Almost Zero

Almost ZeroThir­ty-plus years ago, at my count, the teenaged daugh­ter of a friend came home one day, demand­ing that her moth­er buy her a cer­tain thing—an arti­cle of cloth­ing? a music sys­tem? a tele­vi­sion for her room?—I can’t remem­ber. What­ev­er the item, the teen insist­ed she need­ed it, and point­ed­ly informed her par­ent that said par­ent had to sup­ply the item because, well, that’s what moth­ers are for. To my friend’s cred­it, her head did not explode, nor did her voice, or her hack­les, rise, nei­ther did she scream or shout. Instead, she did a very slow sim­mer, nod­ded her head and said some­thing like, “I see. Let me give that some thought.”

The next day, while her daugh­ter was at school, my friend removed almost every stitch of cloth­ing her daugh­ter owned from her room, as well as pret­ty much every­thing else—posters, radio, music albums, etc, etc, etc. What remained was one school uni­form and, I think, under­wear and a night­gown. When her daugh­ter ran scream­ing through the house, my friend explained that, as the par­ent, she was respon­si­ble for pro­vid­ing her child with food, basic cloth­ing, and a roof over her head. Every­thing else was extra!

Now, that’s what I call poet­ic justice!

I’m will­ing to wager her daugh­ter nev­er for­got this les­son, and nei­ther did I. In fact, I remem­ber fil­ing this inci­dent away in my mind, and think­ing, “One of these days, I’m going to use this in a story.”

Sev­er­al years ago, I found myself bemoan­ing the rise of enti­tle­ment in our soci­ety, but most espe­cial­ly among our young. Oth­ers noticed and fre­quent­ly com­ment­ed on the mat­ter as well. That was my sig­nal to tack­le the top­ic, and I began sketch­ing out a draft for Almost Zero: A Dya­monde Daniel Book. 

In the orig­i­nal draft, Dya­monde orders her mom to buy her an expen­sive pair of high-top sneak­ers. After her moth­er responds by tak­ing away almost all of Dya­mon­de’s cloth­ing, Dya­monde schemes to get them back. Some of her schemes were pret­ty fun­ny, I thought, but my edi­tor felt there need­ed to be more to the sto­ry so I put my think­ing cap back on, and won­dered what Dya­monde would do if she encoun­tered some­one who, for some rea­son, owned even few­er clothes than Dya­monde had left in her clos­et. That ques­tion led me to a sec­ondary sto­ry about a class­mate whose fam­i­ly los­es every­thing in a fire, to which Dya­monde responds by orga­niz­ing a cloth­ing drive.

In the end, I was glad my edi­tor had pushed me to expand my orig­i­nal sto­ry. The final ver­sion was rich­er and deep­er by far. Almost Zero went on to win great reviews, as well as the Horace Mann Upstanders Award.

I’ll leave you with excerpts from one of my favorite pas­sages in the book. It pos­es the key ques­tion we all should ask when we rec­og­nize a need in our com­mu­ni­ty or in our world: What can I do?

“Class,” said Mrs. Cordell, look­ing up now. “Some of you may have noticed that Isabel isn’t here today. Last night, there was a ter­ri­ble fire in the apart­ment house where her fam­i­ly lives, and their apart­ment was destroyed. Every­one got out safe­ly, thank God, but the fam­i­ly lost every­thing they owned….” 

“Is there gonna be a clothes dri­ve or some­thing?” asked Dya­monde… 

“Well, Dya­monde, the school can’t do any­thing officially…Of course, you’re always free to do some­thing on your own, if you like.”

What can I do? Dya­monde asked her­self. I don’t have any mon­ey. Then it hit her. But I do have clothes! Somewhere…


Voices of Christmas

Voices of ChristmasMy edi­tor at Zon­der­van asked if I was inter­est­ed in writ­ing a retelling of an Old Tes­ta­ment sto­ry like David and Goliath, or Noah and the Ark. I said no thanks. Nei­ther inter­est­ed me, but I thought it might be fun to fig­ure out a fresh way to tell the Christ­mas sto­ry. What if I told the sto­ry in the voic­es of the char­ac­ters who were cen­tral to it? That was the ques­tion that led me down the rab­bit hole of my imag­i­na­tion. Voic­es of Christ­mas, a sto­ry in poet­ry, was the result.

