Review of Ordinary Hazards, by Nikki Grimes

Ordinary Hazards

A Memoir

by Nikki Grimes

Wordsong (Highlights), 2019. 325 pages.
Starred Review
Review written November 9, 2019, from a library book

Wow. Nikki Grimes wrote a powerful and moving memoir in verse.

Between this book and Shout by Laurie Halse Anderson, I should make a new page on my website for Teen Nonfiction. This book isn’t for children, even though it tells about Nikki Grimes’ childhood. It is for teens, and will speak to teens who have to deal with hard things.

There’s a caption at the front:

a work of imperfect memory
in which you meticulously
capture all that you can recall,
and use informed imagination
to fill in what remains.

The author explains that there are blanks in her memory because of trauma. And her childhood had lots of trauma. At the point when she finally found a loving home in a foster home, her mother took her back, and the difficulties began again.

At one point, when she’d described the abuse she went through at the hands of her mother’s husband, she then wrote about being thirteen – and I wanted to cry. So young! Later, when she was in high school and had built a good relationship with her father at last, more tragedy struck.

But she doesn’t ask you to feel sorry for her. And you can see her coping. One of the ways she coped, even as a child, was writing, always writing. She’s got excerpts from her Notebooks over the years, adding immediacy. (Though, alas, they are reconstructed and imagined.)

This is a quietly Christian book. She shows how important prayer was to her and how her faith in God was her lifeline – along with key people who came into her life and helped her through.

And there are tough things in her story, but Nikki Grimes infuses the book with joy. I love the story about going on the subway with her best friends – which goes with one of the handful of pictures in the back of the book.

One afternoon,
we three dressed up
in our finest rags
to help Gail’s boyfriend,
a fledgling photographer
in need of a portfolio
to display his considerable skills.
Debra and I ripped off our glasses,
and we three posed for portraits
in the park
(me in my new coat!),
then hung from a vertical pole
in the middle of a subway car,
swinging round it gleefully,
pretending to be
professional models.
In other words,
we hammed it up, yo!
And those photographs?
Oh, my God! Portraits
of joy.

I love reading this knowing that the little girl portrayed here, up against so much, did become the writer she planned to be.

“I want to write books about
some of the darkness I’ve seen,
real stories about real people, you know?
But I also want to write about the light,
because I’ve seen that, too.
That place of light – it’s not always easy
to get to, but it’s there.
It’s there.”

Yes! She achieved this. Even though this memoir portrays childhood trauma and difficulties, it’s a book about the light.

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