Dark Sons by Nikki Grimes
An interview with Nikki Grimes
- What first drew you to the story of Ishmael and Sam?
What drew me to this story was the story of Ishmael itself. Whenever I came across it in the Bible, it felt so contemporary to me. The issues of sibling rivalry, strained relations with a stepmother- or stepmother-figure, the complex dynamics of father-son relationships, or the lack thereof—these are all issues that many contemporary young men are facing. There is nothing dated about the story of Ishmael. It seemed fresh to me, and hopeful. I love that it ends with Ishmael and his brother coming together to bury their father. The implication we get is that they have, through the years, resolved their issues and restored their relationship as brothers. We also sense that Ishmael has forgiven his father, so the story ends on a hopeful note, and I always look for that in the stories I decide to tell—or retell, as the case may be.
- How did you decide to intertwine the story of a contemporary son with a biblical one?
Originally, this novel was simply going to be the story of Ishmael. However, after the first draft was complete, I kept thinking that this story was so contemporary it would be interesting to create a parallel tale of a boy the same age living today. I tried writing the story both ways, then gave it to a then-seventeen-year-old to read. He was sold on the version with both boys, so I went with that. I was leaning in that direction in any case, but his unequivocal response was the deciding factor for me.
- Describe the research you had to do to bring Ishmael’s story in particular to light.
The research was multilayered. I studied maps of the Old World, studied the lives of Abraham, Sarah, Ishmael, Isaac, and Hagar as they all overlapped. I studied the topography of the region and delved into the life and times of Abraham, from the homes people lived in to the clothes they were and the food they ate. I also interviewed Genesis scholars at Hebrew University in New York, and made copious use of their research libraries. There are so many aspects to bringing to life a story from another time and place, the research can be daunting. Sometimes you have to read hundreds of pages of a text to find one useful nugget of information in a single paragraph. When the story comes together, though, it is worth all the work.
- You depict a relationship with God as tumultuous at times. Why did you want to show this struggle to young readers?
All relationships are dynamic, and that includes our relationship with God. There is nothing wrong with that. Every relationship has its struggles. God invites us to be honest with him about our struggles, to voice our frustrations, even our anger. He is God. He can take it! It’s important for us to know that so that we can maintain a vibrant, authentic relationship with him. To pretend that our relationship with God is all tea and roses would be disingenuous, and young readers deserve better.
- What do you hope young adults take away from the story of Ishmael and Sam?
I hope young readers leave the pages of Dark Sons realizing that no matter how challenging the struggles they face in life, faith in a loving God can help to see them through. That certainly is the story of my life.
- Besides writing, how do you express yourself?
In addition to writing, I enjoy a variety of textile arts: knitting, card- and bookmaking, and making beaded jewelry. I also have a passion for photography and painting watercolors. We all have a natural impulse to create, and I find that creating art enriches my life. Try it!
1. What is Ishmael’s immediate problem? What is Sam’s? How would you feel if you were Sam and/or Ishmael?
2. How are Sam and Ishmael’s situations parallel? How are they different?
3. Discuss how Ishmael’s birth seemed a blessing to one woman and an insult to another. Who do you mostly feel sorry for: Hagar or Sarah? Why? How did the law complicate these relationships?
4. Why do you think Sarah finally tries to accept Ishmael into the family? Compare his father’s home to his own with his mother. How does Sarah try to make him feel welcome? How do we make others feel welcome in our own families?
5. “No bond is holier/than father–son.” Do you agree? Do you think this statement is true today? What bonds are truly holy? Why?
6. Whose choices are most difficult to accept in Ishmael’s story? How is Ishmael stuck with the consequences of so many other people’s decisions? Are all children subject to other’s choices?
7. Despite the fact that baby Isaac, the promised one, may split Ishmael’s inheritance, how does he feel toward his brother? Would you have such generosity of spirit or not?
8. How is Sam coping with his father’s abandonment of the family? What questions does Sam ask about his mother? Where does he place the blame?
9. Do you think Sam’s religious upbringing makes his father’s betrayal easier or more difficult to bear? Why?
10. If you had to describe Sam’s feelings in one word, what would it be? Is he justified in his feelings? Is there any positive way to channel all this negative emotion?
11. Describe the difference in the way Ishmael and his brother, Isaac, are treated by their father. Is this fair? Are there always differences between how parents raise siblings? Why do you think so or not?
12. How does Ishmael’s life become a tug of war? How would you feel in his world? Ishmael decides “not to stay/where I am not wanted.” Would you come to the same decision?
13. Ishmael thought he was safe in his father’s love and protection, but he is guided to a new decision based on a dream from God. How would you feel if this happened to you? Would it make you question your faith?
14. Sam once trusted his father “to hear the voice of God more clearly/than anyone else.” Could there be anything positive about Sam losing this trust? Have you ever lost faith in a person? What did it teach you?
15. Sam’s mother encourages him to rebuild his relationship with his father. How hard do you think this was for her to do?
16. What new decision erases all the progress that Sam and his dad have made over the last couple of years? How does Sam deal with his disappointment and pain? What do you do with your own disappointment?
17. Despite his feelings for his dad, how does Sam feel about David? How does he show this? How is it rewarded?
18. In the end, Sam realizes he has “my own ball to bounce/my own shots to take./It’s me standing at/the free-throw line now.” What does this mean for his life? What promises has he made himself? What promises have you made for yourself?
19. How does Ishmael’s story give Sam strength and hope? Whose stories (both biblically or otherwise) inspire your own?
20. What have you learned by reading this story? What will you carry into tomorrow?
This guide was created by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer, a children’s author and literacy specialist, visit her website to find hundreds of guides like this one.