Choosing Brave: Emmett Till’s Mother Has Her Own Book – An Interview
There are moments in history that our children have not been taught. Moments, sometimes, that adults too have long since forgotten. But notice the slight shift in recent years. Consider, for example, this year’s Unspeakable by Carole Boston Weatherford and Floyd Cooper. Prior to reading it, few would have thought the Tulsa Race Massacre could have been adapted into the picture book form. Now on the horizon, debuting in the Fall of 2022, another book is aiming to tell a harsh truth in a child-appropriate way.
Following 2020’s BLACK IS A RAINBOW COLOR, Angela Joy has written CHOOSING BRAVE: THE MAMIE TILL-MOBLEY STORY. Here’s how the publisher described it to me:
“Illustrated by self-taught papercut artist Janelle Washington, this picture book biography tells the story of Mamie Till-Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till, the 14- year old boy who was brutally murdered while visiting the South in 1955. His death became a rallying point for the civil rights movement, but few know that it was his mother who was the catalyst for bringing his name to the forefront of history. Angela Joy and Janelle Washington offer a testament to the power of love, the bond of motherhood, and one woman’s unwavering advocacy for justice.
Born and raised in Minneapolis, Angela was deeply affected by the senseless murder of another black man–George Floyd. In his final moments, George called out for his mother and that struck a chord with Angela. During a time when crimes against Black bodies were hidden, Mamie fearlessly refused to allow America to turn away from what happened to her only child. She turned pain and unimaginable grief into change that ensured her son’s life mattered.
A deeply profound and timely story, CHOOSING BRAVE will be a visually arresting project that we believe will have a significant impact on the industry. Our vision for an announcement would be a feature that includes an exclusive look at some of the artwork, as well as an interview with Angela about what she hopes it will inspire, her research process, and why this book is needed more now than ever before.”
I had a chance to ask both Angela Joy and Janelle Washington questions about the book. It is the rare case where I’m able to show you some interior art, but not the cover of the book itself. This is a bit of an honor for me, and I just want to thank Angela and Janelle beforehand for speaking with me about it.
Betsy Bird: Angela, thank you so much for answering my questions today. Now the last time I saw one of your books it was the incredibly colorful BLACK IS A RAINBOW COLOR, a luminous picture book with heart. Now you’re coming out with CHOOSING BRAVE: THE MAMIE TILL-MOBLEY STORY. Can you tell us a bit about the story?
Angela Joy: Hi Betsy! Great to chat with you. CHOOSING BRAVE is the story of advocate, educator, and mother of Emmett Till, Mamie Till-Mobley. As you recall, Emmett was the fourteen-year-old boy, murdered by two white men for allegedly whistling at a white woman in 1955. While Emmett’s tragic story is relatively well-known, the powerful story of his mother’s activism and survival is not. CHOOSING BRAVE is our effort to rectify this, shining light on the life, love, and legacy of Mamie Till-Mobley.
BB: Well, this leads me to wonder how you, Janelle, came to learn about Angela’s manuscript.
Janelle Washington: I came to know about Angela’s manuscript after being contacted by Connie Hsu (Editorial Director at Roaring Brook Press) through my website. She sent me an email asking if I would be open to picture book illustrations and that she could envision my paper cut art bringing Mamie’s story to life.
Angela did a beautiful job writing about Mamie’s life, which helped me visualize potential illustrations for the book, so I knew it was a great match. I loved that the focus was on Mamie’s childhood, her struggles and achievements, and ultimately her decisions that helped ignite the Civil Rights movement.
BB: Angela, This is the first story about Mamie Till-Mobley for children I recall seeing before. Some people ease their way into writing picture book biographies. You have given yourself a challenge. What did you find difficult about writing this book and what came easily?
AJ: The most difficult aspect of writing this book was ingesting the research and then paring it down so that the story is accessible and palatable for young audiences. Finding that balance between honesty and age-appropriateness was a challenge, but one that every parent and educator faces, right? I believe that we have really found the sweet spot with CHOOSING BRAVE.
While the research was challenging, I also found great joy learning more about the warrior strength of this woman. Mamie’s is so inspiring! Her life is a masterclass in dignity, perseverance, and love. After reading all that she went through and all that she overcame, singing her praises was the easiest thing to do—something that I am incredibly proud to do.
BB: Janelle, tell us a bit about your artistic process. When illustrating this story, how were the pieces for CHOOSING BRAVE created?
JW: Even though this is my first time using my paper cut art for book illustrations, I stayed with the process I use for all my projects. I love history, so I extensively researched and gathered as much information that will be helpful in my design.
