Friday, May 1, 2015

Spotlight on Nikki Grimes + DMC Challenge


Nikki Grimes does not consider herself a bona fide storyteller, but, as she told an audience at the Library of Congress, she is happy to own the title Poet. Born and raised in New York City, Nikki began composing verse at the age of six and has been writing ever since that time. In 2006, she received the NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children.

A bestselling author and a prolific artist, Nikki has written many award-winning books for children and young adults including the Coretta Scott King Award winner Bronx Masquerade; the Coretta Scott King Author Honor books Jazmin's Notebook, Talkin' About Bessie, Dark Sons, The Road to Paris, and Words with Wings; Horn Book Fanfare for Talkin' About Bessie; ALA Notable books What is Goodbye? and Words with Wings; the popular Dyamonde Daniel chapter book series, and numerous picture books and novels including The New York Times bestseller Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope and, most recently, Chasing Freedom and Poems in the Attic. You will find teacher guides for many of these books on her website, as well as a ton of other useful information.

I should probably tell you...

When it comes to Nikki Grimes, I'm prone to gush.  

Last year, I was lucky enough to meet Nikki in person. You can read about it HERE. (I'll wait while you take a quick look.)

Seriously. What's not to gush about?

Nikki is one of those versatile authors that writes with warmth and honesty for children across the spectrum.  Yet each child who picks up one of her books secretly knows she's writing just for them.  Her work sings– not only with the music of language, but with the promise of hope.

Most definitely gushworthy.

Lee & Low Books, May 15, 2015
IBSN: 978-1620140277
Find at, Barnes & Noble,
or via
Today we'll be focusing on her newest picture book, Poems in the Attic, which releases later this month.

It's the story of a young girl who discovers a box of poems in her grandma's attic.  The poems act as a journal of sorts, written by her mother when she was growing up. Reading the poems introduces the girl to the many interesting places her mother lived because of her father's military career. It also helps her feel close to her mother because she's seeing the world through her eyes.  Inspired by her mother's poetic impressions, the young girl decides to write her own reflective poetry in response.

Poems in the Attic alternates between two poetic forms: tanka for the mother's poems and free verse for the daughter's. The poems are paired on each two-page spread and complemented beautifully by Elizabeth Zunon's vibrant paint and collage illustrations. (You can read Nikki's interview with Elizabeth Zunon HERE.) Overall, the effect is warm and inviting, and, in the words of the School Library Journal: 
Sweet and accessible but never simplistic, this collection captures the experience of a military childhood with graceful sophistication.

At the back of the book, you'll find an author's note, a list of the eleven U.S. Air Force bases where the poems are set, a description of the free verse and tanka forms, and an invitation to the reader to write their own:
The word is an 
amazing thing.
Set it loose
upon a page,
let it blossom,
hear it sing!

My invitation to you is to sit back and enjoy today's interview.  There will be an opportunity to write a poem later.  You can count on it.

Please help me welcome Nikki Grimes to Today's Little Ditty!

Nikki's five favorites:

          Favorite color: purple

          Favorite music: jazz and classical

          Favorite sound: violin

          Favorite smell: roses

          Favorite vacation spot: Santa Fe, NM

Please describe your “writing zone” for us – when, where, how do you prefer to write? 

The great thing about being an author is that I get to go to work in my pajamas!  I roll out of bed, walk a few steps to a cushy leather armchair, grab a yellow lined pad from the leather ottoman that serves as my desk, and begin my writing day.  (That's where I'm writing this!)  As for my reference to rolling out of bed, my most critical writing time is first thing in the morning.  That's when I get my best work done.

"Painting a rose from my garden taught me
to see in a new way" – Nikki Grimes
Not only are you an artist of the written word, but you have many other creative outlets as well—painting, music, gardening, jewelry making, paper craft, textiles… I could go on. Do you notice that your artistic endeavors ever cross-pollinate? For example, does what you’re painting help you with your writing, or vice versa?

Visual art teaches you to see in a new way. The mind has a habit of supplying images pulled from its vast catalog of memory.  We look at a cup, and we don't necessarily see the cup we're holding, but we see the generic image or idea of a cup from memory.  We don't realize we're doing this until someone asks us to draw a particular cup that's right in front of us, and what we end up drawing, instead, is our idea of a cup.  When we're made to study the drawing and the actual cup side by side, we notice how far off we were.  Once we learn this, we're able to draw the cup we actually see, rather than the idea of the cup in our mind.   That gift of truly seeing gives a writer enormous clarity.  So, yes: my forays into art, especially visual art, have a definite impact on my writing.  When you see something as it really is, you're better able to write about it with a true and clear perspective.

