing a lot to kind of talk about and push forward and get people thinking about banned books.
Nikki: It, yeah, it became necessary. I mean, I had no intentions of being an advocate for anything at this point in my life; I thought, those days are over. Yeah, not so much being an activist of any sort. But the fact of the matter is we have this kind of laissez faire attitude about banned books and, you know, people tend to think of it as a good thing. Well, if you’re, you’re banned, you know then. “People are going to pay attention to the book,” and “you’ll probably sell more books,” and you know, it’s couched in this kind of positive, quasi positive way. And we’ve had that idea for decades. But we’re not in a space like that even remotely anymore, because now it’s a whole new ball game, and these bans are quite serious, and it’s led to legislation in some states making it just a horror to be a librarian or a teacher. And it’s led to soft censorship, which comes about when teachers are taking books off of their own shelves that they love because they’re, you know, to avoid the threat of persecution. And poor librarians are being called everything but a child of God for refusing to denude their shelves of all the books that you know are turning up on these lists and the lists the books on these lists are all the award-winning popular books, extremely well written books, and the number of memoirs on the list. Just. Really, it disturbs me no end. But the general public doesn’t really have a sense yet of how dire the situation is or what it means for the education of their own children. What it means for our democracy that this is going on, and when it first started happening, I said to myself, well burning books is not going to be far behind, and sure enough, that’s starting to happen. We’re starting to see images of groups burning books. I’m like people. Do you remember your history at all? Do you remember the last place this happened? You know Germany. Anyone you know? So I realized that we have to really get the call out, get people to understand, start mobilizing. Opposition and the truth of the matter is, it’s a very, very small group of people. And spreading this poison, the great majority of citizens are opposed to these bans. They just don’t realize how serious the situation is, and we have to make sure they understand it so that they start to, you know, take over the school boards and make sure their voices are being heard on this issue. And make sure they’re letting their Congress people know how they feel about this issue. Because as I said, you know, people are pursuing legislation now to make book banning essentially a law you know in in various states. And it’s scary stuff. So as I said. To Joy Reid, it’s a, you know, all hands on deck situation. We all have to get involved at this point, yeah.
George: And I see you talked a little bit about the, I think it may have come from that old adage of no new or any news is good news. And so if your book is banned, you get on the news, but really that’s not the case. That’s an erasure of a person’s creativity of their creative works, and that’s a censorship of its own. That’s
Nikki: Exactly. Exactly.
George: Really a scary thing. So thank you for all that you’re doing to advocate for and think about books and books for children. Before we go, I just want to express a special thank you for all you do with the Highlights Foundation. We’re so thrilled to have a Nikki Grimes Scholarship and cottage here at the Highlights Foundation. I know our guests love that, and for all of you listening, please look for our scholarship roll out in January. We hope that you will apply for the Nikki Grimes Scholarship or any other of our scholarships. Nikki. OK, wait real quick, you’re talking about your Birthday Lullaby for the King and you said you had something special you’re doing on campus this evening?
Nikki: Yes, we’re going to be raffling off copies of the book and also a piece of art the publisher has printed some of one of the pieces.
George: Oh, fun.
Nikki: From the book, which I just love and I’ll be auctioning that, or fashioning that off as well, raffling, raffling.
George: Raffling. Oh, we’re fine. We’re fine. So that’s just a fun little thing that just happens to be happening this evening. I love how that is well Nikki Grimes, thank you so much for being with us here at the Highlights Foundation. Thank you for all you do.
Nikki: Thank you. Always my pleasure.