Author Q&A with Nikki Grimes

Check out our Q&A with Nikki Grimes, author of THE WATCHER ( Eerdman’s Books for Young Readers, October 2017)!

1. What inspired you to write The Watcher?

A few years ago, I was invited to write a Golden Shovel poem for The Golden Shovel Anthology, a collection honoring the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning Poet, Gwendolyn Brooks.  This new poetry form, created by Terence Hayes specifically for this anthology, was brand new, and so this was my first introduction to it.  I fell immediately in love with the form and could not wait to use it again, for a project of my own.  One of the first two ideas that came to me was to apply the form to the exploration of a Psalm.  It seemed perfect.  The Psalms are poetry, after all, and the Golden Shovel is all about borrowing lines from existing poems to create new ones.  The question, of course, was which Psalm.  I had a picture book in mind, and in order for this treatment to work for a picture book, the Psalm had to be relatively short, and so I searched for just the right one.  Psalm 121 is one of my favorite passages of scripture, and the length seemed exactly right.

2. What about this form did you like, and what were some of the challenges in using it to tell your story?

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What I love about the Golden Shovel form is that it feels very much like sculpture to me.  I never know, at the start, exactly what I’m going to end up with, or what shape the poetry is going to take.  I simply chip away at the source material and see what emerges.  Here, what emerged was the tale of a boy and a girl, one a person of fear and faith, the other a bully riddled with doubt.  The story of each impacted the other as they engaged on a deep emotional level.  This story happened to be about bullying, but the truth is, whenever we engage with faith, we are changed in some way, no matter the context.  As for the primary challenge of the form, it’s the source material itself, namely the language.  Once you choose the line, or lines, you will borrow from your source poem, you are stuck with the words within.  How do you write something meaningful, for today’s audience, using antiquated or formal language, or phrasing that feels uncomfortable in the mouth?  How do you use words that repeat several times?  The word slumber proved problematic, for example, because it’s not a word we use today.  “Watches” was also difficult because its repetition required finding fresh ways to use it, each time.  Then there was Israel.  How was I to interject the name of a foreign nation in the middle of a poem set in America?  In this case, my solution was to make it the name of a character. 

3. What are some things you’d like for kids to take from this book?

Bullying is an enormous problem, today. The advent of cyber bullying has exacerbated the problem, and so I believe it is an important topic to tackle in children’s and young adult literature, as often as we can.  In The Watcher, my focus was on planting seeds of empathy—something sorely lacking in our society, at present.  When readers understand that we are all more alike than we are different, and when they glimpse the pain underneath the actions of the person who bullies, that reader’s heart is enlarged in a way that suddenly makes tolerance and forgiveness possible, while at the same time making the reader less inclined to act like a bully him or herself.  And maybe, just maybe, readers will dare to reach out to the bullies in their midst, as Jordan reached out to Tanya in this story.  That may be a lot to ask of a book, but I’ve seen books do powerful things!  That’s why I keep writing them.  That’s why I wrote The Watcher.

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Nikki Grimes is a New York Times bestselling author. Her previous works include At Jerusalem’s Gate, When Daddy Prays (both Eerdmans), and Bronx Masquerade (Dial), which won the Coretta Scott King Award. Most recently, she won the 2017 Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for her lasting contributions to children’s literature. Nikki lives in California. Visit her website at www.nikkigrimes.com.

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