Ordinary Hazards

writ­ten by Nik­ki Grimes
Word­song, Octo­ber 2019
YA / adult

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Ordinary Hazards

Grow­ing up with a moth­er suf­fer­ing from para­noid schiz­o­phre­nia and a most­ly absent father, Nik­ki Grimes found her­self ter­ror­ized by babysit­ters, shunt­ed from fos­ter fam­i­ly to fos­ter fam­i­ly, and preyed upon by those she trust­ed. At the age of six, she poured her pain onto a piece of paper late one night — and dis­cov­ered the mag­ic and impact of writ­ing. For many years, Nikki’s note­books were her most endur­ing com­pan­ions. In this acces­si­ble and inspir­ing mem­oir that will res­onate with young read­ers and adults alike, Nik­ki shows how the pow­er of those words helped her con­quer the haz­ards — ordi­nary and extra­or­di­nary — of her life.

Awards and Recognition

  • ALA Michael Printz Hon­or Book (Young Adult)
  • ALA Robert F. Sib­ert Hon­or Book (Non­fic­tion)
  • Arnold Adoff Poet­ry Award 2020
  • Boston Globe-Horn Book Hon­or Award for Non­fic­tion 2020
  • Dog­wood Titles for Grades 9–12 2021–2022
  • Lin­coln Teen Book Award Mas­ter List 2022
  • Mis­souri Gate­way Read­ers Awards nom­i­nee 2021–2022
  • Penn­syl­va­nia Young Read­er’s Choice Award nom­i­nee 2020–2021
  • Wash­ing­ton Ever­green Teen Book Award List 2021–2022


  With Ordi­nary Haz­ards, Grimes deliv­ers a mem­oir in the form of a pow­er­ful and inspir­ing col­lec­tion of poems. She details her ear­ly life through adult­hood, and she unabashed­ly explores the highs as well as the lows. Young adults will iden­ti­fy with and con­nect to the many chal­lenges explored in Grimes’ work, which delves into issues of love, fam­i­ly, respon­si­bil­i­ty, belong­ing, find­ing your place in the world, and fight­ing the mon­sters you know—and the ones you don’t. The mem­oir has heart­break­ing moments—even soul-crush­ing ones—that will make read­ers ache for young Grimes and teens grap­pling with sim­i­lar cir­cum­stances. But inspir­ing moments bol­ster her raw, res­o­nant sto­ry, show­ing that there is always light at the end of the dark­est of tun­nels. (Book­list, starred review)

  As her sto­ry unfolds (the book is arranged in sec­tions, chrono­log­i­cal­ly, begin­ning in 1950 and end­ing in 1966), the strik­ing free-verse poems pow­er­ful­ly con­vey how a pas­sion for writ­ing fueled her will to sur­vive and embrace her own resilience. “My spi­ral note­book bulges / with poems and prayers / and ques­tions only God / can answer. / Rage burns the pages, / but bet­ter them / than me.” A must-read for aspir­ing writ­ers.” (The Horn Book Mag­a­zine, starred review)

  Grimes presents a grip­ping mem­oir in verse con­struct­ed from imper­fect rec­ol­lec­tions of the hard­ship and abuse she endured as a child. Hav­ing lost chunks of her mem­o­ry as a result of trau­mat­ic expe­ri­ences, Grimes relies on her art to fill in the blanks. Under­lin­ing the idea that “a memoir’s focus is on truth, not fact,” Grimes coura­geous­ly invites read­ers to join her on a jour­ney through the shad­ows of her past, bridg­ing “the gaps/ with sus­pen­sion cables/ forged of steely gratitude/ for hav­ing sur­vived my past/at all.” (Pub­lish­ers Week­ly, starred review)

  From an ear­ly age, writ­ing is not just a refuge but a life-sav­ing out­let for her.… Though she doesn’t refrain from reveal­ing the ugly under­bel­ly of her life with straight­for­ward hon­esty, she inter­spers­es the trau­mat­ic expe­ri­ences with glim­mers of light… Some­how, instead of being a vic­tim of sad cir­cum­stances, Grimes tri­umphs… She calls her writ­ing a “mag­ic trick.” It cer­tain­ly was mag­i­cal for Grimes, and this book is an homage to the for­ti­fy­ing effect of writ­ten expres­sion. (School Library Con­nec­tion, high­ly recommended)

  Ordi­nary Haz­ards is a gor­geous piece of writ­ing that also serves as pow­er­ful inspi­ra­tion for any read­er who has strug­gled and sought grace. Grimes’s tri­umph over adver­si­ty is matched only by her skill with the writ­ten word—her mem­oir is acces­si­ble to poet­ry enthu­si­asts and detrac­tors alike, and will linger long after the final lines. (Emi­lie Coul­ter, Shelf Aware­ness, starred review)

  Cel­e­brat­ed poet Grimes turns here to her own life, mak­ing it clear from the start of this free-verse mem­oir that it’s a work of “imper­fect mem­o­ry” in which “informed imag­i­na­tion” fills the gaps. Even the name by which she’s known is a self-giv­en name, and right from the open­ing poem that explains her self-nam­ing, she cre­ates an irre­sistible sto­ry­telling per­sona of strong self-def­i­n­i­tion and a blend of con­fes­sion­al shar­ing and fierce privacy.

