Publishers' Preview: Picture Books: Five Questions for Gwendolyn Hooks & Simone Agoussoye

This interview originally appeared in the November/December 2019 Horn Book Magazine as part of the Publishers’ Previews: Picture Books, an advertising supplement that allows participating publishers a chance to each highlight a book from its current list. They choose the books; we ask the questions.

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In Ona Judge Outwits the Washingtons, Gwendolyn Hooks and Simone Agoussoye chronicle the true story of an enslaved woman who took her freedom back from her owners, George and Martha Washington.

1. Gwendolyn, what attracted you to Ona Judge’s story?

GH: The “I didn’t know that” factor captured my curiosity. As I read Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s Never Caught, about Ona, I kept thinking: I didn’t know that. Why didn’t I know it?

2. Simone, you’re primarily a portrait artist — what was the biggest challenge of the picture-book form?

SA: This was my first time, so pretty much everything! This is a real story — with real people and real places — so I couldn’t make up my own characters and scenes, and that was a challenge. My art style is always evolving, and I’m the kind of artist who loves experimenting and trying new things, so staying within one style was not easy.

3. Gwendolyn, what do you think when you hear Washington referred to as “the father of our country”?

GH: George Washington was the first American president, commander of the Continental Army, and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. But he owned people, before, during, and after his presidency. That fact is part of his legacy, too. Washington’s life is a lesson on the importance of knowing the whole story.

4. Why did you, Simone, choose lilac as Ona’s signature color?

SA: I wanted to use a strong but still soft color. Lilac comes from the purple family and purple is known to evoke creativity and royalty. Ona had to think on her feet and be creative, and she knew her own strength even as an enslaved woman. 

5. What do you each hope readers will take away from your book?

GH: Ona refused to let the Washingtons define her life. Against all odds, she escaped and lived as a free woman in New Hampshire. It was no easy task, but she had faith in herself. Her story offers encouragement during bleak times.

SA: Throughout her life she proved herself extraordinary and was able to create her own path and not allow the circumstances she was born into to define her.

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