Books And More

A Chat with Nikki Grimes

TFK talks to the award-winning author about her new novel in verse, Garvey’s Choice

September 29, 2016
COURTESY AARON LEMEN/NATAKI HEWLING FOR TIME FOR KIDS

"Poetry allows you to get to the heart of the matter,” says Nikki Grimes, who wrote Garvey’s Choice in verse.

Nikki Grimes’ new book, Garvey’s Choice, tells the story of a boy whose father wants him to be an athlete. But Garvey, who is overweight, has no interest in sports. Hoping to escape the bullying at school, Garvey becomes the soloist in the school chorus. He learns to accept who he is. But will his father accept his choice? “Sometimes, it’s up to you to say, ‘Hey, look. This is who I am,’” Grimes told TFK.

TIME FOR KIDS:

What was the inspiration for your new book, Garvey’s Choice?

NIKKI GRIMES:

I’d fallen in love with this ancient poetry form, called tanka [a five-line poem with a set number of syllables in each line]. I wondered if it would be possible to write a novel entirely in tanka. I’m always looking for ways to challenge myself in every aspect of my work. I play with different forms of poetry, just to try something new and see where I can take it. The challenge in writing in the tanka form in Garvey’s Choice was to use a limited form, and imbue it with emotion, character and dialogue, all of those elements that go into making a novel.

TFK:

Why did you take up the subject of overweight kids?

GRIMES:

I’ve written about, and heard about, lots of stories about girls dealing with food issues, but I don’t remember reading any about boys. And I know boys who are dealing with this issue. I wasn’t seeing the way the issue affects boys in any of the books out there. We don’t see it reflected in our media, or in our entertainment. I thought, “This is a subject I want to tackle.” I’m always looking for stories that explore themes that aren’t being explored elsewhere. I’m looking to give voice to children who aren’t given voice to ordinarily, children who aren’t able to find themselves in the books they read.

TFK:

Garvey’s father wants his son to be an athlete, someone Garvey can’t be. Why is that?

GRIMES:

Isn’t that often the case? As adults, we bring our dreams for our own lives into the lives of our children. Adults often say things without realizing the impact their words have on children. It’s a good reminder for the parent, the teacher, the adult who has young people in their lives, that children are listening, and they’re affected by not only by what we do but by what we say. We need to be thoughtful about the impact our words have.

TFK:

Garvey eventually stands up to his father. Do you think there are times when standing up to a parent is necessary?

GRIMES:

It’s often the case, that a young person is drawn to a particular area, and understands they have a particular gift. And a parent, because they're so full of their own expectations for their child, can often miss it. Then it is up to the child to say, 'Hey, look! This is who I am.'

NATAKI HEWLING FOR TIME FOR KIDS

TFK:

Is there any of your experience in Garvey’s story?

GRIMES:

I’m always working from emotional truth, so even if a situation isn’t autobiographical, the emotions are. They’re coming from a real place.

TFK:

Did you make any discoveries while you were writing Garvey’s Choice?

GRIMES:

Every book for me is a surprise. I did not start out knowing that Garvey’s father was a musician. I didn’t know Garvey would be drawn to music. I didn’t know he would make a friend, or that his friend would be interested in cooking. So much of the writing process is organic. You make one decision in writing the story, and that decision leads to others. There are moments of surprise: “Oh wait, if he’s a musician, then that would mean…” You start making these connections, and the story grows. It’s surprise all along the way. Some of it comes from the writer’s interests. I happen to love food shows. I know a young girl that’s a chef. There were all these details in the back of my mind that came to the fore in the writing process. I thought, “Ooh, I could weave this in, or this would work here.”

TFK:

There’s a scene in the book where Garvey finds out that the boy who has bullied him at school is miserable. What is the meaning of that scene?

GRIMES:

One thing I want to do in all of my books is to plant seeds of empathy. It’s important for us to understand that many times, when people are acting out, they’re acting out of pain. And when we understand that, it changes our attitude about them. It changes how we respond to them. We can’t necessarily do anything to change them, but our attitudes can change. That can mean a difference in their life, in the way we engage with them. That means that they are being seen. We all want to be seen. At this moment in the book, the bully has an opportunity to be seen, and Garvey can see him.

TFK:

What did writing mean to you when you were growing up?

GRIMES:

Reading and writing were my survival tools when I was a kid. It was the way I worked things out, how I dealt with anger, or confusion, or depression—whatever. It all went on the page. In my early teens, I started reading a lot of poetry, and I wanted to create work for others to read and to share. Then writing became a career goal.

TFK:

Were there any poets who were an inspiration for you?

GRIMES:

The single most influential writer in my life wasn’t a poet. It was [the novelist, essayist, and social activist] James Baldwin. He was my first mentor. He taught me a lot about respecting and mastering the language, and about always being true to myself. I really hold to that advice. His own writing was lyrical like poetry, even though he wasn’t a poet per se. In 1968, when I was 17, I found out Baldwin was speaking at a school in Harlem, in New York City. He was my favorite writer, so I went to hear him speak. I sat in the front row. When he was done, he left the auditorium, and I chased after him. I always carried a notebook of poetry I was writing. I was waving my little notebook, calling, “Mr. Baldwin! Mr. Baldwin! Can I speak to you for a minute?” I caught up to him and explained that I was a writer too, and asked him if he would read my work. He stood in that school corridor and read my notebook cover to cover. He turned to the back cover and wrote his address and his phone number, and he said, “You call me.” And for the next year and a half, he helped me with my writing.

TFK:

Do you think it’s important for young writers to have a mentor?

GRIMES:

It’s important to have a mentor, no matter what you do in life.

TFK:

Does anyone ever chase you with notebooks?

GRIMES:

All the time!


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