By Nikki Grimes 

I found myself in a strange part of town, this morning. I wandered aimlessly up and down an unfamiliar street. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. It’s called Writer’s Block.

How on earth did I get here? That of course, is the question, and questions—especially good ones—lead to answers, which is the point. Every story asks and answers a certain set of questions about the characters, the setting, the era in which said story takes place. A juicy plot might keep you turning the pages, but understanding why a character does what he/she does, is what makes you care. Asking questions gets me there.

In Words With Wings, a novel-in-verse about a daydreamer named Gabriella, one core question hinged on what made her start daydreaming, in the first place. Another asked what place, if any, daydreaming has in the classroom. In Garvey’s Choice, a novel in tanka, a young boy lumbers through the world carrying more physical and emotional weight than he needs to, and the entire novel turns on the question why? Why is Garvey overweight? Why does he overeat? Why does he lose himself in books?  Why does Garvey’s father push him to be an athlete? Why does this matter so much? Why is music important to both father and son? Read the story. That’s where you’ll find the answers. In fact, finding and sharing those answers is the reason the story exists. 

Q & A may sound a bit simplistic, when discussing writing process, but each question and answer takes the author, then the reader, deeper into the heart of the character, and the story. At least, that’s been my experience, whether a book features one main character or, as in Bronx Masquerade, 18.

Bronx Masquerade follows a classroom of diverse high school students over the course of a year as they explore their inner lives, and the lives of one another, through open mic poetry. Each student is introduced in first person prose chapters, followed by a poem written in the voice of that character. As the students share their personal stories, the culture of the classroom begins to change. By year’s end, they’ve discovered that they’re more alike than they are different, and this knowledge binds them in ways none could have imagined.

At the close of Bronx Masquerade, the teacher suggests holding a poetry slam the following year. That poetry slam comes to fruition in Between the Lines, the companion to Bronx Masquerade. Tyrone Bittings, from the original book, makes an appearance. Apart from him, however, all of the characters—a total of nine, this time, plus the teacher—are new. This is not a true sequel, but the format of Between the Lines is a similar mixture of poetry and prose. And, as always, I began at square one: origin, family background, personality quirks, regionalism, voice. Then, for a deeper dive, I asked what central issue in life each character is wrestling with. In other words, what questions does each particular character need answers to?

Jenesis Whyte needs to know where to go and what to do after she ages out of the foster care system. Angela Bailey needs to know how to overcome her plethora of fears. Marcel Dixon needs to discover how to walk through a world rife with injustice, how to harness the anger he has a right to, and how to use it to fuel a future for himself that has hope at its center. Questions, questions, questions. These are what drive me.

As an author, I am partial to two things: poetry and multi-voiced storytelling. Both are useful in the classroom.    

If you haven’t yet discovered this secret, poetry is a powerful literacy tool. Often, the first book reluctant readers successfully complete is a novel-in-verse. I’ve seen it with Dark Sons, Planet Middle School, and on down the list. Something about all that white space makes these books less intimidating for students hesitant to go on a literary journey. I receive scores of letters from teachers thanking me for turning their reluctant readers into avid ones. I’m telling you, poetry is magic!           

As for multi-voiced storytelling, if you want to teach character and voice, Bronx Masquerade and Between the Lines are excellent mentor texts. In addition, they present wonderful opportunities to try readers’ theater, open-mic readings in the classroom, and poetry slams. These novels can also be used as templates for students to create books based on their own stories, their own high school experiences. So, have at it! 

At a time when empathy and compassion are in short supply, why not utilize books that showcase diverse students wrestling with differences in authentic ways, yet finding common ground? Now, there’s a question for you.