Known around the world for her award-winning, soul-stirring poetry and activism, Nikki Giovanni has been creating books for young people for more than four decades. From Spin a Soft Black Song (1971) and Ego-Tripping and Other Poems for Young People (1973) to Rosa (2005) and Hip Hop Speaks to Children (2008), Giovanni’s poetry collections for kids and picture books celebrate our history and culture, families and pride.
The poem, Ego-Tripping, she says in a Scholastic interview, was written as a gift to girls. “Boys have everything to support their independence and area of wonderfulness; they have baseball players and astronauts. I wanted the young women to know that we too are wonderful, everything that happened we did it . . . ”
A true vanguard author, we celebrate Nikki Giovanni on Day 7 of our campaign:
The journey begins with the idea. It begins with a story. The journey is the step any writer takes to declare: I have something to say. I have a voice. I need to use it. Since poetry is my vehicle on this journey I chose to form my own publishing company and publish myself. I learned to set type, to bind, to cut. These skills are not necessary in the computer age but they were then. Skills give us freedom. Freedom gives us wings.
I am a lover of history. It was Malcolm X who said: “Of all our endeavors, history is most qualified to reward all research.” That may not be a totally accurate quote but I remember being enchanted with heroes, with quests, with the search for the difficult and the unknown. Human beings are worthy of our interests. I continue to be fascinated by who we are and the of which greatness we are capable.
THE BACK STORY
As a former child, which so many of us forget we once were, I always loved books of heroes: strong, determined folk who were making a difference. I guess you would call that Romantic. And it was. One of the main reasons I so enjoyed writing ROSA was that Mrs. Parks was not only a personal friend but an icon who carried her very significant moral weight so very lightly. Like an angel picking up a bolder and laughing. I wanted young people to understand that Rosa Parks was a real woman who bided her time until History called. She was ready. I wanted her love of life to show but also her deeply seated sense of history. She knew when to laugh; she understood it was all right to cry. She changed history by being ready to be a servant to the good and the right. I am so proud we were awarded Caldecott Honors for ROSA.
I also wanted to do something with a group of young people who I think were so misunderstood: the Hip Hop Generation. I edited Hip Hop Speaks to Children so that parents and grandparents could hear the message and the music of a new generation. I recognized so many people were being haters because they did not understand what was being said and why it was necessary to say it. We literarily went from Paul Laurence Dunbar to Martin Luther King, Jr. to show that everything can be “rapped.” We rapped We Wear the Mask to The March On Washington Speech so that the flow not just the ebb could be followed. I remain proud that those two books were in the top five New York Times Best Seller List. And remain a part of the cultural conversation. I do not think children need to be preached to nor talked down to but given the beauty of truth they will find their own answers for their own century.
My latest book (for adults), Bicycles, evolved out of personal and professional sadness. A murder in the city in which I live and a massacre at the university at which I work formed the anchors of the book. But anchors are stationary and these two events kept spinning. It occurred to me they were wheels. If that was the case then how could I connect them? Tragedy can only be calmed by love and laughter, I challenged myself to write love poems to connect the events to the energy that was spinning. Once that journey was started I realized if I put a handle on it I would have a Bicycle; hence my title. Love requires trust and balance. A perfect description of a bike.
New York Times Bestseller
“Far from the cliche of Rosa Parks as the tired little seamstress, this beautiful picture-book biography shows her as a strong woman, happy at home and at work, and politically aware (“not tired from work, but tired of . . . eating at separate lunch counters and learning at separate schools”). Her refusal to give up her seat on a bus inspires her friend Jo Ann Robinson, president of the Women’s Political Council, and the 25 council members to make posters calling for the bus boycott, and they organize a mass meeting where the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. speaks for them. Paired very effectively with Giovanni’s passionate, direct words, Collier’s large watercolor-and-collage illustrations depict Parks as an inspiring force that radiates golden light, and also as part of a dynamic activist community. In the unforgettable close-up that was used for the cover, Parks sits quietly waiting for the police as a white bus driver demands that she give up her seat. In contrast, the final picture opens out to four pages showing women, men, and children marching for equal rights at the bus boycott and in the years of struggle yet to come. The history comes clear in the astonishing combination of the personal and the political.”
— Booklist, Starred Review
Hip Hop Speaks to Children:
NAACP Image Award
“In this slamming cousin to Poetry Speaks to Children (2005), editor Giovanni states, “Poetry with a beat. That’s hip hop in a flash,” and she goes on to link hip-hop to grand opera and present a capsule history of African American vernacular music. This features a wide-ranging selection of 51 entries, plus a CD with new or previously released recorded versions of 29, some with music. The poets range from Langston Hughes and W. E. B. DuBois to Kanye West, Mos Def, and Queen Latifah. In keeping with hip-hop tradition, many of the selections are self-referential; others take on a variety of topics, from Gwendolyn Brooks’ celebration of “Aloneness” to James Berry’s inspirational “People Equal.” Calef Brown’s “Funky Snowman” is more about medium than message: “Turn up the music / with the disco beat, / when you’re in the groove, / you don’t need feet.” Similarly, on the CD, some presentations are straight readings, and others evoke jazz, rap, pop, and field- or pulpit-style chanting. Although created by five illustrators, the art shares both vibrant colors and a dancing, free-spirited look that matches the general tone of the poetry. With appeal for preliterate children, their great-grandparents, and every generation between, this will be fun for families to share as they get their groove on.”
— Booklist, Starred Review
“For four decades, poet, activist, and teacher Giovanni has been a polestar. Playful and profound, cutting-edge yet always looking back to the wisdom of those who walked before us, Giovanni, recipient of the first Rosa Parks Woman of Courage Award, defines life’s demands and rewards for seekers of all ages. Hers was the clarion, healing voice that rose from the horrors of the Virginia Tech shootings in 2006, and her Hip Hop Speaks to Children (2008) became that rare phenomenon, a best-selling poetry book. Now Giovanni graces readers with a new collection of love poems, titled, with her usual élan and wit, Bicycles “because love requires trust and balance.” Disarming, sly, sensual, and knowing, Giovanni’s poems scan like the teasing and wise songs favored by Dinah Washington and Etta James. Homey and worldly, funny and jazzy, these nimble love lyrics move from the routine—cooking, housework, football, a howling heart, bodily woes—to the miraculous (bliss) because Giovanni is a trickster and a sage who folds a lifetime of feelings and discoveries into each poised, swinging, and heartfelt line.”
THE STATE OF THE INDUSTRY
My very latest book is an anthology: The 100* Best African-American Poems (*but I cheated). I cheated because I wanted to put more than just the historical 100 poems. That would take me from Phillis Wheatley to The Black Arts Movement and maybe if I pushed it to Tupac but I felt my obligation was to do more. So we numbered the book 1 to 100 but we stuffed poems into duets, and suites, communities even. The book has 221 poems in all and I am very proud of that. I believe our job as both writers and editors is to keep pushing the envelope.
Find out more about Nikki Giovanni at http://nikki-giovanni.com.