Jazmin’s Notebook

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

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