In her own voice, acclaimed author and poet Nikki Grimes explores the truth of a harrowing childhood in a compelling and moving memoir in verse.

Growing up with a mother suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and a mostly absent father, Nikki Grimes found herself terrorized by babysitters, shunted from foster family to foster family, and preyed upon by those she trusted. At the age of six, she poured her pain onto a piece of paper late one night - and discovered the magic and impact of writing. For many years, Nikki's notebooks were her most enduing companions. In this accessible and inspiring memoir that will resonate with young readers and adults alike, Nikki shows how the power of those words helped her conquer the hazards - ordinary and extraordinary - of her life.
© Aaron Lemen
New York Times bestselling author Nikki Grimes is the recipient of the 2020 ALAN Award for outstanding contributions to young adult literature, the 2017 Children's Literature Legacy Award, the 2016 Virginia Hamilton Literary Award, and the 2006 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children. Her distinguished works include the much-honored books Garvey's Choice, ALA Notable book Southwest Sunrise, Coretta Scott King Award winner Bronx Masquerade, and five Coretta Scott King Author Honor books, Printz and Siebert Honor winner Ordinary Hazards, Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor One Last Word, its companion Legacy:Women Poets of the Harlem Renaissance, and NYT Bestseller Kamala Harris:Rooted in Justice. Creator of the popular Meet Danitra Brown, Make Way for Dyamonde Daniel, Bedtime for Sweet Creatures, and Off to See the Sea, Grimes lives in Corona, California. View titles by Nikki Grimes
ON OUR OWN 

1.
No one warned me
the world was full of
ordinary hazards
like closets with locks and keys.
 
I learned this lesson when Mom,
without her cousin to fall back on,
left us daily with
a succession of strangers
while she went to work.
One woman was indisputably
a demon in disguise,
full lips grinning slyly
as Mom waved goodbye
each morning.
“See you after work,”
Mom said that first day.
The second she was out of sight,
Demon’s smile melted like
hot paraffin.
Snatching up Carol and me,
she dragged us, kicking, to
the bedroom closet.
She shoved us in, quick as the witch
in “Hansel and Gretel,”
jamming the key in the lock.
“You tattle to your mom about this,” 
she growled, “I’ll comeback
and beat the black off ya.”
Deadly threat delivered,
she left for the day.

2.
I screamed, my puny fists pounding the door
till Carol caught me by the wrists
and held me still. “Shhhh,” she whispered.
“It’s okay. I’m right here.”
Once my breathing slowed,
Carol left me long enough
to navigate the darkness.
 
She found suitcases to sit on.  
Sniffling, I perched on the edge of one
 and pressed my fingertips together.
 
“Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.”
 
I repeated those words
like a chant.
I was three years old.
It was the only prayer I knew.
 
3.
I should’ve prayed not to pee my pants.
The cramped and stuffy space 
made me wheeze.
Brass fittings on the Samsonite case
dug into the flesh
behind my knees.
But worse yet,
the occasional roach
skittered along my calf,
up a thigh,
and I would scratch
and stomp and cry
till it was off.
No one was around
to wipe away my tears, 
except my sister,
who had tears of her own.
 
4.
Day after day,
the routine remained unchanged.
Demon locked us up in the morning,
then let us out and fed us just before
Mom came home from work.
Despite the witch’s threat,
the minute Carol saw Mom, she poured out
the horrors of that first day,
but Mom waved her away
with a warning
to quit lying.
 
5.
One afternoon,
when I thought
we’d live in the dark forever,
I heard what sounded like 
a familiar voice.
“Girls?”
“Mommy?” I screamed,
afraid to believe.
But the lock turned,
the door flew open,
and I leaped into Mom’s arms.
“My God!” she said.
“How long have you two
been in here?”
“All day,” snapped Carol,
keeping her distance.
“I told you!
I told you,
but you called me a liar!”
 
6.
The slap of words sent
Mom to her knees, please 
written all over her face.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered,
reaching for my sister.
Carol backed away.
“Jesus,” Mom said. “What did
this woman do? Are you all right?”
Where to begin?
There were too many answers.
Even my big sister
lacked the language needed
for them all,
so we chose silence.
Besides, it was impossible to guess
which atrocities
Mom was
prepared to hear.
 
