Michael Datcher and Frank Morrison Talk with Roger

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Harlem is of course a place, but is also the name of Michael Datcher’s daughter, and in Harlem at Four, Datcher and painter Frank Morrison bring the two together for a memorable father-daughter outing.

Roger Sutton: Michael, you said this book came about because your daughter, Harlem, wanted to know where all the pictures were in the book she’d already read.

Michael Datcher: We have a library in the house, and I was in the next room. I heard some things crash to the floor, and I ran inside. I said to my daughter, who’s a very precocious young girl, “Baby, you okay?” There were books all over the place. She said, “Dad, I probably shouldn’t tell you what happened.” I said, “No, you can tell Dad anything.” “I’ve looked at all the books you’ve written, Dad. I went through every one of your books, and there’s not one picture in any of these books. Your books are horrible, Dad.” As a result, I did some research on writing children’s books, and, to make a long story short, I wrote a book so she could have a book with actual pictures in it.

RS: What picture books had Harlem been enjoying?

MD: Islandborn by Junot Díaz—she loved that book. Mostly books with people of color. But nothing that Dad wrote was good enough for her.

RS: What was the hardest part about writing a picture book?

MD: Trying to figure out how to make the book emotionally relevant but age appropriate. I write novels. I write pretty hard-core nonfiction about politics and culture. And I write literary theory. Dense, theoretical tomes. Trying to make a book that was interesting and smart, but also accessible for a four-, five-, six-year-old kid, was a challenge.

RS: You knew you were writing a picture book, but Frank was not yet on board to illustrate it, is that right?

MD: That’s correct. My editor at Random House, Annie Kelley, is great. Most editors don’t give writers a chance to have any input on the illustrator. She sent me samples from a couple of artists, which were great but didn’t really capture, in my opinion, the emotions I wanted for the book. She sent Frank’s work, and I thought, This is the guy who can capture Harlem. I am sure.

Frank Morrison: Oh, man.

MD: I was so moved. I’m not really a big crier—crying is fine. Crying is even healthy. It’s not my thing. But when I saw the first pictures that Frank did, I actually cried. They were so powerful. You got me over here crying, bro.

RS: These were examples from Frank’s previous work, or the sketches for this book?

MD: No, for this book. It was so impressive.

FM: I had told everyone, “I’m slowing down. I’m not going to take on as many projects.” But when this manuscript came across the board, it was an opportunity I’d never had before, to work on a father-daughter book. When my family lived on Coney Island, I’d take my kids to the boardwalk, put them on my shoulders, and that kind of stuff. That special bond between an African American father and his daughter—that was something I had not, up until that point, come across in a book. So I said yes. And then I met Mike and we connected. It was a definite yes. 

RS: There’s a father-daughter theme, which is a universal theme, but what is it you’re saying about African American fathers and daughters in particular?

MD: For me, the discourse around Black men is that we are not present, that we make babies and do not take care of them, that Black men are not good fathers. Of course, negligent fathers exist in all racial backgrounds. But in my own experience as a very hard-core, hard-working, good Black father, I thought it was important to help to subvert that discourse by representing my own true story about me and my daughter. All the events in this book are basically from our everyday real life together—going to jazz concerts, reggae concerts, painting, drawing, just being together. I thought it was important to have that example in terms of narrative but also visually. What Frank did with these pictures is so powerful. The melding of the image and the words—Roger, books have changed my life. I was on a very different path as an undergrad. I was going to do business, but I took a literature course and had my whole life transformed. I’m a true believer in the power of books. I felt like a great book showing a Black father-daughter relationship that had kind of an artsy vibe as well could be transformative in terms of helping to change the discourse around Black fathers and daughters.

RS: Frank, what about you? The opportunity to illustrate a book about Black fathers and daughters.

FM: I’m a Black father. I have five children. I just wanted to show the joy of fatherhood. I wanted to show that to the other guys out there, the men who step up, they’re not alone. It’s taking the kids to the park. Taking them to the movies, and they’re sitting down, and you look in their eyes, watching the movie. We talked about reading books to them—I remember the first books I read to my daughters and my sons. I’m pointing to the words, and they’re listening and understanding there’s meaning between these words and these images. They can’t wait to get to the next page. I’d say, “All right, that’s enough,” and they’d be like, “Dad, keep going!” You get to tease them and all that stuff. I love painting, but I love family just as much. The people who are there to support you. You can be corny with them. The dad jokes.

RS: I love a good dad joke.

FM: That’s what it’s about, man, being able to represent the dads out here: to show them it’s cool to be out here.

MD: You mention the word cool. At times, I’m sure in every community, there are different types of environments or characters that are attractive to certain parts of the population. My neighborhood, coming up, the cool guys were the gangsters I knew, the players, the hustlers. I wanted to make being smart cool, make being a father attractive. In my neighborhood, it was corny to be a dad; it was corny to be a guy who was smart. If I can, I want to participate in making being a responsible dad attractive.

FM: Yes, yes.

MD: By having a book with Frank’s images, and hopefully my poem—

FM: Hopefully? Come on, man.

MD: Know how beautiful and powerful and inspiring it is to be a dad.

FM: Being a dad is great. I’m ready to illustrate what you just wrote.

RS: In the business, we talk about books that we—probably sexistly—refer to as “grandma traps,” books that tell adults: “You’re such a great grandmother. You’re such a great dad. You’re such a great mom.” Kid doesn’t care, right? But the book is meant for the kid. How do you keep the focus on the kid?

