Transcript from an interview with Nikki Giovanni

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Nikki Giovanni. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Nikki Giovanni


I've always liked the hero. So, heroes excite me, and there are historians who are anti-heroism. They're always trying to show you why so-and-so isn't what you thought. But I always liked the people that stood up, and Mrs. Parks had a particular stand that said, "You can make a difference. What you do can make a difference." And you do it with no expectation. And she always said that.

Again, in my book, I'm not overly stressing that, but she always said she didn't know who, if anyone, would stand with her. She just knew that it was time for her to stand.

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Writing for children

I don't think that children are stupid, and I don't think that I need to hold back from what I'm trying to say, and so what I do is tell the story. And I'm a big fan of the story. I don't think I have to talk down to children. I don't believe in that, and I don't think that I have to have a hidden meaning there. I think that my job is to tell the story as clearly as I can, and so writing for children is the same as not writing for children, which is why some of my adult poems that I would've considered adult poems have become children's books without changing a word.

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The Reason I Like Chocolate

The poem The Reason I Like Chocolate was actually a bookmark for a children's book. And, again, I don't want you think I just sit at home and wait for people to call me, but that happens to be one of the poems that I was simply invited to do — would I like to do a bookmark? And it was like, "Oh, yeah."

And I tried to think of what would be – on that one, I just wanted to be universal. What was exciting to me about that poem is that I'm a fan of Harry Potter. And when Harry Potter first met the Dementors on the train, he didn't realize it, but they were sucking the joy out - he didn't know what was going on, but it just really chilled him to the bone, and he passed out. And he wakes up in the hospital, and they're giving him chocolate, because the antidote to the Dementors is chocolate.

I would put books on par with chocolate, because a good book is delicious.

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The How and Why Books

My mother read to us. To my sister and me. We had a set of books called The How and Why Books, which I don't think they do anymore. It's like an encyclopedia. And Mommy had bought those, and so we read the poetry there – "How would you like to go up in the sky, up in the sky so high?" I always loved Robert Louis Stevenson: "In winter, I get up at night and dress by yellow candlelight. In summer, quite the other way. I have to go to bed by day." And we used to just read those, and, of course, there's a point that you memorize them: "Boats sail on the river, ships sail on the sea, but the clouds that sail across the sky are prettier far than these. There are bridges on the river, as pretty as you please, but the bow that bridges heaven and over tops the trees and builds the road from earth to sky are prettier far than these."

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Advice to writers

The most important thing is that whatever you're writing should be true to you. So, if it's funny, you should be laughing. If it's sad, you should be crying. If it's a puzzle, you should be puzzled. And so you have to let your emotions flow into whatever it is that you're writing. I think that's important.

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Reading with her son

My son read when he was – he was an early reader, and I thought, "Okay. But don't punish him by not reading to him anymore. He reads to you, then you read to him."

So, he kept his bedtime story until he was five, six years old. Then we started reading the classics together, because I thought that's the best way to read the classics. You read Peter Pan, and then you go on and you have Treasure Island. You continue. And I think that's important. And then you're finding things that you're doing together.

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"Once you learn to read, you will be forever free." — Frederick Douglass