For Nikki Grimes, writing is “an act of prayer. An act of worship.” As such, Christianity is infused in her work, which includes award-winning poetry, children’s literature, and a powerful verse-filled memoir about metaphorical and physical darkness and light.
“The presence of God can make all the difference,” Grimes maintained during her recent University of Findlay presentation, which was part of the Freed Contemporary Christian Lecture Series. Titled “Writing out of Call,” Grimes’ speech reflected upon her authorial beginnings, intentions, and spiritual inspiration that have helped her create indelible stories for both secular and religious audiences.
Grimes explained that, as a child, the books she read did not include characters that looked or lived like her. Black literature for youth overwhelmingly focused on slavery, African folklore, and the civil rights movement, she said. It did not address everyday challenges that she was experiencing as a Harlem-raised daughter of an alcoholic and mentally ill mother; Grimes and her sister were shuffled into several foster homes, and experienced a variety of physical and emotional abuse. She described the foster care system as “a merry-go-round of faces and places.” Reading and writing allowed her to “breathe,” and made “room in my head and heart to just be,” she maintained.
At age 6, Grimes relied on reading and writing as a means of escaping the day-to-day life of her upbringing. During her teen years, a family introduced her to religion. Today, she pens impactful stories such as “The Road to Paris,” which is about a girl in foster care. “Having spent time in the system, I know the harsh realities of that life,” she said.
Her strong faith, however, also enables her to create hopeful heroines whose God-given persistence allows them to thrive.
“My agenda as an artist is to create work that heals, helps, restores, inspires, and is of service,” said Grimes. “I know that’s a tall order, but that’s never stopped me.”
Grimes believes children should have access to literature that is atypical from the accepted canon, but that reflects reality. “Young readers deserve work that is varied, rich, complex, and, above all, authentic,” she said. With her writing, Grimes strives to introduce multidimensional characters while intentionally bringing the Bible to life “through story in a fresh way for this generation.”
“Writing out of call” refers to how Christian authors can continue to serve readers. While the definable purpose of the story itself, such as overcoming a challenge or being kind, is paramount, “there are many subtle and organic ways to weave the presence of God into a story, even for a secular audience. I love incorporating names that evoke God and His kingdom,” she noted. She also incorporates “simple stories from childhood,” “the normalcy of prayer,” and “the attitude of gratitude” to make her work relatable and to convey to struggling youth that “there is definitely light at the end of the tunnel.”
Ideas come from everywhere, Grimes continued. A “snatch of dialogue” could serve as the spark for a great children’s book. “It’s like a spider laying down thoughts in sticky strips until the web is complete. Ideas are gossamer. They’re hard to hold onto. That’s what makes them worth all the trouble,” she pointed out.
As it turned out, her own life provided plenty of material for “Ordinary Hazards,” her memoir, which will be available for purchase in October, and can be pre-ordered at local bookstores and at major retailers such as Barnes & Noble and Amazon. “This is the story of darkness and light, and grace is the reason I survived to tell the story,” she said.
For more information about Nikki Grimes, visit her website.