Truth be told, this approach was not as big a leap as you might imag­ine. A cou­ple of years ear­li­er, I’d writ­ten the East­er sto­ry in a sim­i­lar fash­ion. That book, titled At Jerusalem’s Gate, explored East­er from the points of view of priests, dis­ci­ples, Pon­tius Pilate, Pilate’s wife, and a host of oth­er char­ac­ters one meets in the tra­di­tion­al sto­ry. The Christ­mas book, though, was unique in that it was told not only from the point-of-view of the char­ac­ters, but was writ­ten strict­ly in their voic­es, as well. This approach takes the read­er more deeply into the sto­ry. When you hear the char­ac­ter speak, you are bet­ter able to view the unfold­ing mys­tery of Christ­mas through each char­ac­ter’s eyes.

It’s always a bit weird try­ing to fig­ure out what kind of lan­guage to use when writ­ing about peo­ple who lived thou­sands of years ago, and who spoke a very dif­fer­ent lan­guage than your own. But then again, that’s part of the chal­lenge, and part of the fun.

Cre­at­ing details of the envi­ron­ment was helped by research, and by draw­ing from notes I’d tak­en on a trip to Israel. There’s sim­ply no sub­sti­tute for walk­ing on the same ground where your char­ac­ter’s trod.

As always, I strove to climb into the skins of my char­ac­ters, and to view the world through their eyes. One thing I’d nev­er con­tem­plat­ed, though, was climb­ing into the skin of an angel! It seemed only nat­ur­al, though, because Gabriel is the one who intro­duces us to the core of the Christ­mas sto­ry: it is Gabriel who brings Mary the mes­sage of the Christ child, soon to be born through her.

Eric Velazquez
Voic­es of Christ­mas illus­tra­tor Eric Velazquez and I shared a stage last year at NCTE. He made a won­der­ful Gabriel!

Gabriel is one of my favorite char­ac­ters in the Bible, and in this book. Illus­tra­tor Eric Velazquez used him­self as the mod­el for Gabriel, and I love the result!

I decid­ed to arrange the poems sequen­tial­ly, so that the sto­ry would move from prophe­cy to ful­fill­ment. I want­ed the sto­ry to unfold for the read­er as is it were hap­pen­ing in real time. The hope was that the read­er would feel a part of the sto­ry. To under­score that idea, I address the last poem to the read­er. After intro­duc­ing Gabriel, Mary, the shep­herd, the Inn Keep­er, three Magi, King Herod, and the rest, I ask the reader:

And who are you?
Not an angel, no.
Nor Herod.
But per­haps you are
a magi, map­ping the miracle
on a chart of stars;
a shep­herd
trad­ing sleep
for a chance to seek
a gold­en child
in swad­dling clothes;
a Sime­on
who has hoped for a lifetime
to find the one called
Emmanuel, God with us.
Or are you like Mary,
prayer­ful­ly waiting
for the King of Kings
to be born in you?
Well, He is here!
Sing! Sing “O, Holy Night.”
Run toward His Light!

Once the sto­ry was com­plete, voice artist Craig North­cutt and I record­ed the text. A bonus CD of that read­ing accom­pa­nies each copy of the book.

As I wrote and record­ed Voic­es of Christ­mas, I imag­ined chil­dren and fam­i­lies gath­ered togeth­er, shar­ing these poems, one by one, as they count down the days of Advent.

A girl can dream, can’t she?

Barack Obama

Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of HopeYou know how I’m always say­ing I’m up for a chal­lenge? Well, with this book, God called me on it.

Every­thing about this book was impossible.

