Accomplished. Creative. Family-oriented. Passionate. Four qualities embodied in today’s featured author.
Dr. Dianne “Dinah” Johnson obtained her undergraduate degree from Princeton University in English, with concentrations in African American Studies and Creative Writing. She then received her Master’s Degree in African American Studies, and her Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale University. Today, she is a professor of English at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, and—most importantly—the mother of Niani Sekai Feelings.
Johnson–the daughter of an Army Colonel father and educator mother–is an intellectual who has travelled the world. She’s written six picture books for children, and edited or co-edited various publications including: The Best of the Brownies’ Book (a compilation of fiction, poetry, photographs and more, from the 1920’s children’s magazine edited by W.E.B. Dubois and Jessie Fauset); the African American Review (a special issue devoted to black children’s authors and illustrators); and The Collected Works of Langston Hughes. She is also involved in the production of a documentary film called Beautiful by Design: The Story of African American Children’s Literature.
On day seventeen, we proudly present to you a true renaissance woman, Dinah Johnson.
BBS: Hi, Dinah. Welcome to the Brown Bookshelf
DJ: Thank you. I’m excited about speaking with you.
BBS: Growing up in a military family, you lived in many places as a child: ten different states in the U.S., plus Iran and Germany. How does your extensive travel history inform your writing today?
DJ: Growing up around the world has given me an appreciation for the richness and uniqueness of various places—the sounds, the smells, the color palettes are all unique. The people in different places, collectively, have their own ways of expressing themselves, their own relationships with the concept of time. I could go on and on; they have their own orientation to the world. Seeing different places gives me an informed appreciation for the richness of human cultures and reminds me, as writer, to make my writing “truthful” to the extent that that is possible. And if I tell the truth of a particular character, the specifics make the story rich, while also depicting a character whose humanity is evident to all readers.
BBS: Professionally, your life’s work seems to revolve around African American children’s literature—not only writing it, but unearthing and preserving its history as well. Can you expound more on your passion for this genre?
DJ: I earned a master’s degree in African American Studies at Yale. As part of that program, I wrote my thesis on the work of the magnificent Lucille Clifton. Her Everett Anderson series is a masterpiece as are her other pieces for young readers, in particular The Times They Used to Be. When I went on to write my dissertation, I decided to expand upon the earlier work and research the history of African American literature for young people. I’m especially interested in writers who have devoted their careers to writing for children. But it’s worth noting that many of the most important writers in our tradition, such as James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni, also produced work for children. Our writers have understood that children’s literature cannot simply be cute and innocent. It has to communicate to our children something about our complex and rich identities as Africans and as Americans. It has to do with beauty and with power and with love.
BBS: Which came first: your desire to promote the rich history of Af-Am children’s literature, or your desire to write books for children?
DJ: I’ve always been a writer. I began writing seriously in sixth grade when my teacher, Miss Carol Johnson, required her students to write creatively every week. As an undergraduate, I majored in English with a specialization in creative writing. My thesis was a collection of poetry inspired by a trip I made to West Africa after my sophomore year. I was definitely a writer before I became a scholar.
BBS: What were the circumstances surrounding the publication of your first book, All Around Town? How did this project come about?
DJ: Actually, the first book for which I landed a contract was Quinnie Blue. Because of timing issues with James Ransome, the fabulous illustrator, it was the third to be published. But to answer your question about All Around Town, photography has always been one of my passions. So I started off thinking I’d write a book about a family going to have its portrait made. But as the project evolved I decided to honor Richard Samuel Roberts, who so elegantly chronicled the lives of dignified people in my beloved home state. The most disheartening part of doing this project was learning, after communicating with some of Mr. Roberts’ children, that the family does not control the Roberts photographs. It’s too long a story to get into here. Suffice it to say that in my opinion, this is a case of cultural appropriation. But as for my book, it’s beautiful. Henry Holt’s design team does exquisite work, subtle but powerful.
BBS: In the span of two years—from 1998-2000—you published four books. In addition to All Around Town, there was Sunday Week, the aforementioned Quinnie Blue, and Sitting Pretty: A Celebration of Black Dolls. Each one of these titles is a meaningful and important addition to the literary landscape. For the sake of our readers, can you briefly describe these last three works, including what it was about each that made it “necessary” to you?
DJ: Quinnie Blue was “necessary” because it is an homage to my four great-grandmothers—Hattie, Lottie, Annie, and Quinnie—all of whom I knew. I was closest to Grandmama Quinnie, who didn’t die until my junior year in college. Sunday Week was illustrated by my friend Tyrone Geter, who lived in Ohio at the time he illustrated the book; we met only afterwards. Sitting Pretty was inspired by my doll rather large doll collection. My editor, Christy Ottaviano, did not like the first manuscript I sent to her, a fiction piece about the dolls. She’s the one who suggested I try poetry. And it worked out beautifully. When I visit schools, those poems are very popular; children get up and act out some of them in the voices and personalities of the characters. I hope that all of my work is read aloud; only then can the books be experienced and appreciated in their fullness.
DJ: Actually, there’s a long back story that I won’t recount. The short version is that my editor knows that I like to write in response to visual prompts. For example, to create All Around Town, I responded to the Roberts photographs. For Sitting Pretty, I put myself in conversation with my dolls. So my editor thought I might come up with an interesting manuscript in response to Kelly Johnson’s gorgeous photographs. I love the final project. (And I love hair: At the University of South Carolina I occasionally teach a course on the cultural politics of black hair!—in addition to my English Department courses.)
