Ordinary Hazards: A Memoir

review by
Lucinda Dyer, Common Sense Media
Ordinary Hazards: A Memoir [node:content-type] Poster Image
Unforgettable memoir in verse shows healing power of words.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Shows a glimpse of life in the foster care system, what life can be like with an alcoholic, mentally ill parent, and life in the 1950s and '60s, including New York's vibrant African American literary and music scene. Also shows how reading books can be a refuge in hard times, how writing can help you get through hard times and heal from trauma. 

Positive Messages

Grimes writes, "That place of light -- it's not always easy to get there, but it's there. It's there." Writing can help you heal and move forward. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Young Nikki Grimes had every possible odd stacked against her: chaotic (sometimes violent) childhood, mother consumed by mental illness and alcoholism, bouts of asthma, years spent in foster homes, a series of new schools. But when she begins to write (and keeps writing), she finds a place where she can make sense of her life, a place of "words that kept me moving forward." Grimes has one loving foster family, reconnects with her father, who supports her and her writing, and when she moves to a new school, finds friends who encourage her. Her father introduces her to New York's African American literary and music worlds. 

Violence

When Grimes' mother passes out drunk, her stepfather comes into her room and rapes her. Some phrases used to describe the assault are graphic: "I woke to find my legs parted and Clark's tongue exploring where no tongue had ever been." A woman is hit in the head with an iron. A foster parent whips Grimes, a babysitter locks her in a closet for hours at a time, girl gang members burn her with a cigarette and cut her with a knife.

Sex
Language

Infrequent uses of "hell," "s--t," "damn," and "bastard." A friend's father calls Grimes the "N" word.

Consumerism

Grimes loves to read and loves books. Little Women, Pippi Longstocking, The Diary of Anne Frank, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, A Wrinkle in Time provide an escape and a refuge during her childhood.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Her mother is an alcoholic, sometimes disappearing for days, leaving her children alone and uncared for. She sees her cousins shooting up drugs, and a foster brother drinks and does drugs.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Coretta Scott King Honor Award-wining author and poet Nikki Grimes' Ordinary Hazards: A Memoir was named a 2020 Michael J. Printz Honor Book. Written in free verse, it follows Grimes as she grows up in the 1950s and 1960s with a mother battling paranoid schizophrenia and alcoholism and a mostly absent musician father. She begins writing at age 6, finding words to be a place she can pour out her anger, fears, and hopes. She has stays in foster homes (one violent), safe years with a loving foster family, and turbulent years back with her mother and her new husband, who rapes her when she's 13. Eventually, there's reconciliation with her father, who introduces her to New York City's vibrant African American literary and musical world. Grimes deals with violence throughout her childhood. She's whipped by a foster parent and attacked by girl gang members. Some of the lines in "Broken," the poem that describes her rape, are graphic. While a memoir in free verse may sound intimidating to some readers, Grimes' story is so simply and compellingly told that once teens begin reading, they'll find it almost impossible to put down.

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What's the story?

Grimes begins ORDINARY HAZARDS in the early 1950s. She's a small child living in New York City with her older sister, Carol, and her mother, a paranoid schizophrenic who often speaks to imaginary friends. Her father, a musician and a gambler, is absent from her life. By 5, she and Carol are sent to foster homes, as her mother is unable to care for them and no family member will agree to take them in. Grimes (without her sister) is eventually placed with a loving foster family in a small quiet town outside of New York City, where she stays until she's 9 and her mother remarries. The Brooklyn neighborhood where she goes to live with her mother and stepfather, Clark, has gangs on every corner, and when Grimes stands up to some girl gang members, she's violently attacked. Her mother's paranoia becomes so extreme that she's committed time and time again for a psychiatric hold and then released. Things become a bit better when Carol moves back in with the family. But she soon leaves, and Grimes believes that her mother chose Clark over her daughter. Her stepfather begins to watch her in the shower, and when she's 13, he sexually assaults her. She knows her mother won't believe her, so she says nothing. By 1963, Clark has finally left and there's another move to yet another school, where she makes friends with other kids who have big dreams for themselves. Her father becomes a constant presence in her life, signing her up to do a reading of her poems for the first time at a library in Harlem. He takes her to the theater, movies, and ballet, showing her that "not all stars in the firmament were white." The memoir ends in 1966, but an epilogue lets readers know that a year later she moved in with Carol and had a life-changing encounter with renowned African American author James Baldwin.

Is it any good?

This raw, haunting, and often heartbreaking memoir shows the power of words to inspire, heal, and transform even in the darkest of times. While most readers will find the Ordinary Hazards Grimes recounts anything but ordinary, the poems present even her most traumatizing memories with a calm, straightforward simplicity, so they never seem overwhelming.  

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the impact of writing that's shown in Ordinary Hazards. Are there ways you think keeping a diary, journal, or blog could move your life forward in a new direction?

  • Author Nikki Grimes writes that a memoir is based on truth, not fact, as two people may have very different memories of the same event. Is there anything from your childhood that you and your family remember very differently?

  • How important is it for teens to have friends and mentors who encourage and support their dreams? Who in your life does that for you? 

Book details

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