Grimes should know – she’s an expert in the field. A New York Times bestselling author, Grimes has more than 50 titles to her name, ranging from picture books to young adult stories; and numerous accolades, including receiving the 2017 Children’s Literature Legacy Award, the 2016 Virginia Hamilton Literary Award, and the 2006 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children. In 2017, Grimes was presented with the Children’s Literature Legacy Award for her “substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children.”
Grimes, along with Twin Cities-based author Bao Phi, will be featured at the University of St. Thomas School of Education’s Hubbs conference on Saturday, Feb. 15.
“We are so excited to again have a nationally and internationally renowned author coming to speak with us about children’s books in this intimate conference where you really get a chance to talk with the authors and mingle,” said Amy Smith, associate professor and chair of the Department of Teacher Education at St. Thomas.
For nearly three decades, the Hubbs conference has drawn teachers, parents, students, librarians, writers and anyone interested in encouraging the use of quality children’s literature in homes, schools and communities. Each year features award-winning authors and illustrators whose books have made an impact in classrooms. Past speakers include Bryan Collier, Kwame Alexander, Jacqueline Woodson, Emily Arnold McCully, Marion Dane Bauer, Eric Rohmann, Jane Yolen and Christopher Paul Curtis.
Diversity is an important topic in children’s literature, with a majority of children’s books being written by white authors and featuring white protagonists. According to data compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, of the 3,312 books it received in 2018 from U.S. publishers, the number of books prominently featuring African/African American characters was 388; 34 featured American Indians/First Nations; 284 featured Asian Pacifics/Asian Pacific Americans; and 240 featured Latinx characters.
“Children’s books should have windows and mirrors,” Smith said. “Windows to look through and see the world in a bigger way, and mirrors – books that reflect you back to you. We need both of those things in children’s books. Our teachers and schools recognize this as a way to use culturally sustaining pedagogy.”
We caught up with Grimes – who recently released her memoir, “Ordinary Hazards” – on the phone from her home in Southern California to talk about diversity in the book world, why she’s drawn toward certain subjects and current trends in children’s literature. Here are some highlights from our conversation.
What does it mean to you to be part of the Hubbs Children’s Literature Conference?
I’m always interested in literacy. I have always believed that when it comes to so-called reluctant readers, if you give a child a book to which he or she can relate, they will do whatever is necessary to read that book. My career has proved that in a big way. When I write a book, I not only think about the story in terms of the enjoyment of the reader and how it might impact them, but I’m also thinking in terms of how it can be used by teachers and librarians. And what I can add to the story or to the book that can help to enhance the book for usage in the classroom and in the library and to help move that needle.
Diverse authors are greatly underrepresented in children’s books. Do you feel like that’s changing?
Incrementally. From the outside, people imagine that there’s all this intention now and so it’s no longer an issue. It’s no longer a problem because everybody’s talking about it. But talking about the issue is not producing the books or getting them in the marketplace, classroom or library. The numbers are still very low in terms of percentages of books written by and for people of color. We’re still very much a long ways off. We get caught up in the rhetoric and in the terminology. It used to be multicultural books for children. That hit a wall at some point. Then the new term became diversity and now we’re talking about diverse literature, and people are starting to get burned out on that idea.
Somebody will come up with some new terminology, but the question is: What is fundamentally changing? Some of it is really complex to approach and to change because it’s not just a matter of who is writing the books, but who’s producing them. There need to be more people of color making decisions about books that are acquired in publishing. There need to be more people of color who are in gatekeeper positions. You have people who have a fixed idea of what a black book is, for instance, and anything that doesn’t fit within the category of their thinking, they consider to not be authentic. So that people who grew up in middle-class families and who are writing stories from that perspective have a harder time marketing them because they’re being told, well, that’s not authentic because the person they’re talking to only knows the urban stereotypical image of a black person and anything outside of that is a foreign language. There are those kinds of issues that make it complex.
What kind of books or authors drew you in as a child?
I was in and out of foster care, so I never owned my own books. My reading was primarily library driven, whether school or public libraries. And I would read everything that wasn’t nailed down. I was reading fantasy, nonfiction and mysteries. I read across the spectrum. When I speak to young people now who ask for advice about writing, I say two things: read, read, read. That’s reading across the curriculum, across genres because every single genre has something to teach you. And then write, write, write. Writing is a muscle that has to be exercised.
What do you like in children’s literature that’s currently happening?
I like the explosion of graphic novels in literature and I hope that continues because children are responding to it in a big way. There are all kinds of opportunities to sort of stair-step them from that into more traditional forms of literature. I think sharing is a great way to go when it comes to any of these forms. Take something a little more traditional and then teach it alongside a graphic novel version of the same story or a similar story, or a novel and verse treatment of a similar story, that kind of thing.
You write on many different subjects, including loss in “What Is Goodbye?” What is it that draws you to a subject?
I’m very service oriented. I’m looking for the topics that aren’t being discussed, that aren’t being written about. I’ve found when it came to the subject of death and loss, there were some books about pets dying or grandmother dying, but everything was sort of at a distance. Children experience these losses profoundly, but nobody talks to them. Everybody assumes that if little Johnny is not acting out, little Johnny is fine. Little Johnny is not fine. Little Johnny’s dying inside, but no one’s addressing it. I wanted to create a work that would, if a child was alone, help them access their own feelings [and] have that available for use by counselors, by parents or by teachers to help them process what they’re feeling. But, first of all, acknowledge they’re feeling those things, they are having that experience and that everything is not OK.
How difficult was it for you to write your memoir “Ordinary Hazards?”
Only the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life. This wasn’t a sudden decision. I’ve always felt the single most important story I have to tell is my own. That’s true of everyone. It was something I was always going to do. It just took me 37 years to finally do it from the time I first made the attempt.