For Poems in the Attic, you chose to use a story-within-a-story format. What unique challenges presented themselves by using that approach? 

I didn't find it so much a challenge as an aid.  I had two stories I wanted to tell: the story of a girl's relationship with her mother, and the story of a girl finding creative ways to cope with the challenges of growing up as a military brat, constantly uprooted throughout her childhood.  The story-within-a-story format allowed me to do both.

From POEMS IN THE ATTIC, text © Nikki Grimes, illustration © Elizabeth Zunon  (click to enlarge)

Air Force Brat

Thanks to Captain Grandpa
My mama had a childhood on wings,
flitting from place to place.

                                                           Cedar Box

                                                           I choose you to keep
                                                           all my rememberings safe,
                                                           poems about home,
                                                           no matter where that might be.
                                                           Each place is special to me.

Would you share one of your favorite spreads from Poems in the Attic?
The art for this book is perfect. It's made of many different bits and pieces, just like the story of our lives.  

"Chopsticks" is one of my favorite spreads.  In both poetry and art, it is an image of an African American out in the wider world, an image we don't often see in books, or art, or any other medium, for that matter.  And yet, in truth, we are citizens of the world, and a good number of us have enjoyed rich experiences living overseas.

From POEMS IN THE ATTIC, text © Nikki Grimes, illustration © Elizabeth Zunon  (click to enlarge)


At dinner I ask Grandma
for the chopsticks Mama
taught me to use. Once, I asked Mama
where she learned, and she just smiled.

                                                            Cherry Blossoms

                                                            Spring! Kimono time.
                                                            I joined the parade of girls
                                                            strolling avenues
                                                            dusted with cherry blossoms.
                                                            I caught a few, like snowflakes.

"As a foster child, I moved from 
home to home, just like the miliary brat
in my story." – Nikki Grimes
What is a treasure that you would like to discover in an attic one day?

Stories of my family.  I know so little about them, and now they're gone.  Growing up in and out of foster care, I missed a lot of time with my family.

I’ve read that reading and writing became your survival tools to cope with a difficult childhood.  What does your gift of creative writing and your ability to reach children of all ages mean to you now?

It means that none of my experiences as a child and a young adult were wasted.  It means, because of God's grace, I've learned to make beauty from ashes.  It means, perhaps, I've given my readers a road map to do the same in their own lives, no matter how difficult their experiences may be.

Can you give us a hint about what’s coming up next for you?

What's next?  A book inspired by poets of the Harlem Renaissance.  It will be for middle grade readers.  I can't say more than that!

If you had all the world’s children in one room, what would you tell them?

Nurture your daydreams. They will lead you to magical, meaningful places in your life.  If it weren't for my daydreams about being an author, I don't know where I'd be.

Finally, please tell us what you have chosen as this month’s ditty challenge.

When I first began to write poetry at age six, it was the result of wordplay.  So try this wordplay exercise and create your own free verse poem.

When I talk about wordplay, I'm talking about studying a word from top to bottom, and inside out, considering every aspect of the word:  What it looks like, sounds like, feels like.  What it does, how it's used, etc.  The idea is to bring all of your senses into the act.  The poem you create may end up being complex and sophisticated, or very simple.  But whether you're writing a nursery rhyme, or a complex prose poem for adults, wordplay is a valuable skill in the process of creating dynamic, original, poetry, or lyrical prose.

The following are a few simple examples to show you what I mean.     

    Ball is a round, rubber word.
    It fits inside my palm.
    I play with it outside,
    bounce it on the sidewalk.
    when it hits the ground,
    it makes a smacking sound.
    My cupped hand waits for it
    to come back home.

    Pumpkin is an orange word.
    I set its roundness out
    where others can enjoy it.
    I help Mama carve
    a crooked smile on its face.
    Come Thanksgiving,
    we bake others like it for dessert.
    But first we have to wait
    for them to arrive.

    Pen is a slim word,
    a tube of possibility.
    Poems and essays hide inside
    or ride the river
    of her ink.
    Pen jots down things
    that make you think.
    Pen is round.
    Pen speaks, yet
    makes no sound.

Okay.  I'm sure you get the hang of it.  Now, here is a list of ten words for you to choose from:
Bell          Lemon          Blanket          Shadow          Scissor
Leaf         Sun                  Ice                       Bullet               Siren
Some are loaded with more meaning than others, but I want you to approach each in the same way.  Just choose one that particularly appeals to you. 
1.  Hold each word in your mind and close your eyes.  Picture the item each word represents.  Sift the word through your senses.  Consider all aspects of it: how it looks, sounds, feels, tastes.  What it does, what you can do with it, how it affects you.  What it's made of, where it's found.  Does it have an age, a color, a smell?  Turn it over in your mind. 
2.  Write a paragraph about the word you've chosen.
3.  Turn this paragraph into a poem.  Use as many, or as few poetic elements as you like: metaphor, simile, repetition, alliteration, rhyme, etc.  And as you write, pretend that the reader has never seen that item before.  He is relying on you to paint a picture of it for him.  Just have fun with it.  That's what wordplay is all about.