7.
Thankfully, my sister and I
never laid eyes on that
bit of walking evil again. Still,
Demon lived inside us for years,
embedded in our twin fears
of the dark.
Michael L. Printz Honor Book
Robert F. Sibert Informational Honor Book
Boston Globe/Horn Book Nonfiction Honor Book
Arnold Adoff Poetry Award for Teens

Six Starred Reviews—★Booklist ★BCCB ★The Horn Book ★Publishers Weekly ★School Library Connection ★Shelf Awareness

A Booklist Best Book for Youth * A BCCB Blue Ribbon * A Horn Book Fanfare Book * A Shelf Awareness Best Children's Book * Recommended on NPR's "Morning Edition" by Kwame Alexander

"Ordinary Hazards is a gorgeous piece of writing that also serves as powerful inspiration for any reader who has struggled and sought grace. Grimes's triumph over adversity is matched only by her skill with the written word--her memoir is accessible to poetry enthusiasts and detractors alike, and will linger long after the final lines."—Shelf Awareness, starred review

★ "With Ordinary Hazards, Grimes delivers a memoir in the form of a powerful and inspiring collection of poems. She details her early life through adulthood, and she unabashedly explores the highs as well as the lows. Young adults will identify with and connect to the many challenges explored in Grimes’ work, which delves into issues of love, family, responsibility, belonging, finding your place in the world, and fighting the monsters you know—and the ones you don’t. The memoir has heartbreaking moments—even soul-crushing ones—that will make readers ache for young Grimes and teens grappling with similar circumstances. But inspiring moments bolster her raw, resonant story, showing that there is always light at the end of the darkest of tunnels."—Booklist, starred review

★ "Grimes potently conveys the way reading and writing can become ways not just to express oneself but to construct oneself, to articulate one’s identity, to map one’s mental and emotional territory. Readerly readers will find young Nikki inspiring company..." —The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, starred review

★ "
As poetically written as Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming with a story as hard-hitting as Sapphire’s Push....the striking free-verse poems powerfully convey how a passion for writing fueled her will to survive and embrace her own resilience.... (a) must-read for aspiring writers."—The Horn Book, starred review

"Grimes presents a gripping memoir in verse constructed from imperfect recollections of the hardship and abuse she endured as a child. Underlining the idea that 'a memoir’s focus is on truth, not fact,' Grimes courageously invites readers to join her on a journey through the shadows of her past..."—Publishers Weekly, starred review

★ "
(W)ritten in highly readable verse and delivers a relatable message characterized by pathos and resilience... this book is an homage to the fortifying effect of written expression. School counselors can use this text as bibliotherapy for students in similar situations (and it) can also act as mentor text in classroom lessons on memoir writing or when teaching confessional poetry."—School Library Connection, starred review

"For award-winning children's and YA author Grimes, writing, faith, and determination were the keys to surviving her tumultuous childhood. Grimes recounts her story as a memoir in verse, writing with a poet's lyricism through the lens of memory fractured by trauma. Fans of her poetry and prose will appreciate this intimate look at the forces that shaped her as an artist and as a person determined to find the light in the darkest of circumstances. A raw, heartbreaking, and ultimately uplifting story of trauma, loss, and the healing power of words."—Kirkus Reviews

"Grimes offers young adult readers the special treat of literary ingenuity in her new memoir... that doesn’t demand a time line.  This nontraditional memoir from a long-working and highly acclaimed author will speak deeply to young readers harboring their own interest in writing or otherwise squeezing art out of life’s spiky fruit."—School Library Journal

“This book is... a gut-wrenching testimony of pain, loss, resilience, and grace. Nikki is open about her truth and wrote it to make it accessible to readers of all ages. This book will heal hearts and open a lot of eyes. It will keep some kids alive and it will wake up some adults. This powerful story, told with the music of poetry and the blade of truth, will help your heart grow.”
—Laurie Halse Anderson, author of Speak and Shout

“In Ordinary Hazards, Nikki Grimes has given us an intimate look into her life as a young person who found writing as a way to buoy herself in the choppy waters of her childhood. Giving us a glimpse into addiction, abandonment, foster care, and abuse, Grimes poetically guides us to her eventual acceptance and amazement. This is a testimony and a triumph.” 
Jason Reynolds, author of Long Way Down