In 2008, I was going along, mind­ing my own busi­ness, writ­ing my books and sweat­ing the lat­est dead­line. I’d instruct­ed my agent to restrain her­self from offer­ing me any new projects. My plate was full, and my cup had long since run­neth over. “No prob­lem,” she said. “I under­stand.” Then, bare­ly two weeks lat­er, she sent me the email: “I know you’re busy,” it began, “and I know you said you did­n’t want to con­sid­er any new projects, but I real­ly think you should scroll down and read this email from Simon & Schus­ter.” Breath­ing heav­i­ly, and let­ting fly a few words I can’t repeat here, I scrolled down the page. It was a let­ter from Justin Chan­dra ask­ing if I’d con­sid­er writ­ing a pic­ture book biog­ra­phy of then-Sen­a­tor Barack Oba­ma who, as it hap­pened, was run­ning for the Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­na­tion for president.

If you think I jumped at the chance, you’d lose the bet. I did­n’t know much about Mr. Oba­ma. (That’s a strange name, I thought.) And I’m not par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in pol­i­tics. I did, how­ev­er, real­ize the offer was sub­stan­tial, and that I should at least appear to be giv­ing it seri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion. With that in mind, I decid­ed to wait two weeks before turn­ing it down.

Dur­ing that two months, I did a lit­tle research on Sen­a­tor Oba­ma, and noticed that there seemed to be a grow­ing degree of excite­ment about him. And it began to dawn o me that a book about him would prob­a­bly be a high pro­file project. In oth­er words, this could poten­tial­ly be a very big book. What were the odds, I won­dered, that I would ever again be offered such a high pro­file project? Not very good, I decid­ed, and so I called my agent and said, “Let’s go for it.”

I had no idea what I was in for.

Bryan Collier and Nikki GrimesSimon & Schus­ter had set their book release to coin­cide with the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Con­ven­tion in August. Count­ing back from that date, and con­sid­er­ing the least amount of time illus­tra­tor Bryan Col­lier would need to com­plete the art­work, I had rough­ly three weeks to research and turn around a pol­ished first draft. I’ve writ­ten biogra­phies and works of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion before, and I can tell you I usu­al­ly spend months just doing the research.

Job num­ber one became not to pan­ic! As it hap­pened, a friend had recent­ly men­tioned hav­ing a love for research, so I gave her a call and put her to work culling mate­r­i­al for me to pour over. She sent me arti­cles, book titles, and var­i­ous inter­views with Oba­ma. I felt like I was back at col­lege, cram­ming for an exam only, this time, the results would be read by thou­sands of peo­ple, not just my professor!

This project was unusu­al in anoth­er respect. Writ­ing in a nor­mal time-frame, I would con­sid­er sev­er­al pos­si­ble approach­es to telling the sto­ry, and I’d try a cou­ple until I fig­ured out which approach worked best. In this case, how­ev­er, there was no time for that. I had to come up with an idea and just run with it, hop­ing it was the right one.

The pub­lish­er want­ed this book to cap­ture some of the ener­gy of the race for the nom­i­na­tion, as well as tell the back-sto­ry of Oba­ma’s life and what led him to decide to run for pres­i­dent. That meant the book need­ed to be both infor­ma­tive and engag­ing. But how do you engage the lit­tlest read­ers in a book about a polit­i­cal leader? I decid­ed to view this sto­ry though the eyes of a young child, and to incor­po­rate that point-of-view through­out the text. That way, even the youngest read­ers would have a char­ac­ter with whom they could relate. It felt like a bit of a gam­ble, but I believed it could work, so I went with it.

I expe­ri­enced the tyran­ny of the clock dur­ing every step of this project. I knew how extreme­ly chal­leng­ing it would be for Bryan to cre­ate the art for this text, giv­en the insane sched­ule, so to give him a leg up, I start­ed secret­ly fun­nel­ing him pages, so that he could get going on his own research for artis­tic ref­er­ence. My edi­tor would prob­a­bly have had a cow, if she’d known.

At three weeks, I sent off my first draft, then spent the next month or so in revi­sions. Barack Oba­ma: Son of Promise, Child of Hope released the day before the DNC. Bryan and I were in atten­dance to sign copies of the book.

What a rush!

I was­n’t quite done with the book after its release, though. Once Oba­ma was nom­i­nat­ed, I had to update the Author’s Note. When he was elect­ed, I had to update it yet again. When he won the Noble Prize, it was updat­ed. And once he began cam­paign­ing for a sec­ond term—you get the picture!

