Poems in the Attic

writ­ten by Nik­ki Grimes
illus­trat­ed by Eliz­a­beth Zunon
Lee & Low Books, 2015

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nar­rat­ed by Sisi Aisha Johnson 

Poems in the Attic

About the Book

Dur­ing a vis­it to her grand­ma’s house, a young girl dis­cov­ers a box of poems in the attic, poems writ­ten by her moth­er when she was grow­ing up. Her mother’s fam­i­ly often moved around the Unit­ed States and the world because her father was in the Air Force. Over the years, her moth­er used poet­ry to record her expe­ri­ences in the many places the fam­i­ly lived. Read­ing the poems and shar­ing those expe­ri­ences through her mother’s eyes, the young girl feels clos­er to her moth­er than ever before.

To let her moth­er know this, she cre­ates a gift: a book with her own poems and copies of her mother’s. And when she returns her mother’s poems to the box in the attic, she leaves her own poems too, for some­one else to find, someday.

Using free verse for the young girl’s poems and tan­ka for her mother’s, mas­ter poet Nik­ki Grimes cre­ates a ten­der inter­gen­er­a­tional sto­ry that speaks to every child’s need to hold onto spe­cial mem­o­ries of home, no mat­ter where that place might be.

Awards and Recognition

  • Arnold Adoff Poet­ry Award Honor
  • Bank Street Col­lege Best Children’s Books of the Year 2016
  • CCBC Choic­es 2016
  • Los Ange­les Times Sum­mer Read­ing List
  • NCTE Notable Poet­ry List 2016
  • New York City Dept of Edu­ca­tion Nation­al Poet­ry Month recommendation
  • Texas Blue­bon­net Award nominee



  A girl dis­cov­ers her mother’s child­hood poems in her grandmother’s attic and embarks on a jour­ney through fam­i­ly his­to­ry that inspires her own poet­ic trib­ute to her moth­er. … Accord­ing to her author’s note, Grimes drew on the var­ied sto­ries of friends who grew up as mil­i­tary brats to cre­ate this imag­ined inter­gen­er­a­tional dia­logue. … Suc­cinct poet­ry shines in this impas­sioned cel­e­bra­tion of his­to­ry; the sto­ries of this African-Amer­i­can fam­i­ly trav­el­ing the globe are rich with heart and col­or. (Kirkus Reviews, starred review)

A 7‑year-old girl, explor­ing in Grandma’s attic, finds a box of poems her moth­er wrote as a child. On each left­hand page, Grimes (“Chas­ing Free­dom,” “Words With Wings”) has her nar­ra­tor write in short bursts of free verse, while on the right-side pages the poems her moth­er wrote are in the Japan­ese five-line form­tan­ka. The result is a sto­ry that con­veys decades of fam­i­ly his­to­ry with an almost mag­i­cal con­ci­sion. The lit­tle girl fol­lows her mother’s many moves around the world as an “Air Force Brat,” as the girl’s first poem is titled. We see the moth­er as a young girl in Texas, Japan and Ger­many, shar­ing adven­tures with her own father when he’s on leave and miss­ing him when he is not. Through read­ing her mother’s poems, the girl real­izes how much she miss­es her after just three days. Eliz­a­beth Zunon’s warm, bright illus­tra­tions pro­vide a cheer­ful bal­ance, but it’s the ache of a parent’s absence that most pow­er­ful­ly ani­mates the book. (New York Times Book Review)

Dur­ing a vis­it to Grandma’s, a sev­en-year-old girl dis­cov­ers a stash of poems in the attic writ­ten by her moth­er as a child. Each sub­se­quent set of pages pairs a poem writ­ten by the girl with one by her mama. An air force brat, Mama wrote a dif­fer­ent entry in each new place her fam­i­ly was sta­tioned, show­cas­ing the expe­ri­ences of her “child­hood on wings,” from paint­ing lumi­nar­ias in New Mex­i­co to kayak­ing in Vir­ginia to catch­ing cher­ry blos­soms like snowflakes in Japan. Her writ­ing also touch­es upon painful sit­u­a­tions, such as leav­ing her friends behind when she moved and miss­ing her father when he was away. The daughter’s poems com­pare her and her grown-up mother’s lives with the expe­ri­ences detailed by Mama as a girl (“It’s fun­ny to think of Mama/making a mess with arts and crafts”). Sweet and acces­si­ble but nev­er sim­plis­tic, this col­lec­tion cap­tures the expe­ri­ence of a mil­i­tary child­hood with grace­ful sophis­ti­ca­tion. Grimes uses dif­fer­ent styles of poem for each voice (free verse for the daugh­ter and tan­ka poems for the moth­er), a choice that she dis­cuss­es in an explana­to­ry note on poet­ry forms that will serve bud­ding poets and teach­ers alike. Ren­dered in acrylic, oil, and col­lage, Zunon’s warm, vibrant illus­tra­tions com­ple­ment the text per­fect­ly. Read­ers with an espe­cial­ly keen inter­est in the loca­tions high­light­ed can look to a com­plete list of Air Force Bases append­ed. VERDICT A gem of a book. (School Library Jour­nal)

Dur­ing a vis­it to her grand­moth­er’s house, a sev­en-year-old African-Amer­i­can girl dis­cov­ers poems her moth­er wrote in her youth, giv­ing the daugh­ter a win­dow into her moth­er’s peri­patet­ic upbring­ing as an Air Force brat. Grimes (Chas­ing Free­dom) alter­nates between the daugh­ter’s free-verse poems and her moth­er’s five-line tan­ka poet­ry. In one scene, the girl’s grand­moth­er shows her how to make paper lumi­nar­ias, just as she did with her daugh­ter while they were liv­ing in New Mex­i­co (“After we were done,/ our brown bag candleholders/ bloomed bright, light­ing up the night”); a Japan­ese din­ner between girl and grand­moth­er ties into a trip to Japan. (In author’s notes, Grimes high­lights the poet­ic forms she uses, as well as the Air Force bases that cor­re­spond to loca­tions in the book). Ful­ly in step with Grimes’s empath­ic writ­ing, Zunon’s (One Plas­tic Bag) warm­ly paint­ed col­lages car­ry read­ers from the water­ways of Vir­ginia to a Ger­man cas­tle atop a hill, high­light­ing the pow­er­ful emo­tion­al ties between the girl and her elders, as well as her moth­er’s adven­tur­ous spir­it. (Pub­lish­ers Week­ly)

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