I don't know about the rest of you, but I am very excited about this challenge! Even though we're choosing our subject matter from the same list, I can't wait to see how our unique experiences of these words come into play.

Now go set those words loose!


Throughout the month, send your free verse poems to TodaysLittleDitty (at) gmail (dot) com or use the contact form in the sidebar to the right. For children under 13 who would like to participate, please read my COPPA compliance statement located below the contact form.

BLOGGER FRIENDS:  Thank you for publishing your poems on your own blogs– I love that!  Please also remember to send me a copy of your poem or a direct link to your post. That way I know I have your permission to post your poem on Today's Little Ditty.

Some poems may be published on the blog as daily ditties, but all of them will appear in a wrap-up celebration on May 29th, 2015.

Thank you for being here today, Nikki, and for generously offering a personalized copy of Poems in the Attic to one lucky participant! A random drawing will be held at the end of the month.

Thanks also to everyone who participated in last month's clerihew challenge, brought to us by Kwame Alexander. With six new poems since last Friday, you might want to give the wrap-up post another look. As usual, you did an amazing job writing and supporting one another! It's a joy celebrating poetry with you, not only during National Poetry Month, but every month. has determined that the winner of a signed copy of THE CROSSOVER by Kwame Alexander is:
Congratulations, Julie!

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This ditty challenge is closed. Click HERE to view the wrap up presentation.

For more TLD posts about Nikki Grimes: 

Join Irene Latham at Live Your Poem for today's Poetry Friday roundup and many other wonderful tributes to Nikki Grimes.


  1. Among the many, I love Nikki's Words With Wings, have shared it often with both students and teachers.The interview is an inspiration, Michelle, so much to re-read, pondering the words for this next wonderful challenge. Thank you, and Nikki too! And Happy May!

  2. As a military brat, I love the premise of Poems in the Attic and look forward to reading this book. Thank you for sharing!

    1. I didn't know you were a military brat, Jayne. I'm so happy to be able to introduce this book to you!

  3. Enjoyed reading Nikki's thoughtful, insightful answers -- and so looking forward to seeing Poems in the Attic. There is a beautiful sense of warmth and caring that comes through in her words -- whether an answer to a question or in a poem. Thanks so much!

    1. Exactly, Jama! It's what comes through when she does readings as well. Such a beautiful aura.

  4. Enjoyed reading about the book and its author. I'm definitely going to look out for Poems in the Attic.The illlustrations too are vivid. Thanks for this.

  5. Thanks for the great interview, Michelle, and thank you Nikki! I can't wait to read Poems in the Attic. The artwork is stunning too!

  6. Thanks, Michelle, for a great post, as usual. And thank you, Nikki, for sharing your fascinating story with us. Your newest picture book looks so interesting, and the illustrations are beautiful. I love the idea of a story within a story. I may have to "borrow" this idea for my next manuscript. And I can't wait to get started on my poem for this month's challenge! Thanks, again!

  7. Wow - this is an incredible post - full of information and inspiration. I agree with what you said about Nikki Grimes's books: "Her work sings– not only with the music of language, but with the promise of hope." I LOVED Words with Wings. This new book looks wonderful. I've not done one of your challenge's before, but I'm very tempted to try this one out!

    1. I'm glad Nikki lured you in to the Ditty of the Month Club, Holly! Looking forward to reading your free verse poem. :)

  8. I had so much fun reading this, Nikki. Talk about inspirational. You made me think. You made me feel. You made me smell and taste. Thank you. I will take up this challenge and I can't wait to read all the poems that come from it. :-) Congratulations to Julie.

  9. Wonderful post. Thanks, Michelle and Nikki. Nikki was at our regional SCBWI conference last spring and it was a joy to hear her speak. This is a great challenge. I will give it a shot.

  10. Loved reading Nikki Grimes' responses, Michelle, and seeing that darling photograph of her as a young girl - the Mary Janes and knee socks, and that beautiful coat, but best of all, the sweet smile. Also: Whoohoo! I won the signed copy of The Crossover. Hooray! Thanks!

    1. Isn't that photo adorable? Love the tilted head and, yes, that beautiful smile!

  11. There is so much to love about this post, Michelle! From Nikki's insights into poetry and writing, to the gorgeous art from Poems in the Attic, and the wordplay challenge. I've already started playing with a couple of the words. Thanks so much for sharing this today!

