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The parents' guide to what's in this book.
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?
- Author: Nikki Grimes
- Genre: Biography
- Topics: Great Girl Role Models, High School, Middle School, Misfits and Underdogs
- Book type: Non-Fiction
- Publisher: Wordsong
- Publication date: October 8, 2019
- Publisher's recommended age(s): 12 - 18
- Number of pages: 325
- Available on: Audiobook (unabridged), Hardback
- Award: ALA Best and Notable Books
- Last updated: August 15, 2021
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