Wait! What? This guy on
the news is saying some kid
in LA just died
from this new virus, and He
was not much older than me!
Suddenly, the earth
is cracking under my feet…
That’s an excerpt from my new novel, Garvey in the Darkand those last two lines describe how most of us felt during the early months of 2020. A deadly new virus raging across the world with mixed-messages about how best to protect ourselves from it, proved a nauseating concoction. That was further compounded by the incomprehensible murder of George Floyd at the hands of police, in the virtual public square, which led to massive, world-wide protests. Combined, this was enough to knock us off our feet.
All in all, as an adult, I found 2020 hard to take in. Police violence against unarmed Black people has long been common, but daily reports of it on the nightly news were not. Coupled with the loss of life due to COVID, death, it seemed, was suddenly everywhere. We scarcely needed a boot on our necks to find it impossible to breathe.
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To keep myself from imploding, I went back to a kind of writing I hadn’t done in years—something I call survival writing. Writing poetry was the only way I knew to process the relentless horrors of COVID-19 and the social injustice that continued to plague my people. Writing allowed me to stave off despair.
I periodically posted these poems on social media and learned that, while written to help me get through the day, these poems were helping others to do the same. That’s when I found myself thinking, if we were all wrestling with the torment of the hour, what about the young people around us? How were they managing? As Black Lives Matter protestors and National Guard clashed on the streets of our cities, and the COVID-19 death toll rose unabated, who was speaking into the pain, fear, and confusion of the young? Who was acknowledging their social isolation, their grief, their trauma? Who would do so, if not those of us in the children’s book community?
I had no of writing a children’s book set against the pandemic. None. And yet, and yet…I felt compelled. Ultimately, I surrendered to the impossible and set out to write Garvey in the Dark. I had doubts about whether or not I’d succeed, but I had to give it a try.
Why make Garvey the star of my story? He was a beloved character readers already cared about. That was important if I were going to ask them to dive into a book set against such a difficult period in their own lives, especially since that period was ongoing. Garvey was also the right age for my target audience. Lastly, Garvey was part of a strong family, and I wanted to explore how each member of that family traveled through this experience.
One of my pivotal decisions was to establish Garvey’s mother as a teacher. Many of my friends are teachers giving me access to the inside track on distance teaching/learning which would be an important part of the puzzle in telling Garvey’s story. What I didn’t realize, until I began posing questions to teachers on social media, was how deeply members of the profession needed someone to give a voice to the extraordinary challenges they were facing in this foreign environment, challenges multiplied for those teachers who were also parents of children whose own distance learning needed to be monitored.
The second pivotal decision was to make Garvey’s father an essential worker. As the father-son relationship was at the heart of Garvey’s ChoiceI wanted Garvey’s father to play a central role in this novel, as well.
Writing a story set against the pandemic also brought up the question of place. In one sense, the pandemic was a universal experience in which people around the world were caught up together in the self-same moment. In another sense, though, the experience was regional and varied significantly depending on locale and culture. The experience in California was markedly different from that in New York City, which differed from that in the Midwest, or the South. A community that was predominantly left-leaning politically had a different experience from one that was right-leaning. Then there was the suburbs versus the city, mountains versus beach communities, and so on. The daily details of life shifted depending on locale.
For my birthday, Sis
drives me to the mountains where
we can walk mask-less
and stick closer than six feet
and no one is there to care.
I wasn’t keenly aware of the differences in the COVID experience until my east-coast editor argued with me about details of the west-coast experience upon which my storytelling was based. Obviously, I couldn’t write from everyone’s perspective, and that meant choosing a single location for my character to inhabit. I chose the conservative-leaning Southern California suburb in which I live, and located Garvey’s family there, as well. Then, in order to eliminate any confusion on the part of readers who lived elsewhere and had markedly different experiences, I decided to incorporate a California COVID timeline to establish context for Garvey’s particular experience.
It’s a good thing the novel included characters I was already familiar with, because Garvey in the Dark presented a host of unknowns. School closures, the lockdown and social distancing protocols made hanging out problematic. How would Garvey and his friends manage? To find out, I asked parents who pointed me to gaming, video conferencing, and texting. I rarely text so, in addition to getting the scoop on popular video games for middle-graders, I suddenly had to bone-up on text abbreviations! Who knew?
food science hbu
just reading mostly
We text about nothing, the
last normal thing left to do.
No matter the timeline, or the research involved with telling a story, the nut I’m looking to crack in any book I write is the one labeled “Hope.” Where was the hope to be found in a story set against the pandemic? For that I looked at the changing dynamics in Garvey’s family, in his relationships with his friends, and in his love of music. There was growth and beauty to be found in each of these.
I’m glad I took this journey. I love this character and his family, and the discipline of writing tanka poetry is a creative stretch, something I’m a sucker for.
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I hope my readers come away from Garvey in the Dark feeling seen and understood. More importantly, I hope Garvey’s experience reminds readers that, no matter their age, every human has a degree of agency. We all have something valuable to offer this world. Once we find that something special in ourselves, we can use it to make life a little better, if we choose.
Meet the author
New York Times bestselling author Nikki Grimes is the recipient of the 2022 CSK Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award, the ALAN Award for significant contributions to young adult literature, the Children’s Literature Legacy Medal, and the NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children. The author of Coretta Scott King Award-winner Bronx Masqueradeand five Coretta Scott King Author Honors, her most recent titles include the YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults title Between the Linescompanion to Bronx MasqueradeNCTE Notable Words With Wingsthe much acclaimed Garvey’s Choice, One Last Word, Printz Honor and Sibert Honor Ordinary HazardsALA Notables Legacy: Women Poets of the Harlem Renaissance and Southwest Sunrise, Kirkus Best Book Bedtime for Sweet Creatures, and Kamala Harris: Rooted in Justice. Ms. Grimes lives in Corona, California.
About Garvey in the Dark
“Garvey in the Dark is more than a beautifully crafted novel in verse. It’s a story that faces news headlines and captures the wild emotional roller coaster of the COVID-19 pandemic with honesty and courage. A must-read for young people who lived through the early days of the outbreak as well as those who will be curious about it in years to come.” —Kate Messner, New York Times bestselling author
“With deceptive simplicity, Grimes captures characters and emotions by wielding a poetic form—the tanka—with superb and superhuman strength, and the result is a beautiful and brilliant book about how faith, grace, and familial love can help us triumph over adversity… —Padma Venkatraman, Walter Award-winning author of The Bridge Home
Capturing the shock and impact of the COVID-19 pandemic through the eyes of Garvey, a beloved character, Nikki Grimes’s newest novel in verse shows readers how to find hope in difficult times.
Garvey’s finally happy—he’s feeling close to his father through their shared love of music, bullies are no longer tormenting him, and his best friends Manny and Joe are by his side. But when the schools, stores, and restaurants close because people are getting sick, Garvey’s improved life goes into lockdown as well. And when Garvey’s father gets sick, Garvey must find a way to use his newfound musical skills to bring hope to both his father and himself. Moving, powerful, and beautifully told, this remarkable novel shows readers how even small acts have large reverberations, how every person can make a difference in this world, and how—even in the most difficult times—there are ways to reach for hope and healing.
Publisher: Astra Publishing House
Publication date: 10/25/2022
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years
Filed under: Guest Post