Her account cov­ers her life from her birth in 1950 to 1966, and there’s a strong focus on her strug­gles with her alco­holic, schiz­o­phrenic moth­er. After Child Ser­vices inter­venes, Nik­ki bounces from an ini­tial fos­ter place­ment to a reluc­tant grand­moth­er to anoth­er fos­ter home (“Did we do some­thing wrong?/ Is that why no one wants us?” she thinks). That fos­ter home is actu­al­ly a sta­ble respite, but she even­tu­al­ly returns home to live with her moth­er and her new step­fa­ther, who sex­u­al­ly assaults her. Along the way she’s sep­a­rat­ed from her adored old­er sis­ter, threat­ened by gangs, and dev­as­tat­ed by the death of her lov­ing if incon­sis­tent father, but she also finds kind­ness and sup­port from friends and teachers.

Through­out, the voice of the sto­ry­teller rings clear; a theme of the nar­ra­tive, in fact, is the cre­ation of mem­oir when trau­ma means that mem­o­ry is “scraps of knowing/ wedged between blank spaces”; life has meant so much for­get­ting as well as remem­ber­ing. Yet the past is still sear­ing­ly and emo­tive­ly evoked, whether she’s talk­ing about the under­ly­ing rage that led her to avoid bul­lies for fear of what she’d be pro­voked to do, or the val­ue of a life­sav­ing friend­ship (“I believed in Jackie,/ and she believed in me./ Fun­ny how far/ that can take you”). She also shines the spot­light on gold­en moments that buoy her amid her tra­vails, such as meet­ing James Bald­win or just hear­ing a friend’s moth­er offer lov­ing words of sup­port at a moment when it’s needed.

Char­ac­ter­i­za­tion is potent as well, whether it be her­self in a teenaged moment (“near­ly fif­teen-going-on-/ you-couldn’t‑tell-me-nothin’”), the moth­er who even sober has sym­pa­thy for strangers but indif­fer­ence for her daugh­ter, or the demand­ing Holo­caust-sur­vivor teacher who push­es Nik­ki to ful­fill her true poten­tial. None of them over­shad­ow young Nik­ki, how­ev­er, who is the most com­pelling char­ac­ter of all—furious and flinty, lov­ing and long­ing, tal­ent­ed and curi­ous. She is deserved­ly proud of her resilience while abhor­ring its necessity.

Com­par­isons will inevitably be made between Ordi­nary Haz­ardsand Jacque­line Woodson’s Brown Girl Dream­ing (BCCB 9/14), anoth­er verse mem­oir of a read­er­ly young Black girl who became a writer, and indeed, both are superla­tive works that tes­ti­fy to the glo­ry of words. How­ev­er, young Nikki’s writ­ing, like her name, is clear­ly an act of self-def­i­n­i­tion in a world miser­ly in its nur­tur­ing: she makes her­self; she names her­self; she writes her­self. Grimes potent­ly con­veys the way read­ing and writ­ing can become ways not just to express one­self but to con­struct one­self, to artic­u­late one’s iden­ti­ty, to map one’s men­tal and emo­tion­al ter­ri­to­ry. Read­er­ly read­ers will find young Nik­ki inspir­ing com­pa­ny and agree with her that “sur­viv­ing is almost easy/ if you have a strategy/ and a copy of/ A Wrin­kle in Time. A con­clud­ing gallery of pho­tographs brings key char­ac­ters to vivid life. (Deb­o­rah Steven­son, Edi­tor, Bul­letin of the Cen­ter for Chil­dren’s Books, starred review)