Three years after it reached #1 on the New York Times Best­sellers list, a spe­cial edi­tion, with a CD of me read­ing the book, was released. And the book that proved to be a chal­lenge with a capi­tol C is still going strong. And to think: I almost turned this project down.


At Break of Day

At Break of DayHow do you retell a sto­ry that’s been told a thou­sand times? How do you make it new, and fresh? Those were the ques­tions I asked myself when I got the idea to write a cre­ation sto­ry. But I did­n’t get to that point on my own.

I had­n’t been sit­ting around think­ing about writ­ing any kind of cre­ation sto­ry. It was nowhere in my file fold­er of ideas. But one of my pub­lish­ers asked if I could apply myself to the retelling of a sto­ry from the Old Tes­ta­ment. They were think­ing more like David and Goliath, or Noah and the Ark, but no bells went off in my head at the thought of those well-told tales. The cre­ation sto­ry, though, was some­thing I believed I could sink my teeth into. In oth­er words, it was the greater chal­lenge, and, as I’ve said else­where, I love a good challenge!

I opened the Bible and reread the cre­ation sto­ry in Gen­e­sis, mak­ing notes as I went along. Apart from Gen­e­sis, I remem­bered sev­er­al ref­er­ences to the cre­ation sto­ry through­out the New Tes­ta­ment, as well, most espe­cial­ly in Hebrews. There it says “God…in these last days has spo­ken to us in His Son, whom he appoint­ed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world.” In oth­er words, the Son, Jesus, was involved in the cre­ation. This idea is reit­er­at­ed in oth­er books of the Bible, as well.

The key, then, to telling this old sto­ry in a new way, was per­spec­tive. I decid­ed to write this sto­ry from the points-of-view of both Father and Son.

At Break of Day
A detail from one of Paul Mor­in’s mixed-media paint­ings in At Break of Day.

My orig­i­nal text was more than matched by the tex­tu­al, mixed-media illus­tra­tions of Paul Morin. He spoke life into each scene by cre­at­ing mass, and depth. In one paint­ing, for exam­ple, he imbed­ded lace in the shapes of flow­ers and but­ter­flies, which he then paint­ed over in bril­liant col­ors. He laid pieces over a tree, as well, and used lace in the leaves to remark­able effect. This kind of tex­ture lent great weight to the story.

At Break of Day made the CCBC Choic­es list, as well as the CBC Not Just for Chil­dren Any­more list. Review­ers said of the final prod­uct, “A love­ly and poet­ic recast­ing of the Bib­li­cal cre­ation sto­ry in a mod­ern spir­it…” (Kirkus) “Over­all, a vig­or­ous addi­tion to the Cre­ation canon.” (Book­list) “…I find myself once again prowl­ing the chil­dren’s sec­tion, look­ing for mag­ic, for light­en­ing in a bot­tle. I may have found it in At Break of Day.” (Book­page)

This title remains, to this day, one of my favorite pic­ture books. It’s hard to choose a pas­sage to share with you, but this one is spe­cial to me. Have you read this book already? If not, enjoy!

At Break of Day

The son could hard­ly wait for the fifth day to begin. At
dawn, he head­ed for the seashore. Then, while his father
watched, the son filled the seas with sharks and seals, starfish
and stingrays, whales and wal­rus­es, and short-finned and
long-finned crea­tures that glid­ed through the clear water

The father nod­ded his approval. Then the son whispered,
and the word he whis­pered became a feath­er, and the
feath­er trav­eled on the warm wind of his breath.

In an instant, the whir of wings beat­ing the air echoed
through field and for­est, and scores of birds soared and
skimmed and swooped across the sky. The birds looked
left and right but could not find the place where the wind

It’s Raining Laughter

It's Raining LaughterIf there’s such a thing as a back­wards approach to cre­at­ing a pic­ture book, I’m some­thing of an expert. On three sep­a­rate occa­sions, I’ve craft­ed books in pre­cise­ly that way. First, there was Some­thing On My Mind, with art by Tom Feel­ings. Next came From a Child’s Heart, with art by Bren­da Joy­smith. And last was It’s Rain­ing Laugh­ter, with pho­tographs by Myles Pinkney (yes, that’s right, of the Pinkney clan, a dynasty in the chil­dren’s book world). The lat­ter is the sub­ject of this week’s blog.

