Day 27: Vanessa Brantley-Newton

February 27, 2017


Over the past 13 years, award-winner Vanessa Brantley-Newton has illustrated  (or illustrated and authored) approximately 80 books for children, including titles such as Every Little Thing, We Shall Overcome, Mary Had a Little Glam, and The Hula Hoopin’ Queen. Her most recent release is The Youngest Marcher (written by Cynthia Levinson, Simon & Schuster, 1/2017) and later this year, two new series illustrated by Vanessa will debut: a picture book series, Hannah Sparkles (written by Robin Mellom, HarperCollins) and a chapter book series, Jada Jones (written by Kelly Starling-Lyons, Penguin Workshop). A new picture book project with author Derrick Barnes called The King of Kindergarten  with Nancy Paulsen Books was recently announced…and Vanessa is currently working on two picture book projects she will both write and illustrate: Grandma’s Purse and Jewels.

That’s her bio. It’s a phenomenal bio. But it doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of who Vanessa Brantley-Newton truly is, or what she means to so many of us who are in the children’s publishing industry. Below is a letter that describes the inspiration she has been to me.



Dear Vanessa,

By the time you read this, we will have just had another one of our sister-friend outings. We’ll have shared a meal while talking about life, family, and kidlit—encouraging, commiserating, laughing, possibly even shedding a few tears with one another. It’s what we do, and I’ve grown to value these times we share immensely.

But have I ever told you how much you inspire me? I mean, literally said those words to you? If not….

You inspire me, Vanessa Brantley Newton. A lot.


We first “e-met” on Facebook in September of 2011. I sent you a message complimenting your artwork, which I was first introduced to through your 28 Days Later feature earlier that year.  I was (and still am) enamored with your artistic style, which is vibrant and inclusive and never fails to make me feel.  You responded to my message and, to my disbelief, I found out you had recently relocated from Jersey to Charlotte…WHERE I LIVE!

It was a full year before we would meet face to face, over a meal at The Cheesecake Factory (I think), along with my mother and daughters and your hilarious sister.  We all had a ball! In fact, my mother (who stills asks about you to this day even though she only met you that one time) said to me on the way home, “They felt like old friends.” I thought our connection was about chance chemistry. In hindsight, it was about who you are as a human being:  warm, generous, authentic…



It’s inspiring to hear you speak about your purpose as a children’s book creator. I have heard you say many times that you want every child to be able to see themselves within your body of work; that you want them to feel valued, empowered, and worthy of self-love  as they experience your books and illustrations. I’d add the word joyful to that list also, because that’s how your pictures often make me screen-shot-2016-02-03-at-9-37-36-amfeel. To know that you are basically self-taught is mind-blowing to me, given how skilled you are in your craft and how replete with emotion each one of your creations is. I guess that’s the kind of thing that can’t be taught anyway. Emotion. The difference between craft and art.

You are a genuine artist, Vanessa; I am striving to create work as genuine as yours.


No matter the expression—illustration or fine art, makeup or hair, writing, singing, or speaking to crowds large and small—the totality of your existence seems geared toward creativity, conveyed in a way that motivates and brings people together. You have a positive effect on everyone, and not in a superficial way either.  I think it’s because you believe in the power of truth. Whether sharing your own, or speaking it to others in love, the truth in your hands always feels like encouragement and exhortation as opposed to judgment. How do you do that? My kids would like for me to know. :)

every-little-thing_interior-1-300x297V, I want to thank you for the support you have been to me over these past five-plus years. Along the way you have publicly celebrated my successes, privately consoled me in moments of despair, and consistently encouraged me to reach beyond my expectations for myself. You even gave me an art lesson, for goodness sake, because you want me to be able to illustrate my own books someday! In the face of life you model class and grace, and your actions speak every bit as loudly as your words.

Even though I don’t remember for sure where we dined at our first meeting, I do remember clearly your genuineness, your wisdom, and the immediate gift of sisterhood you bestowed on me that day…and none of those things has ever wavered or diminished. Since then, we’ve shared numerous meals at some pretty cool places, and have taken a couple of business-related road trips together. You’ve prayed with, for, and over me. Your mentorship and friendship have been steadfast and true, and I am eternally thankful for the blessing of you.





