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(How) Can we read? Interview with Vanessa Brantley-Newton
I think the first book of Vanessa Brantley-Newton’s that I brought home from the library and shared with my eldest daughter at a young age was Grandma’s Purse. I fell in love with it immediately and with good reason: not only did Brantley-Newton’s adorable story capture my heart and entrance my kiddo, her gorgeous, bright, pop-off-the-page illustrations made me feel so cheerful, I wanted more from wherever that came from.
Good thing Brantley-Newton has provided more in spades.
Though she has, to date, authored and illustrated five titles — among them my absolute favorite, Just Like Me, an excellent poetry book that features and celebrates all kinds of girls, which I reviewed in issue No. 26 — she has illustrated a whopping 27 more (among them two others I’ve reviewed, My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay in my Spotlight On: Back to School and Mama’s Work Shoes in issue No. 88).
I could go on all day about Brantley-Newton’s exceptional skill and talent for bringing stories to vivid life on the page through both words and images, but I’ll let her speak for herself.
Here’s a lightly-edited biography, from Brantley-Newton’s website:
Vanessa Brantley Newton was born during the Civil Rights movement, and attended school in Newark, New Jersey. She was part of a diverse, tight-knit community and learned the importance of acceptance and empowerment at early age.
Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats was the first time she saw herself in a children’s book. It was a defining moment in her life, and has made her into the artist she is today. As an illustrator, Vanessa includes children of all ethnic backgrounds in her stories and artwork. She wants all children to see their unique experiences reflected in the books they read, so they can feel the same sense of empowerment and recognition she experienced as a young reader.
Vanessa celebrates self-love and acceptance of all cultures through her work, and hopes to inspire young readers to find their own voices. She first learned to express herself as a little girl through song. Growing up in a musical family, Vanessa’s parents taught her how to sing to help overcome her stuttering. Each night the family would gather to make music together, with her mom on piano, her dad on guitar, and Vanessa and her sister, Coy, singing the blues, gospel, spirituals, and jazz. Now whenever she illustrates, music fills the air and finds its way into her art.
The children she draws can be seen dancing, wiggling, and moving freely across the page in an expression of happiness. Music is a constant celebration, no matter the occasion, and Vanessa hopes her illustrations bring joy to others, with the same magic of a beautiful melody.
Without further ado, a few questions and answers with the magnificent Vanessa Brantley-Newton.
How long have you been writing and illustrating for children? What called you to this work?
Professionally I have been working in children’s books since 2007. I have been drawing since I was three. I drew like a child of 7 or 8, and then by the time I was 13, I was drawing like a college student. It’s the way I communicate. I drew before I talked, and so that’s I how I got here.
The subject matter of your books is remarkably varied — where do you get ideas for your books, and how do you stay inspired, title after title?
Each book is like doing it for the first time every single time. I find joy in remembering when I was a child. I loved playing with my little sister, Coy. Our parents worked all the time and we never had stories read to us because most of the books out there focused on white families and children and my parents wanted to empower us with books that reflected our home and life, so we made up our own stories to share with each other. I became a storyteller at an early age.
Children keep me inspired. I listen to them and play with them and I enjoy being with them. I am still 5 years old.
I know Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats was the first time you saw yourself in a children’s book, and that as an illustrator, you include children of all ethnic backgrounds in your stories and artwork. Can you speak to why representation matters in children's literature, and what parents, other caregivers, and educators can do if they're not sure where to begin with inclusive books?
It is important that children see themselves in the books that they read. When they don’t, it sends a direct message that they don’t matter. They are invisible. It is how I felt when I didn’t see myself. A brown child needs to see themselves not as just a slave or civil right marcher, but also as a pilot of a plane. As a fireman or dancer or scientist.
We have to tell our children that the sky is the limit, and to dream big and go after their personal dreams. I want every child to see themselves beautifully illustrated in the books that I create. I want them to know that I see them. They matter to this illustrator and storyteller.
This a question I ask everyone I interview: what are a few titles, recent or otherwise, that have stood out to you as being so excellent you wish they were on the shelf in every home and classroom?
The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats is super important one. The King of Kindergarten and The Queen of Kindergarten [both by Derrick Barnes], Another by Christian Robinson, Nigel and The Moon by Antwan Eady. These are just a few.
What's next for you? Are you working on anything new you can tell us about?
I am working on a very personal story: it’s called Nesting Dolls, with Penguin and Random House and Knopf Books. It’s very precious to me. It’s about a little girl who thinks that she is too dark and that everyone else in her family is somehow better than her. She learns that she has a little bit of each person inside of her.
Brantley-Newton posted this on her website about Nesting Dolls:
I am so very excited as I get to share a little bit about my Gullah Geechee background in this book. When a little girl realizes that she is the darkest one in her family, she begins to feel some kinda way. In her eyes, everyone else is more beautiful and smart. The family goes to visit Grandma and Grandaddy. Grandma loves on both the girl and her big sister. When little sissy tries to help out she just makes a mess and they shoo her outta the kitchen into Grandma’s art studio, where she sees the nesting dolls that she is painting. She sees the smallest one is painted a rich deep brown color and she realizes that this is meant to be her and she doesn’t like it, so she picks up a brush and begins to paint it a lighter shade of brown. When Grandma comes in to find her doing so she begins to cry. Grandma begins to share with her about the beauty of WHO SHE IS and celebrates the gorgeous brown that she is. Sharing with her that there are great people who came before that look just like her. They did great things just like she will. That she is valuable and precious. She is told that she is smart just like mommy, funny just like her sister, brilliant like grandma and creative and strong like Great Grandma. All of these things are inside of her and she inside of them.
I am so happy to share this book with you all. Maybe it’s not your skin, but something else. Maybe you have a missing arm or eye?
Maybe you are dyslexic or maybe you stutter? There is still greatness in each of us. Due out [sometime in 2023].
Thank you so much to Brantley-Newton for taking the time out of her busy schedule dreaming up, drawing, and writing new books to grant me this interview. I can’t wait for Nesting Dolls… and all the other books that will surely come in the future.
For more information about Brantley-Newton’s work, visit her website. To hear more from her about how the adversity of not seeing herself in books pushed her to ensure that all children are beautifully represented in literature, watch her excellent TED Talk, Diversity Designed by Adversity.
Seek out her books at your local library and bookstore (or order them online). And for a little bit of extra fun, watch her cover of Pharell’s song, “Happy,” which just tickles me for the personality that shines through:
Thanks for reading today, and always 💛
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