It’s Rain­ing Laugh­ter is a col­lec­tion of col­or pho­tographs and poet­ry, orga­nized around the theme of joy. Mind you, when I first began work on this project, there was no theme. There were no poems. There was not even the hint of an idea for a book, as far as I could see. It’s Rain­ing Laugh­ter began with the visuals.

An edi­tor at Dial Books, with whom I’d pub­lished pre­vi­ous­ly, sent me a binder of pho­tographs by Myles Pinkney and asked me to con­sid­er cre­at­ing a sto­ry­line to turn these loose pho­tographs into a book for young read­ers. I liked the pho­tos I saw, but did­n’t find any con­nect­ing theme that I could work with. Was it pos­si­ble, I won­dered, if Myles could send me addi­tion­al pho­tos? The answer was yes. The prob­lem, though, was know­ing what kinds of pho­tos to ask for. I was­n’t at all sure since I had, as yet, no theme. “Just start send­ing me pho­tos of chil­dren,” I said to Myles, “and I’ll tell you when to stop, all right?” This was a very unortho­dox way to work, but Myles gra­cious­ly agreed.

As the pho­tos came in, I taped them to a wall of my apart­ment, even­tu­al­ly cov­er­ing the wall com­plete­ly. I prob­a­bly had close to a hun­dred pho­tos by the time a germ of an idea began to form.

Day and night, I stud­ied the pho­tos, and I found myself drawn to the images that were hap­pi­est, images of chil­dren play­ing, run­ning through sprin­klers, climb­ing, explor­ing, and laugh­ing. It sud­den­ly came to me that joy was the ele­ment that con­nect­ed them all, and so that became my theme.

That decid­ed, I culled the pho­tos I most want­ed to use, then focused on cre­at­ing a nar­ra­tive about the child, or chil­dren, cap­tured in each pho­to. I draft­ed the nar­ra­tive in para­graph form, at first, then worked to craft each nar­ra­tive into a poem.

Once I had the pol­ished draft, I sent it to my edi­tor. She and the art direc­tor made the final selec­tion of pho­tos, but they did end up using rough­ly 85–90% of the pho­tos I’d chosen.

What a fun project! I love the idea of mar­ry­ing poet­ry to art or pho­tographs. I look for­ward to doing so again.

Have you ever read It’s Rain­ing Laugh­ter? Here’s one of my favorite poems from the collection.

The Laugh­ing Bug

I caught the laugh­ing bug
the oth­er day.
Who spread the germ to me
it’s hard to say.

My broth­er told
a yucky mon­ster story,
and had to laugh himself
it was so gory.

My sis­ter squealed
with joy, and gig­gled when
Dad tick­led her. Did I
start laugh­ing then?

Some­one infect­ed me
with glee that day.
I won­der if God’s love
could spread that way.

A Pocketful of Poems

Pocketful of PoemsTrue con­fes­sions: I have an obses­sive-com­pul­sive per­son­al­i­ty. For­tu­nate­ly, I chan­nel in most­ly healthy ways. A Pock­et­ful of Poems is a prime example.

Back in the 1990’s (was it that long ago?) I came across The Essen­tial Haiku, edit­ed by Robert Hass. Once I plant­ed my face in this col­lec­tion of poems by Basho, Buson, and Issa, I bare­ly came up for air. I was in Haiku heaven!

I’d fall­en in love with this form of poet­ry as a child. I was for­ev­er chal­leng­ing myself to paint a pic­ture or tell a sto­ry using as few words as pos­si­ble, so haiku was right up my alley. But I had­n’t read much haiku as an adult, so this col­lec­tion was a spe­cial treat.

After I read this book, I became absolute­ly obsessed with writ­ing haiku. I could­n’t help myself. Before I knew it, I had a col­lec­tion of near­ly 100 poems! (If I were the Bat­man’s side­kick Robin, of tele­vi­sion fame, I’d say Holy Haiku, Bat­man! And yes, I’m show­ing my age. Whatever.)

