In elementary school, Angela Johnson had a special teacher who could create worlds with words. She would read stories after lunch and make characters spring up around Johnson: “Book people came to life,” Johnson shared in one interview. “They sat beside me in Maple Grove School. That is when I knew.”
Johnson wanted to be a writer.
More than 40 books later, Johnson is not only a writer, but an award-winning author who is hailed as a leading voice. From moving picture books that celebrate African-American families, history and relationships to stirring young adult novels, Johnson’s stories touch readers in ways that endure. Rich with memorable characters, lyricism and meaning, Johnson transports us to new places and keeps us there by exploring the threads that connect us.
We are proud to celebrate Angela Johnson on the eighth day of our campaign:
I read that your dad, grand-dad and a special teacher were some of your early storytelling role models. Please tell us about their influence on your life.
My father and Grandfather told very funny stories when I was a child.
It was a wonderful afternoon that found me sitting next to my Dad as he told story after story after hysterical story. My grandfather would do the same when we visited him in Alabama. We’d sit on the porch beside him as he told us off color stories that made my very Christian grandmother almost faint. My brothers and I loved him and the stories! I realized early on that stories made life into theater where people laughed until they cried, were sad, frightened or just plain content. But because I lived in my head — I knew my stories would be written not spoken.
How did your first book, Tell Me a Story, Mama, come to be? What was your publication journey?
I wrote Tell Me A Story, Mama when I was a nanny to two small children. I would sit on a chair swing and rock the babies to sleep and write.
One day a friend asked me to share a couple of stories I had written with her. I was apprehensive, but finally did. She had decided after she read my story to send it to her editor. I left town soon after that to live near college friends. Soon after that she informed me of what she had done. I was shocked, but shocked even more when her editor called me a couple of months later to tell he’d like to publish the story as a picture book. That friend was Cynthia Rylant.
You won early praise as a picture book author with touching and timeless stories such as When I Am Old With You and Do Like Kyla. What did that acknowledgment mean to you? Did having such a strong start in the industry bring any challenges?
I was very lucky to strike a chord with my first couple of books.
But all that it did was make me a bit more comfortable sending the next book to my editor Richard Jackson.
He encouraged me and talked to me about the essence of writing. I didn’t feel any pressure because truly I did not feel a part of the writing world then. In some respects I still don’t feel a part of it because I rarely discuss my writing with others in the field. The challenges have mostly been self- imposed. I did not think it odd to want to write poetry, picture books, middle readers, novels and board books and short stories. No one told me I couldn’t — so I did.
Early in your career, you made the decision to be a full-time children’s book author. What were the sacrifices and rewards of following that path?
There were very few sacrifices but many rewards.
I am able to think, freely — without hindrances. Staying in my pj’s has an amazing effect on my creativity. It’s so important to have the time without the noise of the outside coming in. Also I found one of the rewards of just writing tested my bravery a bit. To survive, eat and pay bills — I had to write. I did that.
Your first several books were picture books. What called to you about that form? What keeps you writing them now?
Picture books are the nearest form of poetry that I can create on a regular basis.
The writing process is visceral and the gratification is immediate. I continue to be enchanted with the mixture of art and poetry in picture books (if done correctly.) I tend to write more historical fiction picture books these days Wind Flyers, Just Like Josh Gibson, I Dream of Trains, A Smell of Sweet Roses — but I don’t ever think I will tire of the form.
How did writing those picture books prepare you to write your first novel, Toning the Sweep?
Writing picture books did not prepare me to write novels. There was nothing that could have prepared me. It was another world of craft altogether. Every day was another challenge.
Had I been clear on a point? Had I introduced a character in a timely fashion? Did I tell too much or too little? It was very different from picture book creation. But I learned so very much from it.
I would tell others to tell one story. Never say in ten words what you can say in five. Remember that the unsaid is just as important as the spoken. And a far as page count goes — sometimes you can have too many notes . . .
You’re a young author, but in many ways, you’re a pioneer. How has your voice changed and developed over the years? What inspires the characters you create?
