August 30

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Cover Reveal: Between the Lines by Nikki Grimes

Fifteen years have gone by since the release of Bronx Masquerade. I’ve published many books in that time span, but none have diminished the pull of Mr. Ward’s classroom.

Through the magic of literature, mere months have passed since we were last in Mr. Ward’s room, where open-mike poetry readings changed the culture of the classroom over the course of a year. It’s a new school term, with a fresh slate of students, except for Tyrone Bittings, a carry-over from Bronx Masquerade. However, it is Darrian Lopez, a boy with newspaper ink in his veins, who acts as the Greek chorus this time around.

What drew me, finally, back to this special classroom in the Bronx? The new voices in my head, all clamoring to have their stories told—and there are many. After all, Between the Lines is not a single story, but rather a collection of linked stories within a single framework. As in Bronx Masquerade, each tale is unique.

Take Jenesis, a girl who’s lived in a dizzying succession of foster homes. With her eighteenth birthday fast approaching, she faces the prospect of aging out of the foster care system. The real possibility of homelessness—and worse—lay just around the corner.

Tick tock. Tick tock.

Eighteen is the clock

my life is set to.

Tick tock. Tick tock.

On that day,

my social worker will say,

“Jenesis, it’s time.

No more foster home

for you. . . .”

How can Jenesis focus on school with this Sword of Damocles hanging over her head? As a former foster kid, I’m particularly sensitive to the challenges a teen like Jenesis faces.

Then there’s Marcel, a character whose story I’ve been carrying with me for quite some time. A year prior to Marcel’s creation, I read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, a book about systemic racial and social injustice that lit a fire under me. By the time I read the last sentence, I knew I needed to engage the subject in my work in a more direct way than I had in the past. Enter Marcel, son of an innocent man whose life is destroyed after he is caught in the police sweep of a Black neighborhood, under the guise of the war on drugs.

Sweep. That’s a good word,

the way cops roll up on the hood,

treating Black boys, Black men

like dirt.

That’s what you sweep up, right? . . .

Too bad

so sad

your dad got busted

in a war he never

enlisted in.

When we meet Marcel, he is an angry young man. However, if he’s to have a future worth living, he must learn to release that anger, navigate the real-life challenges he and his family face as a result of this injustice, and embrace something called “hope” along the way.

Social justice, or the lack thereof, is a hot-button issue these days, and so is immigration. I got a small taste of the immigrant experience once when I lived in Sweden. Let’s just say, I didn’t like it. In any case, I knew I wanted to tackle the subject in Between the Lines.

In America, with talk of building a wall along the Mexican border, the immigrant narrative is often associated with Latinos. But of course there are other immigrant stories, too. When I decided to add an Asian character to the mix, I interviewed a Chinese friend for a few particulars about her culture. Her family’s immigrant experience became an important part of that discussion and found its way into the story of a character named Li.

How can I explain

the duality of Li?

The muffled sounds

of mah-jongg tiles touching,

clicking together,

flips a switch in me

as my parents follow

the ritual

of the ancient game. . . .

And I nod, silent

and ashamed

that my untrained

American lips

are unfamiliar

with my ancestors’

local lingo.

Readers will also meet Kyle, a teen managing a life-threatening heart defect—and he’s got the scars to prove it. This is a body-image story of a different kind. Kyle loves his lithe body and is proud of the scars that remind him life is precious. He lives his with great gusto. Can he influence others to live that way, too?

. . . In, and out.

In, and out.

I never count breaths

or store them

in a bank for

unimagined tomorrows.

Born with a weak heart,

I’m smart enough to know

any tick-tock

could be my last . . .

The young man who inspired this character suffered frequent hospital stays and several brushes with death. He has survived his health challenges with an indomitable spirit that should be celebrated. I interviewed him at length to gather the seeds for the character that would become Kyle.

You’ll meet other characters, as well, in Between the Lines. I’ll let you discover them for yourself. Chances are, at least one of them will have a story, and a spirit, close to your own.

 

Nikki Grimes is the award-winning, New York Times bestselling author of dozens of children’s and young adult books as well as a poet and journalist. Among the many accolades she has received are the Golden Dolphin Award (2005),the NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children (2006), the Coretta Scott King Award (2003) for Bronx Masquerade, and the Horace Mann Upstanders Award (2011) for Almost Zero: A Dyamonde Daniel Book. Additionally, her book Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope (illustrated by Bryan Collier) was a New York Times bestseller, and she was acknowledged as an NAACP Image Award Finalist in 1993 for her book Malcolm X: a Force for Change. Her books Meet Danitra Brown (illustrated by Floyd Cooper), Jazmin’s Notebook, Talkin’ About Bessie (illustrated by E.B. Lewis), Dark Sons, The Road to Paris, and Words with Wings were each awarded Coretta Scott King Honors. Visit her online at www.nikkigrimes.com.