Early chapter books are a pistol. You’d think they were printed on pages of silver and gold the way publishers dole them out on their lists. For those kids transitioning from early readers to 200+ page tomes, early chapter books are hugely important. So when I find a good one I latch onto it my teeth, lock my jaw, and don’t let go. Sadly, of these books I could probably count on one hand the number of early chapter readers that star characters that are contemporary African-Americans. Let’s see, books by Ann Cameron, Karen English, and now Nikki Grimes. Meet Dyamonde Daniel. You’ll be happy that you did.
She’s a third grader with "wild-crazy hair" and who happens to be "skinnier than half a toothpick." She’s also brilliant and fun, but Dyamonde Daniel has a definite problem on her hands. What she really wants and needs is a best friend, and there don’t appear to be any takers in her new school. Then, one day, another new kid comes to her class, and his name is Free. The problem? Free is just the grumpiest, mopiest, rudest kid Dyamonde has ever met. Before she knows it, she’s interested in what his problem is. And in a mere 74 pages she has not only cheered him up, she’s found herself an unexpected new friend.
I don’t mean to make broad generalizations, but when reading early chapter books there are certain ideas and themes that just don’t make an appearance all that often. What I like about Dyamonde Daniel is that this isn’t a story about some girl who lives in the suburbs and has her own room and puppy. Dyamonde has slept on the couch ever since her parents split up and her mom had to move to Washington Heights. The book deals with issues like unemployment, divorce, lack of apartment space, and having to move in with relatives. At the same time, this is not an "issue book". It’s having too much fun to wallow in any misery. It does things that other books for this reading level fail to do too. I mean, when was the last time you read an early chapter reader that discussed whether or not a name like "Reed" was the kind of name you’d see on a black kid? We need books with different points of view in our collections. In this way, Dyamonde delivers.
I hate the term "sassy". This is unfortunate when I read books like Sassy: Little Sister Is Not My Name. It would also be a problem here. That is, if Grimes ever pulled that word out of her repertoire. But as it happens, the term is never invoked. Dyamonde may be outspoken and sometimes on the cusp of rude, but that pseudo-cute word "sassy" would rob her of her power if you ever used it on her. She’s extraordinary, super smart, and observant. Far preferable, I assure you.
For such a slim little book, Grimes manages to tell a succinct, smart story with plenty of character development and change. Some of the writing choices struck me as surprising, though. For example, the point of view pulls a sudden switcheroo roundabout page 44, which I thought was interesting. Most of the book is written from Dyamonde’s perspective, but at least once we suddenly make a leap into Free’s noggin as well. It’s a bit peculiar, and wholly unexpected though it’s not the last time we get a peek into his brain. I suspect it’s Ms. Grimes’s way of getting to the nut of the matter in as short a time as possible. Kids won’t notice it much, but for adults it may prove to be blink-worthy.
Now let me tell you a little something about Ms. Nikki Grimes. First off, her fans are dedicated souls, each and every one. I had a mother in my library the other day that was desperate for Nikki Grimes books beyond The Road to Paris. Anything would do. I ended up having to hand her some Sheila Moses and Jackie Woodson instead since Ms. Grimes has only written a couple middle grade novels. I suppose that had the opportunity presented itself I could have mentioned Dyamonde Daniel though this series is a bit young for the kid ready for Paris.
Now, I’ll admit to you that when it comes to interior illustrations there are some artists that do it for me and some that don’t. And while I respect R. Gregory Christie, his pictures just aren’t the ones I instantly gravitate to when I read a book. So I don’t feel qualified to critique his work here. I’ll just say that the book is filled with his interior pictures, and that he’ll often illustrate a chapter opening with images of what’s to come within that chapter.
With its petite size, Grimes packs a wallop of a punch with the opening of this series. Sweet and short with a point of view and voice you aren’t liable to find anywhere else. The first sentence in this book is right on the money. "Dyamonde Daniel was a gem waiting to be discovered." Find her on your own.
On shelves now.
Other Reviews: Booklist
- Have a Dyamonde Daniel discussion guide, if it so pleases you.
- And the podcast Chatting About Books discusses this alongside other new series out there for kids.