written by Nikki Grimes
Wordsong, October 2019
YA / adult
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)