All illustrations courtesy Vanessa Brantley-Newton. Enjoy more of Vanessa’s artwork at Painted Words.

Watch the New York Times “Live Illustration with Vanessa Brantley-Newton” below:

Day 1: Andrea J. Loney

February 1, 2017

a-loney-author-photoWe at The Brown Bookshelf have been in countdown mode for a while now, excitedly waiting for this day–the commencement of our tenth 28 Days Later campaign!

For those who may be joining our celebration for the first time, the goal of 28 Days Later is to promote increased awareness of black authors and illustrators creating books for children and young adults. Our honorees are those who may be flying “under the radar” of book buyers, as well as those who have reached vanguard status in the literary community.

This year, we have organized our honorees into four different categories:

  • Week 1:  NEW VOICES – YOUNGER  (creators of books for younger readers)
  • Week 2:  NEW VOICES – OLDER  (creators of books for older readers)
  • Week 3:  SOCIAL JUSTICE  (creators of books with themes that foster justice, empathy and/or peace)
  • Week 4:  INSPIRATION WEEK  (authors and illustrators who have inspired members of The Brown Bookshelf team)



Loney is new on the kidlit scene (her first title, BUNNYBEAR was released just yesterday–you can’t get any newer than that), but she won’t be wearing the newbie title for long. Her second book, the 2014 Lee & Low New Voices Award winner, TAKE A PICTURE OF ME, JAMES VANDERZEE! is due out this May…and she already has a third book on the way (read on for more details on that one).

Without further ado, we present to you on Day 1 of 28 Days Later, debut author Andrea J. Loney!


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The Journey

I’d always loved reading and writing when I was a child. Words fascinated me – their many definitions, their origins, even the way they felt in my mouth as I spoke them. And of course, I loved stories. At the age of seven, I decided that someday I would become a writer.

In college, I studied to be a poet, a playwright, and a screenwriter. Then I moved to Los Angeles to work in film and television, often as a writer. But I always wanted to be an author. And I dreamed of writing the kind of picture books that might stay in a child’s heart forever.

Eventually, I took some online classes in writing children’s books, but it wasn’t until I joined the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) that my dream of becoming a children’s author really came into focus. I joined critique groups online and in person, attended SCBWI events, and even joined a competition by Julie Hedlund called 12×12, where the participants write 12 picture books in 12 months and submit them to agents.

Once I got into the habit of writing and revising so many manuscripts, things took off. By the fall of my first year of 12×12, I’d written the manuscript for TAKE A PICURE OF ME, JAMES VANDERZEE!, a picture book biography of the famous Harlem Renaissance era photographer. Two months after I finished it, that book won the Lee & Low New Voices Award and will be published in May of 2017. The next year, through 12×12, I met my ever-awesome agent, Jill Corcoran, and sold another story, BUNNYBEAR, which just came out yesterday! Last year a third book sold, and will be published in 2019. We also have a few manuscripts out on submission. And I’m still in 12×12, writing new picture books.vanderzee_cvr_des1


The Inspiration

When I was first starting out, I was inspired by classic children’s literature like the work of Ezra Jack Keats, Maurice Sendak, and Hans Christian Anderson. I adored the works of Faith Ringgold, Virginia Hamilton, and the glorious illustrations by Leo and Diane Dillon, Brian Pinkney, and Tom Feelings. Now I read several picture books a week, and I’m inspired by almost all of them in some way or another. But these days my work is often inspired by the children I encounter in class or while volunteering at a Saturday reading program. These little people lead such fascinating lives and I’d love to see more of their stories out there in the wider world of children’s’ literature.