How kind to call me young and a pioneer.
I think it becomes a bit tougher to keep a clear head about the story I want to tell as the years move along. In some ways you see the world clearer. But sometimes everything is a muddle. You’d think it would be easier after about forty books, but no. I find my characters are becoming more complex — at least to me.
What was the racial landscape of the children’s book industry like when you entered the field? How has it changed? What gains in the field have made you proud? What do you hope the future brings?
I came along in the late 80s when there were amazing writers and illustrators creating lasting work for children — Virginia Hamilton, The Dillons, Eloise Greenfield, Jerry Pinkney, John Steptoe, and others. These people were legends to me. I’d like to think and the current numbers do prove that there is a more racially dynamic make up of African Americans, Hispanic and Asian writers and illustrators now than there ever has ever been. Of course there is a long way to go.
Numbers cannot make up for understanding and marginalization though.
The Hispanic community is the fastest growing in the country — yet . . . I look forward to ALL children having access to good literature and decent schools. I look forward to illiteracy disappearing. I also look forward to writers truly writing books that are truly multi-cultural encompassing African American, Caucasian, Hispanic, Asian, Native, and all the social mores and subsets that beholds.
Many of your books read like poetry. What influenced that part of your voice?
Poetry was indeed my first love. When I was in high school it was the The Beats.
In college it was Nikki Giovanni and Amiri Baraka and Frank Polite (a professor), later it was Rita Dove and Sandra Cisneros.
Anything I write must have a cadence and beat. I’ve never been able to write any other way.
If it was up to me the only thing I would write would be poetry. I believe it is the essence of writing.
You’re a prolific author who seamlessly travels back and forth between genres from board books to YA. For people hoping to turn their writing dream into a career, what’s your advice? How do you become an author with staying power?
Well you can’t really go by my day if you want to be a dedicated writer.
And truly, I guess the only advice I can give about staying power (if that is indeed what I have) has everything to do with luck, perseverance, hard work, a great agent and some more luck.
I wake early — usually around 6:00 a.m. If I am working on a book I try to get the days work done before noon. I’m of the mind that I work better at this time of day. I am a movie buff and some mornings find me watching old silent movies and perusing political blogs on the Internet. (I’ve decided to stop this though as I get less work done thinking about politics.)
I go out to lunch and dinner with friends and family. And usually do a few school and library visits during the spring and fall.
I try to get time in for reading — but I’m very behind. I always feel a bit guilty when I am not up on new books. Yet I still rarely know what’s going on in the children’s book universe as I am a bit reclusive.
In the summer I garden. In the fall I take long walks In the winter I look out at the snow. In the spring I hope my airline flights won’t be delayed because of bad weather.
It’s a simple life.
You’ve won so many awards — Ezra Jack Keats, multiple Coretta Scott King Awards, Michael L. Printz Award, even the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship. How do you measure success?
I measure success by how happy I am on this planet. And I am happy. Awards can stop. I may never get another one. But all the same it is lovely to be thought of. I appreciate that my work has been recognized. But what is more important is to continue to write work that connects with the reader.
I really only have a private life. The few times I am out in public I am only myself — there is nothing really to balance.
What have been the proudest and toughest moments of your career?
The proudest moment of my career is when I stood by my principles and decided not to go to an event that may have been lucrative for my writing, but would have gone against my political and moral judgment.
The toughest moment in my career was the year that I couldn’t show a manuscript to anyone because of an upheaval of my publishing house and editor.
What’s your mission? What do you hope young people take away from your stories?
I have always hoped that I could connect to my readers. I want them to come to a safe place when they are reading my books — even if the story is tumultuous.
I want my voice to be one that they can count on for a good story and maybe even take away something that might hold them in good stead.
But mainly, I want to connect.
Your latest picture books, Lily Brown’s Paintings and Wind Flyers, were such lovely stories. Can you please give us a preview of your next book? When will it debut?
Actually I believe my next book is my novel SWEET, HEREAFTER.