The focus of my col­lec­tion was con­tem­po­rary-urban, rather than tra­di­tion­al, giv­ing it my own twist. I want­ed to use this ancient form to cre­ate poet­ry that con­tem­po­rary chil­dren, espe­cial­ly those liv­ing in the inner city—an impor­tant audi­ence for me—could embrace as their own.

I was hap­py with the man­u­script, and was con­vinced some lucky pub­lish­er was going to snap it up.

Not even.

One pub­lish­er after anoth­er returned the man­u­script with some ver­sion of the ques­tion, “Why are you writ­ing haiku?”

First, I was dumb­found­ed. Then, I was irri­tat­ed. What kind of ques­tion was that? (I used lots of col­or­ful lan­guage in the moment.) No one was forth­com­ing in explain­ing what he or she meant by that, which only annoyed me fur­ther. But I had a few wild guesses.

As an author of African Amer­i­can descent, I am rou­tine­ly put in a cer­tain box. I am expect­ed to write either African folk­tales, or books fea­tur­ing African Amer­i­can his­tor­i­cal fig­ures, or “prob­lem” books about con­tem­po­rary African Amer­i­can life. On a more per­son­al lev­el, as Nik­ki Grimes, I am expect­ed to write char­ac­ter dri­ven, nar­ra­tive poet­ry, pri­mar­i­ly because that’s what I’ve pub­lished in the past. If I dare veer off into themed col­lec­tions, or such exot­ic forms as son­net or haiku, well, off with my head! That’s not sup­posed to be in my wheel-house, right? Wrong.

Be that as it may, no pub­lish­er was bit­ing, and I felt deflated.

I sat down to think about what kinds of man­u­scripts I’d been most suc­cess­ful at sell­ing, and real­ized the nar­ra­tive thread was the key that might make even a col­lec­tion of haiku by me more palat­able to pub­lish­ers. So, I pulled out my hefty man­u­script, chose a small num­ber of haiku to work with, and set­tled in for a brand new draft.

I opened my file fold­er of names, and chose one for a char­ac­ter who would light­ly nar­rate my pic­ture book col­lec­tion of haiku. I decid­ed to shape this book as a col­lec­tion of paired poems, writ­ing free verse poems from the char­ac­ter’s P.O.V., and pair­ing each with a haiku on the same theme. I orga­nized the col­lec­tion sea­son­al­ly, and added a sim­ple author’s note about haiku. Once the new ver­sion of my haiku man­u­script was com­plete, I sent it out again.

I hit pay-dirt almost imme­di­ate­ly, but the pub­lish­er’s offer was too low­ball for me to con­sid­er. So I was on to the next house. And the next. And the next. And the next.

Had I made a mis­take by reject­ing that first offer? I was begin­ning to wonder.

I was thrilled for this oppor­tu­ni­ty to grab a pho­to with six of my won­der­ful illus­tra­tors. Java­ka Step­toe, who illus­trat­ed A Pock­et­ful of Poems, is to the far right of me in this shot.

About one year later—yes, I said one entire, bone-crush­ing, ego-deflat­ing, twelve-month period—I received con­tract offer num­ber two! This time the amount sug­gest­ed was rough­ly eight times that of the first pub­lish­er! I screamed yes over the phone. I think my agent has final­ly got­ten her hear­ing back!

It took a few years to bring A Pock­et­ful of Poems to the mar­ket­place, but it went on to make the Bank Street Col­lege Best Book of the Year, and the CCBC Choic­es list. More impor­tant­ly, it con­tin­ues to be a sta­ple in class­rooms across the coun­try. Call this anoth­er les­son in the old say­ing, “good things come to those who wait.”

If you haven’t read A Pock­et­ful of Poems yet, I hope you will. Besides my poet­ry, I know you’ll enjoy the extra­or­di­nary illus­tra­tions by Java­ka Steptoe.

I’ll close with one of my favorite pairs of poems from the book.


Pump­kin is an orange word.
I set its round­ness out
where oth­ers can enjoy it.
I help Mama carve
a crooked smile on its face.
Come Thanks­giv­ing,
we bake oth­ers like it for dessert.
But first we have to wait
for them to arrive.

Pump­kins catch a bus
to town. How else could they get
here by Thanksgiving?