Nature When We Most Need It: Nikki Grimes Guest Posts in a Time of COVID-19
It must have been around ten years ago. I was still living in Manhattan and had just finished an ALA Conference in a city that has long since faded from my brain. I was in the line in the airport when lo and behold I recognized the woman in front of me. Nikki Grimes is, perhaps, one of the most easily recognizable Children’s Literature Legacy Award winning / Virginia Hamilton Literary Award accepting / NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children recipients out there. So, naturally, I didn’t say two words to her. I couldn’t! It’s funny to say but I have a phobia about disturbing the privacy of incredible writers for children when they’re just living their lives. I just can’t do it. And so we got on the plane and to this day I’ve never more than three words to her in person.
But that’s okay, because what I have on this blog today? It’s even better.
I don’t know how much you’ve heard about the Nikki Grimes/Wendell Minor picture book SOUTHWEST SUNRISE, but before we go any further, let’s see how the publisher is describing it:
When Jayden touches down in New Mexico, he’s uncertain how this place could ever be home. Where are the skyscrapers that filled him with wonder? Where is the noise, the sirens, and car horns? But when he takes a walk outside, he finds something glorious. Popping against the warm browns of the desert are colorful flowers and lizards, rock pillars reaching to the sky, and chattering magpies flying about. Perhaps this place could be home after all. School Library Journal’s starred review calls SOUTHWEST SUNRISE both “Evocative and engaging” as it celebrates the wonders found in the Southwest wilderness and is a heartwarming story for young readers moving to new and different places. With so many kids adjusting to their new normal, SOUTHWEST SUNRISE perfectly illustrates how to find beauty and wonder in the least expected situations and places.
Today, Ms. Grimes joins us on the blog with a guest post that touches on how much we need our nature fix, now that we’re all stuck in our homes, as well as the desperate need in publishing for books featuring black kids in the outdoors. Her book may be an answer for both.
Take it away, Nikki!
Humans were never intended to be completely separate from the earth. Our souls are as rooted to the earth as the Redwood and, like the roots of that tree, if our souls are kept from the soil for too long, something in us begins to die. We need what Mother Earth has to offer. That’s why we come alive whenever we engage with Nature. Poetry has the same effect. It reaches us in the deep places of the heart. In fact, poetry and nature go hand in hand. I can’t tell you how often nature provides the metaphors for my poems. I step outside, or visit the river, mountain, forest, or garden in my mind, and find inspiration wherever I look.
Whether we hail from inner city, country, farm, ranch or suburb, we all breathe anew when we enter the outdoors. Some of my fondest childhood memories were those spent in the backyard of my foster parent’s house, pilfering grapes from the grapevine, rooting around the flower beds for earthworms, scooping up a garter snake to surprise my foster mother with, blowing on blades of lemon grass to make them squeal, or burying my nose in lilacs and hydrangea blooms.
I may have been born in the inner city, but I’ve always needed Nature as much as anyone. It satisfies something in me. Morning birdsong and summer fireflies give me joy. I know that’s true for children everywhere. At this time, when our worlds have quite literally been reduced to our homes, and our own backyards, our connection to nature is more important than ever.
“But wait,” you say. “What if I don’t have a backyard?” Fair enough, but I didn’t always have one, either. Still, that never kept me from the things of the earth. My last New York apartment boasted no less than 70 plants! From potted herbs like mint and basil, to silken palms, and flowering African Violets, those plants were my precious babies. I have long drawn solace from being surrounded by and daily tending to, green growing things.
Indoors or out, there’s always a way for us to get our nature fix. We have only to look for it and be alert. The wonders of the earth are on full display in our back yards, in breathtaking nature films, and in virtual tours of America’s national parks. And while we’re looking, let’s remember to look to literature, because books are essential. Some of our most beloved children’s books take place in the great outdoors. Jean Craighead George’s Julie of the Wolves and Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet immediately come to mind. For children’s poetry lovers like myself, an afternoon spent curled up with a book by Helen Frost (Sweep up the Sun, Crossing Stones) or Joyce Sidman (Swirl by Swirl, Dark Emperor) always gives me the nature-kick I need.
Since I’m such a nature-geek, I’m especially excited about my new picture book, Southwest Sunrise.
Southwest Sunrise, written in poetry, follows young Jayden as his family moves from the close confines of New York City to the great expanses of New Mexico. Jayden’s none too thrilled about this transition and lets his parents know it. But once he explores his new environment, this city boy finds himself enticed by ravens, lizards and other wildlife that wake his curiosity, by the scent of firewheel flowers and calypso orchids that tickle his nose, and by towering red rock ranges that scrape the impossibly deep blue sky. That which is different can also be beautiful, Jayden discovers, and it is Mother Nature who whispers this secret in his ear.
I’d love to see a greater selection of nature-themed books by authors and illustrators of color. Too often, children’s books by black authors have been limited by the prison of the single story, the notion that all black people share a single lived experience, and that experience, generally portrayed as heavy or edgy, usually takes place within an inner city landscape, where few rivers run, few trees grow, and birdsong is the last thing on anybody’s mind. Light, joyful, or quiet stories about our deep engagement with nature, therefore, constitute a publishing space black authors have not been encouraged to enter—until now. And yet, some of us have grown up gathering fresh eggs on the farm, riding horseback on a ranch, or spent afternoons running through woods and meadows. Many of us weeded gardens with grandma, went fishing with grandpa, climbed trees, chased butterflies, and collected insects like lots of other children. Our lived experiences are varied and—I’ll say it again—those experiences include a deep engagement with nature. Children’s literature should reflect that.
I look forward to Southwest Sunrise becoming one of many diverse titles that celebrate our connection to the natural world. In the meantime, you’ll have to excuse me. I’m heading outside to spend time in my garden. My roses are calling me!
Thank you, Nikki, for joining us today. Southwest Sunrise is available for purchase, starting today, so make use of your independent bookstore and give them your Giving Tuesday business by buying this book.
Filed under: Guest Posts
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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