At a recent school visit, a student posed a wonderful question during Q & A. “What is your favorite word?” he asked me. Caught off guard, I said the first thing that popped into my head. “Dream,” I told him, “because it opens up endless possibilities.” It wasn’t a bad answer, but it wasn’t the only one I could have come up with. If I’d considered it a little longer, I might have said, “Hope.”
Hope is the how of surviving my childhood, and the why of the stories I tell. I can’t imagine a world without it.
There’s a lot about children’s literature that appeals to me: whimsy, flights of fancy, purity of heart among them. But the single most important element in children’s literature to me is the element of hope.
When I speak of my childhood, one marred by episodes of abandonment and abuse, I often say that reading and writing were my survival tools, and they were. The hope I found in literature was a huge part of that. When I’d read about characters facing challenges or overcoming difficulties, it made me believe that I could, too. And it didn’t matter whether I found those characters in Viking Folklore or Nancy Drew Mysteries. Hope was the feather I chased on the wind.
No matter how dark the tale, or how challenging the character’s journey, it is the sliver of hope in a story that keeps me along for the ride. That’s why hope is a character in every story I tell, in every poem I pen.
The Road to Paris is about the yearning for home and wholeness born of hope. The daydreams of Gabriella in Words With Wings are laced with hope. The too-cool-for-school longings of the teens in BronxMasquerade are unmasked by hope. Hope gets Garvey up every morning in Garvey’s Choice. When the Air Force Brat in Poems in the Attic moved from state to state, hope was the first thing she packed. So, it should come as no surprise that One Last Word is a collection of poems pressed together with hope.
The book opens with a young man who is weighed down by the realities of racial discrimination and social injustice that threaten to curtail his dreams, and even shorten his life. He wonders how he and his siblings will ever thrive, or even survive, in the future. He looks to the past for answers and there, in the wisdom words of the Harlem Renaissance poets, he finds answers. He finds hope.
There has never been a time in recent history when our country has been more in need of hope. To pass on that legacy to young people through literature—I consider that a high calling, and a challenge.
In case you didn’t know it, I’m always up for a challenge.
And, by the way, the unique poetry form I used to craft One Last Word was a challenge in itself! But you’ll find that out. When you read it.
Nikki Grimes is the recipient of the 2006 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children. Her distinguished works include ALA Notable book, What is Goodbye?, the novels Jazmin’s Notebook, Dark Sons, and The Road to Paris (Coretta Scott King Author Honor Books). Creator of the popular Meet Danitra Brown, Ms. Grimes lives in Corona, California.