"Life, as Nikki Grimes so well puts it, is full of ordinary hazards, only she creates and accepts them in poems. Sometimes you want to cry... sometimes to laugh... but always at all times are you glad you are alive and lived with it and through it. Ms. Grimes writes, but some of us sing, bake, or build buildings or play sports. These, too, can be hazardous. But none of them is ordinary.”
Nikki Giovanni, Poet

“Each verse is a gift, showing us how to find beauty even in brokenness.”
Renée Watson, author of the New York Times best seller Piecing Me Together
 
“In Ordinary Hazards Nikki Grimes gives us her raw, desperate, joyful, lyrical truth, while celebrating the life-changing, and ­life-saving, power of words. Whoever you are, there’s something in Ordinary Hazards for you.” —Chris Crutcher, author of Whale Talk and Losers Bracket
 
Ordinary Hazards is an extraordinary book, a stunning memoir in verse that celebrates the power of the written word and the human spirit. Nikki’s story will be a life-saving read for teens who need to know that there is hope on the other side of the struggles they’re facing today.”
Kate Messner, author of Breakout and The Seventh Wish
 
“Can I use just one word in a blurb? Then it’s WOW! If two: Incredibly moving. If three: Poetry saved her. Four: That’s too easy. Instead I’ll tell you that if you read one book of poetry this year, or one memoir, make it this one. How the poet came out of her childhood with grace and good words is a miracle. How she wanted to share is a second one. That she did—a third. Just WOW.”
Jane Yolen, sometime poet, author of over 375 published books
 
“Memory is a capricious dance partner. Sometimes it overwhelms our brain, stomping with bold, defined images and thoughts, and sometimes it simply tiptoes around the edges of a whisper, a dream, a forgotten touch or glance. Nikki Grimes’s powerful memoir does both as she uses words, her constant source of strength, to tell the story of her childhood, which at times was both traumatic as well as triumphant. The strength that carried the child who would become the writer, the poet, the visionary was built on the power of words. She constantly and faithfully wrote in journals and notebooks and on scraps of paper because the words were her wings. Poetry became a necessary tool of survival for her mind and body and soul. This memoir, which she calls Ordinary Hazards, far exceeds the title. It is extraordinary.” —Sharon M. Draper, author of the New York Times best seller Out of My Mind

About

In her own voice, acclaimed author and poet Nikki Grimes explores the truth of a harrowing childhood in a compelling and moving memoir in verse.

Growing up with a mother suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and a mostly absent father, Nikki Grimes found herself terrorized by babysitters, shunted from foster family to foster family, and preyed upon by those she trusted. At the age of six, she poured her pain onto a piece of paper late one night - and discovered the magic and impact of writing. For many years, Nikki's notebooks were her most enduing companions. In this accessible and inspiring memoir that will resonate with young readers and adults alike, Nikki shows how the power of those words helped her conquer the hazards - ordinary and extraordinary - of her life.

Author

© Aaron Lemen
New York Times bestselling author Nikki Grimes is the recipient of the 2020 ALAN Award for outstanding contributions to young adult literature, the 2017 Children's Literature Legacy Award, the 2016 Virginia Hamilton Literary Award, and the 2006 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children. Her distinguished works include the much-honored books Garvey's Choice, ALA Notable book Southwest Sunrise, Coretta Scott King Award winner Bronx Masquerade, and five Coretta Scott King Author Honor books, Printz and Siebert Honor winner Ordinary Hazards, Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor One Last Word, its companion Legacy:Women Poets of the Harlem Renaissance, and NYT Bestseller Kamala Harris:Rooted in Justice. Creator of the popular Meet Danitra Brown, Make Way for Dyamonde Daniel, Bedtime for Sweet Creatures, and Off to See the Sea, Grimes lives in Corona, California. View titles by Nikki Grimes

Excerpt

ON OUR OWN 

1.
No one warned me
the world was full of
ordinary hazards
like closets with locks and keys.
 
I learned this lesson when Mom,
without her cousin to fall back on,
left us daily with
a succession of strangers
while she went to work.
One woman was indisputably
a demon in disguise,
full lips grinning slyly
as Mom waved goodbye
each morning.
“See you after work,”
Mom said that first day.
The second she was out of sight,
Demon’s smile melted like
hot paraffin.
Snatching up Carol and me,
she dragged us, kicking, to
the bedroom closet.
She shoved us in, quick as the witch
in “Hansel and Gretel,”
jamming the key in the lock.
“You tattle to your mom about this,” 
she growled, “I’ll comeback
and beat the black off ya.”
Deadly threat delivered,
she left for the day.