The Process

My ideas seem to come from everywhere, but once I’ve found a story that simply won’t let me sleep at night, I roll it over in my mind until it takes a cohesive form with a beginning, middle, and end. Before I write anything down, I try to compose as much of the text in my head as possible and to recite the phrases over and over again until it feels right. Then I write the words down in a notebook – I write first drafts by hand so I can slow down and physically connect with each word. After a few days, I rewrite the story, and when it feels ready, I type it up on my computer. Once I’ve revised the story to the best of my ability, I send it to a critique group for feedback. Then I take it to another critique group and sometimes another until I feel like the story is at its best. Once I can’t find anything else to fix in the manuscript, I send it to my agent, and then she and I will go back and forth on the text, making changes until she feels it is ready to send out.

While I often work in my lovely home office, dubbed The Imaginarium, I write pretty much anywhere — the dining room, the kitchen table, the kitchen counter, the living room couch, mall parking lots, park benches by the ocean, coffee shops, or the faculty lounge in my college. And I write on computers, my phone, notebooks, post-it notes, junk mail, or whatever is handy when an idea strikes. I even have a waterproof notepad and pencil in the shower.


Under the Radar

Hmm… of the writers of color I know, they are already on your radar. Jessixa Bagley tells deeply resonant stories featuring adorable little animals. I see Rasheed Wallace and Saddler Ward’s HONEYDEW & MARYLU picture books at many local California book events. I’m sure that the moment I turn this in I’ll think of ten more people!


The State of the Industry

There are so many more stories out there than we are seeing on the shelves right now. I volunteer as a reader in a school with mostly Hispanic and black students, and it is rare that we read a book together about someone who looks like any of us. And when I go to children’s book publishing events, I don’t often see many other people of color represented as writers, illustrators, editors, agents, or other publishing professionals. The bottom line is that people of color have entire libraries of evocative, meaningful, and unforgettable stories to share right in our communities, but if we don’t find a way to tell them ourselves, they may never be shared with the larger world. We simply need to get more stories about children of color into the pipeline and on to the shelves. And not just “issue” stories, historical stories, or “urban” stories. Our tales run the gamut from the past to the future, from literary, to comedy, drama, graphic novels, epic fantasy, adventure, romance, science fiction, and beyond.

So whenever I work with students of any age, from age five to age 85, I tell them that I am an author, and if they also want to be an author, to just start writing. I tell them to write the story they want to tell, not just what’s already out there. I tell them to share their work and don’t stop until someone hears what they have to say. Because our words are important. And our stories matter.


Good News!a-loney-pw-announcement-for-double-bass


“A sweet story of friendship and acceptance. Whimsical, cheery illustrations tell the story of a bear who looks like most bears. But when he is alone, he bounces, wiggles his nose, and nibbles on strawberries. He calls himself Bunnybear. The other bears don’t understand him and deem him odd. So he leaves home and eventually finds himself looking down a rabbit hole. Even though they are “tiny and fluffy and bouncy, like Bunnybear’s heart,” the rabbits find him as odd as the bears did and tell him to leave. Alone and bewildered—he doesn’t feel like a bear, but he doesn’t look like a rabbit—he is at a loss. Then he meets a rabbit. Only this rabbit is more than a rabbit: she looks like a rabbit but feels like a bear—she is Grizzlybun! And so starts a friendship of two who look one way on the outside but feel another way on the inside. Unlike many stories of differentness in which the characters just want to fit in, here the characters are happy to be who they are—it is others who must come to accept them…A nice addition to the identity and acceptance bookshelf.” — Kirkus Reviews

“In a story about sticking to what you know to be true, even if it goes against social norms, debut author Loney introduces a bear who feels most like himself when he’s doing the sorts of things that bunnies do…Bunnybear’s fellow bears don’t understand him, nor do a warren of bunnies—except for one named Grizzlybun, who declares herself a bear…Working in what looks like a combination of painting and digital techniques, newcomer Saldaña creates an appealing cast of wild animals and an equally inviting woodland landscape, and she doesn’t ignore the humorousness of a bear who prefers hopping to stomping or a bunny whose inner ferociousness outstrips her small size. But despite the lighthearted tone, Loney’s story has important things to say about identity and acceptance, and is valuable both as entertainment and a conversation-starter.” — Publishers Weekly

Visit Andrea at!