    1. Wonderful, Catherine! I know you'll come up with something fresh and inspiring.

  12. I love Nikki Grimes and can't wait to get hold of her book. I want to share this interview with some of the teachers I work with. I think we can use this with kids. And I'm ready to jump in and try this month's ditty!.

    1. I wondered, myself, if Nikki had used this exercise before with children. Seems to me that it would be valuable exercise for any kind of writer, at any level. Can't wait to see what you come up with Carol!

  13. What a rich post! I am inspired by the interview. I so look forward to reading Poems in the Attic. It seems to me that we are in a renaissance of creative uses of poetry in books. I'm excited about the challenge, too.

    1. I'd have to agree, Karin. It's wonderful to see poetry in so many literary forms and voices!

  14. Perhaps I'm in a delicate mood, but this interview got me a little teary. Nikki's passion for words and children and telling THEIR stories through her own story is always so palpable and inspiring. She is a treasure. Thank you for this.

    And thanks to Nikki for this marvelous writing exercise. My eyes saw only one word on that list, one of my favorite things, so that's what I'll be writing about. :)

    1. Mmmm... I feel that way about Nikki as well, Renée. Gush, gush, gush.

  15. I know Nikki's books but I didn't know Nikki's story, so this post was a lesson for me. There I was, assuming that POEMS IN THE ATTIC was based on some direct experience of being from a military family--and then I learned that this story of movement and discovery grow from a different but similar experience of foster care. This recreation is genius, a gift for those children who move AND for those who can't imagine living anywhere but "home." Wonderful post (and wonderful challenge)!

  16. What fun! I'm really really REALLY gonna try to get my poem done earlier this month!

  17. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Hello and welcome, poetryinleaves! Most people send in just one poem for the month, but some folks send in two or three. My policy is to include up to three poems per person in the end of month wrap-up celebration.

  18. This is a wonderful post. Nikki is so inspiring. I can't wait to read Poems in the Attic.
    What a fun challenge! I'm looking forward to reading the wordplay free verses.

  19. Thanks for the terrific interview and great challenge...hope to write at least one this month!

  20. It is so true that visual Art teahes one to see in a new way! I think that's why I like to intersperse writing with doing art or knitting or making soap, etc. Beautiful interview of an amazing poet!

  21. GRIMES POWER strikes again! Thanks, Michelle for highlighting a person I feel may have the term Children's Poet Laureate in her future!

  22. Thanks Nikki for sharing the flavor of your experience, and a recipe for writing from the heart. This was an inspiring post of introduction for me. I will be attempting to meet your challenge this month...
    Great interview Michelle. Thanks.

  23. Michelle, your interview with Nikki Grimes provides so much insight into her life and writing. I agree with Charles that Today's Ditty is packed with Grimes Power. As for the challenge, it is a keeper. I love the idea of word play so I will allow the muse to bring the spirit of creativity into my space.

  24. Floor’s Song
    Poem By Jessica Bigi

    Violet strings
    Stretch across
    Floor violins
    Keyes notes
    Scribbling shapes
    Into shadows
    A symphony of
    Light and dark
    Mirror across stage
    Seas of music
    Bravo On coir
    On coir

    1. Thanks for participating, Jessica! I'll include this in Friday's wrap-up celebration.

  25. made correction

    Floor’s Song
    Poem By Jessica Bigi

    Violet strings
    Stretch across
    Floor violins
    Keyes notes
    Scribbling shapes
    Into shadows
    A symphony of
    Light and dark
    Mirror across stage
    Seas of music
    Bravo encore-

  26. This is the interview I came to when preparing for today's, 2020 celebration, of Nikki Grimes. It's one of those go-to posts for directions on word play. Thanks for running it again. I've cited this in my blog post today and shared a poem that came from the prompt. Thanks, Michelle!

  27. Poet with a capital P! So glad you re-ran this post, which I missed the first time around! Great prompt, too. xo

  28. Michelle, I am so thrilled with all of the Nikki Grimes' posts I am reading. This interview from 2015 offers such a wonderful word play exercise that I think I will share it with my grad students at the end of June for their Literacy Tookbox of goodies for the fall.

  29. I enjoyed reading this again, Michelle & Nikki. Little did any of us know that in 2020, many others are working in their pajamas! Thanks for the repeat, Michelle!

  30. I'm glad you re-posted this gush-worthy interview, Michelle! Still so much goodness. :)

  31. Fun to reread bits of this wonderful interview, Michelle!

  32. Such a rich and chockfull of story post Michelle– Love Nikkis' "Poems in the Attic" book too, thanks for sharing it again! xo

  33. Thanks for this - what a great post! I must get hold of Poems in the Attic!