Cover Reveal and Interviews: Talking with Nina Crews and Angela Johnson
Here, in no particular order, are some things that I like: Creative books for kids featuring poetry in some way. Photography. Strong girls. Here are two people I like, to go along with that list. Nina Crews. Angela Johnson. Ms. Crews you already know since she’s pretty much the only game in town when it comes to fictional picture books illustrated with photography. And just last year she blew us all away with her adaptation of Richard Wright’s haikus in the book Seeing Into Tomorrow. Angela Johnson, meanwhile, has more than forty books to her name and she can write the gamut from board books to YA. This year, she’s giving us a poem-turned-book called A Girl Like Me, with illustrated photography by Crews. Naturally I’d like to show you the cover, but first I had some questions for the creators:
Betsy Bird: Angela, I’d like to start with you, if that’s all right. Where did this poem originate? And how did it surface now?
Angela Johnson: This poem originated on the porch of a friend many years ago. She used to joke that she wanted to be a superhero to right some wrongs she had experienced. (Actually, it was a bit R-rated about men who hit on women in bars and wouldn’t take no for an answer and how she wanted to punch them out). She was an elementary teacher and wanted girls to be powerful because she taught so many young girls whom she felt didn’t believe they had any agency.
It seems this poem was rediscovered. I had almost forgotten about it. Of course, then I remembered . . .
BB: Did you ever envision the poem as a book? Do you ever envision any of your poems as books?
AJ: I never envisioned this poem for anything but what it was. A poem.
It worked for what it was. But it is delightful that it has been turned into a book. I can say that I rarely envision poems as book—–but I like to write chapters of books as poetry.
BB: The call for strong girls has been around for a long time. Heck, I remember an old Sesame Street segment about it. What interests me is how the message changes over the years. I feel like it used to be saying that “women can do anything” and then that turned into “girl power” and then “STEM girls” and now it’s actually a complex amalgamation of all of these at once. Where does your poem fit into the messages that girls are receiving in our culture now?
AJ: I suppose A Girl Like Me fits wherever there is a space. The message is universal to me. In some way, we are all seeking power and a way forward. I find myself a bit sad at the notion that young girls and women still are having to demand equality, in pay, choice, and other life decisions.
BB: What are you working on next?
I am working on a book of poetry. Imagine that . . .
BB: Thank you, Angela. Nina, some questions for you. Your last book, SEEING INTO TOMORROW, was very much an exploration of young black boys interacting with nature. Now you’ve pivoted and are all about the girls. Can you talk a bit about the importance of singling out kids in books like these and why they need to see themselves, as themselves, in books for themselves, just themselves, sometimes?
Nina Crews: What does it mean to see yourself reflected in the pages of a book? It means that you are important—part of the culture, part of the conversation. Child development experts have commented on how quickly and readily young children interiorize the social hierarchy of the world around them. Picture books are a wonderful way to make a positive impact on young children by reflecting their worlds in positive ways. When a child reads a book that places someone like them in the center of the story, they can see that they are valued. What a simple way to create engaged readers and confident kids!
BB: You’ve been creating books where photographs of real kids are juxtaposed with surreal city elements for decades now. How has the technology changed for you? What’s easier and what, do you find, remains a challenge when you make a book like this?
NC: Technology has made the simple stuff quicker.
I started illustrating with photocollage before I owned a computer. For my first book, One Hot Summer Day, I made multiple trips to and from the color print lab before spending weeks in my studio, cutting and pasting my illustrations together by hand. With my second book, I’ll Catch the Moon, I montaged images in the darkroom and toned the black and white prints in big baths of blue dye in my Brooklyn kitchen. In my early years of working digitally, slower processors and smaller hard drives constrained the digital effects I used.
My workflow today is almost entirely digital. I download my photographs within hours of my photo shoots and get right to work. There’s almost no limit to the layers and effects I can use. This has encouraged me to create more ambitious, multilayered compositions. In A Girl Like Me, I created patterns, scanned hand-made textures and used vector shapes created in Photoshop and collaged these with my photographs. Keeping up with new technology can sometimes be a challenge. (Cue the online how-to videos.) But art making is essentially problem solving—a largely intuitive process only resolved by spending time on the work. That challenge remains the same whatever tools I use.
BB: How do you determine what to make real and what you make magical when creating art for a book like Angela’s? Too much reality and you lose the magic. Too much fantasy and kids can’t relate. Where do you draw the line?
NC: I took my cues from Angela’s text. It so elegantly moves between imagined and real spaces. The dreamscapes for the first half of the book were a lot of fun to create and I had lots of room to play. My biggest concern for the second half was to make sure that reality didn’t end up flat and dull. This wasn’t a problem in the end. The poem is narrated in first person, making the experiences, both real and dreamed, subjective. This gave me room to be more playful and less realistic on the pages that were not dreams. I made sure to include elements that would be familiar sights for most kids (a laundromat sign, a fire house, a busy store window, a cat) and the kinds of details that they might include in a drawing or story about themselves.
BB: Finally, what are you working on next?
NC: I’m not quite ready to share the next project publicly. Stay tuned!
And now it is my distinct pleasure to reveal to you, A Girl Like Me:
Thanks to Angela, Nina, and Carol of Lerner for the reveal and the interviews!
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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