After reading the manuscript, I broke the text into sections, and I focused on each section by looking up photos that matched the time in history. Since we were all stuck inside because of the Pandemic, I spent time watching interviews and documentaries of Mamie, her family, and the trial. I looked at photos and read articles that helped me visualize Mamie and Emmett in different stages of their life and the landscapes around them.
BB: Angela, Mamie’s story, unfortunately, feels all too familiar here in 2021. When writing a book for children you’ve selected a heroic mother as the book’s subject matter. It’s a choice that will resonate with both child and adult readers. What role does motherhood play in your narrative?
AJ: Motherhood prompted me to begin writing in the first place. By trade, I’m a vocalist, but when my children were small and I was home with them, I had the hardest time finding books that reflected our family and traditions. Out of frustration, and with an abundance of support, I started writing; hoping to be the change I wanted to see. That was 7 years ago. Today, my maternal instinct kicks in every time I speak to a classroom of students. My goal is to always, in some small way, make the world more loving, kind, and accepting for everybody’s babies.
BB: To that end, Janelle, this is rough subject matter, to say the least. So for the story of Mamie Till Mobley, how would you say your art style compliments the writing?
JW: My artist style compliments the writing because I incorporated all of my paper cut techniques, from striking bold silhouettes, portraiture, intricate patterns, color infills, and cut text to weave and bring Mamie’s story full circle.
BB: Let’s get into the logistics then. Angela, can you tell us a little about the research you conducted for the book?
AJ: My primary source for CHOOSING BRAVE was the book, Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America, by Mamie Till-Mobley and Christopher Benson. I also referenced The Blood of Emmett Till, by Timothy B. Tyson. The research that impacted me most, however, was our family visit to the Till exhibit at the National African American Museum of History and Culture. There, the four of us sat in dimly lit church pews near Emmett’s restored casket, listening to an overhead gospel choir as people passed by. I was so moved by the exhibit, a woman stopped to ask if I was family. In that moment, it felt like I was.
BB: Angela, children crave justice in both life and entertainment and they’d demand it of their history if they could. What will they be able to take away at the end of this book?
AJ: I would love for audiences to walk away from CHOOSING BRAVE with a greater awareness of the female contribution to the Civil Rights Movement. As a nation, we don’t talk enough about our SHEroes, and Mamie Till-Mobley is one that we should certainly know. Second, as you mentioned earlier, this story—this experience—is not an isolated incident that happened “way back when.” These atrocities are still taking place. So, while horrible things may continue to happen, we cannot give in to the urge to give up. We must continue to use our voices, our talents, and our time to make change. We, like Mamie, must continue to choose brave.
BB: Janelle, let’s talk about the art again. Is there anything you tried for the book that didn’t work, or did it all come together relatively smoothly?
JW: The pages reflecting Mamie and her family’s pain took several sketches and brainstorming sessions with Connie, Megan Abbate (assistant editor), and Sharismar Rodriguez (senior art director). I wanted to convey what she felt and what was occurring at that time, and the illustrations needed to express so many levels of emotions and beliefs through paper, which brought challenges. Finally, after a few revisions, we were able to settle on illustrations that worked.
BB: Angela, the backmatter for BLACK IS A RAINBOW COLOR is both fun and thorough, including an ethnonym timeline, poetry, and a playlist! What do you have in store for us in terms of backmatter for CHOOSING BRAVE?
AJ: Creating backmatter for educators and families who “dive deep” is one of my favorite things to do as an author! Yet for CHOOSING BRAVE, we really had to focus because there is so much that could have been included—enough for a second book! In the end we decided on Mamie’s biography, a detailed timeline of the crime, a vocabulary list that includes things that kids today might not know like “moon pie” or “milk man,” and, of course, a beautiful soundtrack that is meant to be played along with specific pages of the book. As a one-time music major, I couldn’t resist the Chicago blues history that sits on the periphery of this story.
BB: Fantastic. And finally, what are you both working on next?
JW: My next project will be creating paper art installations for St. Paul Episcopal Church in my hometown, Richmond, VA, as a part of their History and Reconciliation Initiative.
AJ: We are currently working on a soon-to-be announced PB with an outstanding illustrator! The story is set at the intersection of music, beauty, and quiet strength in my beloved hometown, Minneapolis. I cannot wait!
CHOOSING BRAVE: THE MAMIE TILL-MOBLEY STORY will be on bookshelves everywhere in the Fall of 2022. I’d like to thank Angela Joy and Janelle Washington for answering my questions and to Cynthia Lliguichuzhca and the folks at Macmillan for setting this up.
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