It is the third companion book to HEAVEN and THE FIRST PART LAST. I can tell you it is about love, loss, Iraq and loneliness. I believe the release date is in the fall.
What’s your greatest joy?
My greatest joy is my family and friends. They make me laugh and let me know when I need to come down to earth — for a visit.
The Buzz on Lily Brown’s Paintings:
“Lily loves the real world in which she lives with her parents and baby brother. But when she paints, her world is transformed into a magical place indeed. Stars come to Earth and relax in cafés. Trees wear hats and drink tea. Fruit sings on its journey to people’s homes. Lewis’s watercolor spreads become delightfully childlike when depicting the girl’s creations and pay tribute to the artists who inspired him as a youngster. Lily’s bedroom and her painting of a star-studded café bring to mind Van Gogh’s work. Her conversion of a path to the park into a “wild-animal living room” is a nod to Gauguin. The text comes full circle as Lily, her paints tucked away for the day, reenters the world of her loving family. Pair this story with Peter H. Reynolds’s The Dot (2003) and Ish (2004, both Candlewick) to inspire readers to don their painting smocks and create new worlds of their own.”
— School Library Journal
“Young Lily Brown loves spending time with her family, and she also loves spending time in the imagined worlds that she paints: the swirling solar system, a sidewalk cafe filled with dancing stars. Even her walk to school becomes an opportunity for pictures. When it’s time to stop painting, Lily remembers the things that she loves about her family–her mother’s smile, her father’s eyes–to help pull her back to the real world. Picture books depicting a child entering an imagined game are certainly nothing new. Examples, from Crockett Johnson’s classic Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955) to Peter Sis’ Madlenka (2000), leap immediately to mind. But Johnson’s warm, poetic text and Lewis’ exuberant, childlike watercolors stand out here, delivering a clear sense of the love Lily shares with her African American family and the transporting power of art. Children who find it hard to shift gears from private playtime to interactive family time will take heart from Lily’s smooth, openhearted acceptance of worlds on both sides of the looking glass.”
The Buzz on Wind Flyers:
“In spare, poetic lines, a young African American boy introduces his great-great-uncle, who was a Tuskegee airman. His uncle’s love for flying begins in boyhood, when he “catches air” in jumps from haylofts and takes his first rides in a “flying barnstormer.” Later he becomes a Tuskegee wind flyer and serves in World War II, and his delight in piloting lasts his lifetime. Johnson introduces the history in oblique, pared-down words. Many children will need adult help to place the story in context, and they may want to talk about the story’s references to war, including a scene of planes in combat. Long’s acrylics beautifully extend the evocative words. Resembling WPA murals in clearly defined, rounded figures and realistic scenes, the artwork shows thrilling expanses of sky and gives a sense, in aerial views, of what it must feel like to touch clouds from an open aircraft. Pair this title with Lynn Homan and Thomas Reilly’s The Tuskegee Airmen Story (2002).”
“A child recounts his great-great uncle’s lifelong passion for flying-which began at age five with a leap from the roof of a chicken coop and climaxed with wartime flights as one of the Tuskegee Airmen. The man is depicted as a slender figure with distant eyes contemplating the wild blue yonder or, later on, posing with massive-looking, antique aircraft. The slightly misty look of Long’s illustrations artfully evokes that sense of remembered times and matches the lyrical tone of Johnson’s brief, poetic monologue. “He cried when they landed/because then he knew/what it was like to go/into the wind,/against the wind,/beyond the wind.” A final view of the child and his uncle flying off into the “magical wind” in an oversize biplane caps this soaring double tribute to both the Second World War’s still-underappreciated African-American pilots and to the profound longing to fly that impelled them.”
— School Library Journal
A Few of Angela Johnson’s Awards:
2004, Michael L. Printz Award and Coretta Scott King Author Award for The First Part Last
2003, MacArthur Fellow
1999, Coretta Scott King Author Award for Heaven
1994, Coretta Scott King Author Award for Toning the Sweep
1991, Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award for Tell Me a Story, Mama
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