For award-win­ning children’s and YA author Grimes, writ­ing, faith, and deter­mi­na­tion were the keys to sur­viv­ing her tumul­tuous child­hood. In the face of her father’s aban­don­ment and the revolv­ing door of her alco­holic mother’s psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tal stays, Grimes becomes savvi­er and more resilient than any young child should have to be. After being abused by a babysit­ter when she was 3, Grimes and her beloved old­er sis­ter, Car­ol, enter anoth­er set of revolv­ing doors: fos­ter care, some­times lov­ing, some­times not. At a dark moment when she is 6, Grimes finds escape and com­fort in prayer and writ­ing. Despite the insta­bil­i­ty and dan­ger she endures, Grimes blos­soms into a gift­ed teen with a pas­sion for books, jour­nal­ing, and poet­ry. Her per­son­al, polit­i­cal, and artis­tic awak­en­ings are inter­twined, with the dra­ma of her fam­i­ly life unfold­ing against the back­drop of piv­otal moments in Civ­il Rights–era Amer­i­ca. Grimes recounts her sto­ry as a mem­oir in verse, writ­ing with a poet’s lyri­cism through the lens of mem­o­ry frac­tured by trau­ma. Fans of her poet­ry and prose will appre­ci­ate this inti­mate look at the forces that shaped her as an artist and as a per­son deter­mined to find the light in the dark­est of cir­cum­stances. A raw, heart­break­ing, and ulti­mate­ly uplift­ing sto­ry of trau­ma, loss, and the heal­ing pow­er of words. (Kirkus Reviews)


This book is … a gut-wrench­ing tes­ti­mo­ny of pain, loss, resilience, and grace. Nik­ki is open about her truth and wrote it to make it acces­si­ble to read­ers of all ages. This book will heal hearts and open a lot of eyes. It will keep some kids alive and it will wake up some adults. This pow­er­ful sto­ry, told with the music of poet­ry and the blade of truth, will help your heart grow. (Lau­rie Halse Ander­son, author of Speak and Shout)

In Ordi­nary Haz­ards, Nik­ki Grimes has giv­en us an inti­mate look into her life as a young per­son who found writ­ing as a way to buoy her­self in the chop­py waters of her child­hood. Giv­ing us a glimpse into addic­tion, aban­don­ment, fos­ter care, and abuse, Grimes poet­i­cal­ly guides us to her even­tu­al accep­tance and amaze­ment. This is a tes­ti­mo­ny and a tri­umph. (Jason Reynolds, author of Long Way Down)

Life, as Nik­ki Grimes so well puts it, is full of ordi­nary haz­ards, only she cre­ates and accepts them in poems. Some­times you want to cry … some­times to laugh … but always at all times are you glad you are alive and lived with it and through it. Ms. Grimes writes, but some of us sing, bake, or build build­ings or play sports. These, too, can be haz­ardous. But none of them is ordi­nary. (Nik­ki Gio­van­ni, Poet)

Each verse is a gift, show­ing us how to find beau­ty even in bro­ken­ness. (Renée Wat­son, author of the New York Times best­seller Piec­ing Me Togeth­er)

In Ordi­nary Haz­ards Nik­ki Grimes gives us her raw, des­per­ate, joy­ful, lyri­cal truth, while cel­e­brat­ing the life-chang­ing, and life-sav­ing, pow­er of words. Who­ev­er you are, there’s some­thing in Ordi­nary Haz­ards for you. (Chris Crutch­er, author of Whale Talk and Losers Brack­et)

Ordi­nary Haz­ards is an extra­or­di­nary book, a stun­ning mem­oir in verse that cel­e­brates the pow­er of the writ­ten word and the human spir­it. Nikki’s sto­ry will be a life-sav­ing read for teens who need to know that there is hope on the oth­er side of the strug­gles they’re fac­ing today. (Kate Mess­ner, author of Break­out and The Sev­enth Wish)

Can I use just one word in a blurb? Then it’s WOW! If two: Incred­i­bly mov­ing. If three: Poet­ry saved her. Four: That’s too easy. Instead I’ll tell you that if you read one book of poet­ry this year, or one mem­oir, make it this one. How the poet came out of her child­hood with grace and good words is a mir­a­cle. How she want­ed to share is a sec­ond one. That she did—a third. Just WOW. (Jane Yolen, some­time poet, author of over 375 pub­lished books)

Mem­o­ry is a capri­cious dance part­ner. Some­times it over­whelms our brain, stomp­ing with bold, defined images and thoughts, and some­times it sim­ply tip­toes around the edges of a whis­per, a dream, a for­got­ten touch or glance. Nik­ki Grimes’s pow­er­ful mem­oir does both as she uses words, her con­stant source of strength, to tell the sto­ry of her child­hood, which at times was both trau­mat­ic as well as tri­umphant. The strength that car­ried the child who would become the writer, the poet, the vision­ary was built on the pow­er of words. She con­stant­ly and faith­ful­ly wrote in jour­nals and note­books and on scraps of paper because the words were her wings. Poet­ry became a nec­es­sary tool of sur­vival for her mind and body and soul. This mem­oir, which she calls Ordi­nary Haz­ards, far exceeds the title. It is extra­or­di­nary. (Sharon M. Drap­er, author of the New York Times best­seller Out of My Mind)