2.
I screamed, my puny fists pounding the door
till Carol caught me by the wrists
and held me still. “Shhhh,” she whispered.
“It’s okay. I’m right here.”
Once my breathing slowed,
Carol left me long enough
to navigate the darkness.
 
She found suitcases to sit on.  
Sniffling, I perched on the edge of one
 and pressed my fingertips together.
 
“Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.”
 
I repeated those words
like a chant.
I was three years old.
It was the only prayer I knew.
 
3.
I should’ve prayed not to pee my pants.
The cramped and stuffy space 
made me wheeze.
Brass fittings on the Samsonite case
dug into the flesh
behind my knees.
But worse yet,
the occasional roach
skittered along my calf,
up a thigh,
and I would scratch
and stomp and cry
till it was off.
No one was around
to wipe away my tears, 
except my sister,
who had tears of her own.
 
4.
Day after day,
the routine remained unchanged.
Demon locked us up in the morning,
then let us out and fed us just before
Mom came home from work.
Despite the witch’s threat,
the minute Carol saw Mom, she poured out
the horrors of that first day,
but Mom waved her away
with a warning
to quit lying.
 
5.
One afternoon,
when I thought
we’d live in the dark forever,
I heard what sounded like 
a familiar voice.
“Girls?”
“Mommy?” I screamed,
afraid to believe.
But the lock turned,
the door flew open,
and I leaped into Mom’s arms.
“My God!” she said.
“How long have you two
been in here?”
“All day,” snapped Carol,
keeping her distance.
“I told you!
I told you,
but you called me a liar!”
 
6.
The slap of words sent
Mom to her knees, please 
written all over her face.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered,
reaching for my sister.
Carol backed away.
“Jesus,” Mom said. “What did
this woman do? Are you all right?”
Where to begin?
There were too many answers.
Even my big sister
lacked the language needed
for them all,
so we chose silence.
Besides, it was impossible to guess
which atrocities
Mom was
prepared to hear.
 
7.
Thankfully, my sister and I
never laid eyes on that
bit of walking evil again. Still,
Demon lived inside us for years,
embedded in our twin fears
of the dark.

Praise

Michael L. Printz Honor Book
Robert F. Sibert Informational Honor Book
Boston Globe/Horn Book Nonfiction Honor Book
Arnold Adoff Poetry Award for Teens

Six Starred Reviews—★Booklist ★BCCB ★The Horn Book ★Publishers Weekly ★School Library Connection ★Shelf Awareness

A Booklist Best Book for Youth * A BCCB Blue Ribbon * A Horn Book Fanfare Book * A Shelf Awareness Best Children's Book * Recommended on NPR's "Morning Edition" by Kwame Alexander

"Ordinary Hazards is a gorgeous piece of writing that also serves as powerful inspiration for any reader who has struggled and sought grace. Grimes's triumph over adversity is matched only by her skill with the written word--her memoir is accessible to poetry enthusiasts and detractors alike, and will linger long after the final lines."—Shelf Awareness, starred review

★ "With Ordinary Hazards, Grimes delivers a memoir in the form of a powerful and inspiring collection of poems. She details her early life through adulthood, and she unabashedly explores the highs as well as the lows. Young adults will identify with and connect to the many challenges explored in Grimes’ work, which delves into issues of love, family, responsibility, belonging, finding your place in the world, and fighting the monsters you know—and the ones you don’t. The memoir has heartbreaking moments—even soul-crushing ones—that will make readers ache for young Grimes and teens grappling with similar circumstances. But inspiring moments bolster her raw, resonant story, showing that there is always light at the end of the darkest of tunnels."—Booklist, starred review

★ "Grimes potently conveys the way reading and writing can become ways not just to express oneself but to construct oneself, to articulate one’s identity, to map one’s mental and emotional territory. Readerly readers will find young Nikki inspiring company..." —The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, starred review

★ "
As poetically written as Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming with a story as hard-hitting as Sapphire’s Push....the striking free-verse poems powerfully convey how a passion for writing fueled her will to survive and embrace her own resilience.... (a) must-read for aspiring writers."—The Horn Book, starred review