BBS: Your latest book, Black Magic, was just released this January. By all accounts, it’s a must-read. You’ve received several favorable reviews, including ones by Kirkus, School Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, and a starred review by Booklist. Tell us about this book. What do you hope children experience, or extrapolate, while reading it?
DJ: When I was a freshman in college, in 1979, I picked up a book entitled Black Is Beautiful in the campus bookstore. Written by Ann McGovern in 1969, the book is made up of spare text and black and white photographs. I read it as her subtle contribution to changing race relations in this society. Black Magic is to some extent a revision of that book. Gregory Christie has done a brilliant job of illustrating the words so, so joyfully. But our hope is that children of color will understand the deeper meanings; that they will understand that everything that is black is not bad, an idea so entrenched in our language and thinking.
BBS: All six of your children’s books have been published by Henry Holt BFYR. What do you like best about working with this publisher?
DJ: Henry Holt stands behind its writers and artists, and gives every book everything they can give it—beautiful design and attention to detail. So whether or not a book makes a splash, they know that they’ve produced a quality product, a work of art. Though my work has not garnered the attention Holt thinks it deserves, they have continued producing my books, standing by their belief that my work deserves to be out there.
BBS: You’ve been in the publishing game for over a decade. Tell us what some of the differences are in the industry now, versus when you started out?
DJ: I’ll defer to the publishing professionals for a detailed response to this question. But my general impression is that when things are bad, people of color are hit the hardest. Editors take fewer chances on newcomers. Christy Ottaviano found my Quinnie Blue manuscript in a slush pile she inherited. I don’t think that would happen today, with so many editors no long accepting unsolicited submissions. But I would tell aspiring writers and illustrators that where there’s a will there’s a way.
BBS: What have you learned along the way, that you wish someone had been honest enough to share with you at the beginning of your journey?
DJ: Nothing that I can think of….I’ve had great mentors, including the prolific and pioneering Joyce Hansen and the late, great Tom Feelings. I was part of a journey to South Africa with a group that included Virginia Hamilton. I’ve been blessed to learn from and to be embraced by some of the best in the business.
BBS: Do you have any new children’s projects in the works?
DJ: First, I’d like to comment on a commitment that is very, very special and important to me—serving on the advisory board for the Children’s Defense Fund’s Langston Hughes Library, located at the former Alex Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee. I urge everyone to visit their website and to support them in any way possible. They serve as a depository for invaluable works of literature and they host important gatherings—all in the interests of our children.
And I always have numerous projects in the works. One very special project is book I’ve co-written with my daughter, Niani Feelings, about her special relationship with her father, who died when she was eight and half years old. Another project that is dear to my heart is a book for young adults inspired by my first trip to the African continent the summer after my sophomore year in college. It was the most important journey of my life—other than the journey of motherhood!
BBS: Thanks for your time, Dinah. We appreciated the opportunity to speak with you today.
DJ: My pleasure. Your questions are thoughtful and evocative.
BBS: Last questions–A.M. or P.M.?
DJ: A.M. all the way.
BBS: Backyard pool or front porch rocker?
DJ: Depends on the day.
BBS: Red Velvet Cake or Sweet Potato Pie?
DJ: There’s a time for everything. But it’s always a good time for chocolate!
Praise for Black Magic:
“While Johnson’s prose is crisp and definitive, Christie’s artwork takes the words and imaginatively whirls them in stylized, riotously colored pictures that will remind some of Maira Kalman’s work. The exuberance this child feels in exploring black in all its permutations can’t help but spill over to young listeners, who will have fun thinking up pieces of black magic in their own lives.”—Booklist, Starred Review
“This expressive book combines well-matched text and pictures to pay tribute to the myriad qualities of blackness. Buoyant yet reflective, Johnson’s (Hair Dance!) free-flowing verse presents an imaginative girl’s musings on the essence of black…With vibrant colors offsetting velvety black images, Christie’s (Bad News for Outlaws) acrylic gouache illustrations playfully tweak perspective and scale, echoing the verse’s energy and fluidity.”—Publishers Weekly
“These early literacy concepts are conveyed in short, snappy lines of text that make the book an outstanding choice for preschool storytimes. The African-American children in Christie’s illustrations have a variety of hairstyles and skin tones and are shown playing with children of other races. The bright acrylic colors capture the energy of childhood, and the artist’s bold, loose brushstrokes further underscore the dynamic nature of the text, and of the little girl who narrates it.”—School Library Journal
“‘My hundred black braids make a spiderweb around my head, / and Mama’s voice is black and sweet as I fall asleep.’ This emotionally rich sentence is representative of this winning celebration of blackness. Johnson successfully uses figurative language to describe basic concepts and more complex connections, such as using color to describe emotions. She effortlessly zigzags from the immensity of the sky to the comfortable warmth of a puppy. The illustrations are bright and vibrant and provide an excellent contrast to the actual color black, which appears throughout the book. …. Adults will find this book a great conversation starter with little ones.”—Kirkus Reviews
Find out more about Dinah Johnson at http://www.Dinahjohnson.com