When I count my blessings, I count among them wonderful creators for kidlit who — no matter how famous and busy and award-winning– graciously agree to be one of my Friday Friends. Such is today’s case with special, special guest (I’m nearly fainting here) Nikki Grimes. As in recipient of the 2017 Children’s Literature Legacy award. As in recipient of the Virginia Hamilton award. As in recipient of the Coretta Scott King award. If I listed all of Nikki’s awards, there would be no room for her words. So I will stop bragging on her and let her share a bit of the story behind her newest book, Between the Lines (Nancy Paulsen Books).
BETWEEN THE LINES
A companion to Bronx Masquerade was not inevitable. It’s daunting to create a follow-up to a book that’s been popular for more than a decade. Readers take ownership of the novels they love, so the level of expectation is high for any follow-up. You dare not attempt a sequel or, in my case, a companion novel, unless you’re delusional long enough to believe you can make it at least as good—if not better—than the original. That’s a tall order, but then, I’m always up for a challenge, so I walked into my fear—eventually—and wrote Between the Lines (Nancy Paulsen Books).
Like Bronx, Between the Lines weaves together several stories, each with its own inspiration. In general, though, I focused on hot-button issues like immigration and social justice, not because these issues are hot, per se, but because they impact young peoples’ lives.
Characters Darrien, Valentina, and Li Cheng are children of immigrants, representing that story from three different perspectives. Genesis, a teen in foster care, as I once was, dreads aging out of the system and facing a future that may include homelessness. A high percentage of these kids land on the streets, becoming easy prey for sex traffickers. I wanted to shine a light on that demographic. I wanted those teens to know they’re not alone and that there’s help for them, if they know where to look—and I show them. I also wanted teachers to be aware of those teens in their own classrooms, struggling with these tough issues every day, needing some extra TLC.
Then there’s Marcel, who witnesses his law-abiding father get snatched up in a neighborhood drug raid. The devastating impact on Marcel’s family leaves him steeped in an anger that threatens to upend his life, if he doesn’t find a pressure valve.
This criminal justice piece was inspired by stories in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander. Tales of social injustice were hardly new to me, but reading groups at my church found this book to be a rallying cry for action. Part of my own response had to be in the realm of story. Hence, Marcel.
Other segments were inspired by teens I know, or have known through the years: a girl whose daily life is crippled by fear; a boy defying the limits of a life-long illness; a girl who finds herself responsible for her unreliable mother, and a niece who was abandoned.
These threads were all pulled from the fabric of my own passion to represent young people, in all their color and complexity. Of course, the framework of this novel only allowed me to scratch the surface of each subject, but that left room for the larger theme: how each person is impacted by the stories of others. That’s the way real life works, isn’t it? We are moved, inspired, challenged and changed by the stories of those in our midst.
New York Times bestselling author Nikki Grimes is the recipient of the 2017 Children’s Literature Legacy Award, the 2016 Virginia Hamilton Literary Award, and the 2006 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children. Her distinguished works include the much-honored books Garvey’s Choice, ALA Notable book What is Goodbye?, Coretta Scott King Award winner Bronx Masquerade, and Coretta Scott King Author Honor books Jazmin’s Notebook, Talkin’ About Bessie, Dark Sons, Words with Wings, and The Road to Paris. Creator of the popular Meet Danitra Brown, Ms. Grimes lives in Corona, California.