"Grimes presents a gripping memoir in verse constructed from imperfect recollections of the hardship and abuse she endured as a child. Underlining the idea that 'a memoir’s focus is on truth, not fact,' Grimes courageously invites readers to join her on a journey through the shadows of her past..."—Publishers Weekly, starred review

★ "
(W)ritten in highly readable verse and delivers a relatable message characterized by pathos and resilience... this book is an homage to the fortifying effect of written expression. School counselors can use this text as bibliotherapy for students in similar situations (and it) can also act as mentor text in classroom lessons on memoir writing or when teaching confessional poetry."—School Library Connection, starred review

"For award-winning children's and YA author Grimes, writing, faith, and determination were the keys to surviving her tumultuous childhood. Grimes recounts her story as a memoir in verse, writing with a poet's lyricism through the lens of memory fractured by trauma. Fans of her poetry and prose will appreciate this intimate look at the forces that shaped her as an artist and as a person determined to find the light in the darkest of circumstances. A raw, heartbreaking, and ultimately uplifting story of trauma, loss, and the healing power of words."—Kirkus Reviews

"Grimes offers young adult readers the special treat of literary ingenuity in her new memoir... that doesn’t demand a time line.  This nontraditional memoir from a long-working and highly acclaimed author will speak deeply to young readers harboring their own interest in writing or otherwise squeezing art out of life’s spiky fruit."—School Library Journal

“This book is... a gut-wrenching testimony of pain, loss, resilience, and grace. Nikki is open about her truth and wrote it to make it accessible to readers of all ages. This book will heal hearts and open a lot of eyes. It will keep some kids alive and it will wake up some adults. This powerful story, told with the music of poetry and the blade of truth, will help your heart grow.”
—Laurie Halse Anderson, author of Speak and Shout

“In Ordinary Hazards, Nikki Grimes has given us an intimate look into her life as a young person who found writing as a way to buoy herself in the choppy waters of her childhood. Giving us a glimpse into addiction, abandonment, foster care, and abuse, Grimes poetically guides us to her eventual acceptance and amazement. This is a testimony and a triumph.” 
Jason Reynolds, author of Long Way Down

"Life, as Nikki Grimes so well puts it, is full of ordinary hazards, only she creates and accepts them in poems. Sometimes you want to cry... sometimes to laugh... but always at all times are you glad you are alive and lived with it and through it. Ms. Grimes writes, but some of us sing, bake, or build buildings or play sports. These, too, can be hazardous. But none of them is ordinary.”
Nikki Giovanni, Poet

“Each verse is a gift, showing us how to find beauty even in brokenness.”
Renée Watson, author of the New York Times best seller Piecing Me Together
 
“In Ordinary Hazards Nikki Grimes gives us her raw, desperate, joyful, lyrical truth, while celebrating the life-changing, and ­life-saving, power of words. Whoever you are, there’s something in Ordinary Hazards for you.” —Chris Crutcher, author of Whale Talk and Losers Bracket
 
Ordinary Hazards is an extraordinary book, a stunning memoir in verse that celebrates the power of the written word and the human spirit. Nikki’s story will be a life-saving read for teens who need to know that there is hope on the other side of the struggles they’re facing today.”
Kate Messner, author of Breakout and The Seventh Wish
 
“Can I use just one word in a blurb? Then it’s WOW! If two: Incredibly moving. If three: Poetry saved her. Four: That’s too easy. Instead I’ll tell you that if you read one book of poetry this year, or one memoir, make it this one. How the poet came out of her childhood with grace and good words is a miracle. How she wanted to share is a second one. That she did—a third. Just WOW.”
Jane Yolen, sometime poet, author of over 375 published books
 
“Memory is a capricious dance partner. Sometimes it overwhelms our brain, stomping with bold, defined images and thoughts, and sometimes it simply tiptoes around the edges of a whisper, a dream, a forgotten touch or glance. Nikki Grimes’s powerful memoir does both as she uses words, her constant source of strength, to tell the story of her childhood, which at times was both traumatic as well as triumphant. The strength that carried the child who would become the writer, the poet, the visionary was built on the power of words. She constantly and faithfully wrote in journals and notebooks and on scraps of paper because the words were her wings. Poetry became a necessary tool of survival for her mind and body and soul. This memoir, which she calls Ordinary Hazards, far exceeds the title. It is extraordinary.” —Sharon M. Draper, author of the New York Times best seller Out of My Mind

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