FM: I think the visuals help with that. You have Harlem playing the guitar. You’ve got her painting, and her dad painting her. That exploding science-project volcano. Mike’s so lyrical with his flow, it made it easy to paint off his manuscript. I’m hoping kids can follow this dreamscape of fatherhood that we put together.

MD: I think Frank’s right. The pictures, the images, are what’s going to bring the kid in. The images are so attractive. It’s just getting the parents excited about the book so they read it to the kid. The kid will always feel the energy of the parents. A Disney or Pixar film, although they’re kids’ films, as we know, they’re also aimed at adults.

RS: For young children, you’ve definitely got to pull the parents in. If the picture book has an aura of “parents suck”—it’s the parent who buys the book, so that’s not going to happen.

FM: I want kids to have their favorite book that they don’t want to put down. “Can we read this again tonight?!” That’s what Michael did. Reading this book, it’s like you’re out there, walking around town, walking around Harlem. You go to Ray’s Hot Dog for a hot dog and something to drink. You go to Central Park. You go on the subway. You’re people-watching. Then you go and visit the Studio Museum in Harlem. What does it cost you? Train fare and some hot dogs. And you’re having moments with your children. Moments is what this is about.

MD: A lot of times people would think that being a dad means you have to go on expensive trips, go on a vacation. Really? Kids just want you to be there, be present. My book is really just about us hanging out. We’re going to the museum, we’re going to the gallery, we’re listening to street musicians, we go to the beach. That’s our everyday life. It wasn’t like we were going to some big event. We were just hanging out together. That’s what they want to do—be with their dad.

RS: How did you find that balance of the father-daughter relationship, plus contemporary Harlem, plus historical Harlem?

MD: My daughter is named after the Harlem Renaissance because I am a fan of that period, as is her mother. We wanted to honor that and give her the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance. I like Black people. I like Black culture. Harlem is a unique spot in Manhattan because it’s a very Black neighborhood still. I wanted to have that balance of showing the day-to-day but also being able to show that my daughter Harlem is connected to a tradition of special Black people. To be anyone in America today is already a victory. To be Black in America and to be alive and to thrive is a miracle.

RS: Frank, I love that moment in the book when we go back to historical Harlem, and all of a sudden the pictures, until now all loose and expressionistic, right up, all proper.  I didn’t know if that was on purpose.

FM: That part, about the history, took a lot of effort, a lot of research. You can’t just paint anything. You have to find out the clothes, the styles. On one of the spreads, you see two sets of families coming together, almost like a migration moment. You see one little girl looking over at the other page at another little girl. Maybe they’re going to be neighbors. Maybe they’re going to be friends. Maybe they met on a train. You get this little moment. That’s what I love doing with picture books: I love trying to elaborate off of the theme. We called it freestyling—we each just did our little thing and came back.

MD: That’s right, yeah. I think you’re right, Roger, about the second half of the book. The uprightness that Frank incorporates — 

FM: The words, bro.

MD: It’s a sense of self-respect, of standing up against whatever’s coming our way. Those pictures in the second half of the book—it’s very powerful. You can feel the Black pride in the face of oppression and whatever’s happening in that environment, because they are so upright. There’s a feeling of rightness, of integrity, of dignity, in the face of anti-Blackness. I love the second part. People always respond to that part of the book.

RS: You’ve gone from this unrestrained exuberance, all the graffiti in the first part, wild pictures, expressionist tones. Now we’re back in 1900s Harlem. It was really cool.

FM: Thank you. And I have to thank Random House. They have some great editors. They are the bomb. I can’t wait to work with them again. They gave me so much freedom to dream and make mistakes and come back—that means a lot, to have a great author, great editors, and a wonderful publishing house. To make magic, those are the ingredients.

MD: Editing is a mysterious art form, you know. I’ve been edited, and I’ve also been an editor myself. I’ve worked with editors who were not good, frankly. Annie is very, very good at her job. Editing is a unique skill set. If we have a good editor who has good ideas and knows how to bring it out of you, that makes a huge difference. I’m really grateful. This book is a true collaboration—Annie’s vision, my vision, Frank’s vision coming together. It was a true team effort.

RS: Frank, maybe this is a technical question, but as the illustrator, do you work more closely with the editor or with the art director?

FM: Neither. I’m freestyling.

RS: You’re freestyling, sure, but someone has to pick those paintings.

FM: I’m dancing. I’m dancing in the studio and couldn’t care less about anything. Then they bring it in. Sometimes they would play good cop, bad cop. Like, “Oh, wow, this is interesting.” The I-word, interesting. “That’s—we didn’t think of that. Let’s put a pin in it.” What I loved about the editors I worked with is they gave me that creative freedom to find my vision for this book, find my vision for the story. They trusted me to do what I do. Then of course we do have edits. No one’s perfect. I have books where I’ve been over-edited. Have you had that, where you’ve been over-edited? You feel like a robot. Those books just come out stiff. 

RS: It is kind of a miracle, the way that you can have one guy writing words, another guy making pictures, and then two, three, or four other people working together to make those two initial contributions.

MD: It’s amazing.

FM: Yeah, it really is. Our job is to inspire.

MD: There it is. This book is really inspirational. Visually it’s so inspiring. You feel proud—in part two of the book you feel like, Wow, I’m a part of a tradition. These people, these migrants who came north from the South, who made a way out of nowhere. Inspiring stuff, man. And my daughter’s name...Harlem was the first major stop of the Great Migration. The back of the book has the glossary, the endnotes, which I think are really important for teachers, for parents, and for kids, eventually, to learn about some of the names and figures in the book, to offer more context to the story. That was also Annie’s idea.

RS: Why do you think the Harlem Renaissance happened? What was it about Harlem at that time that caused such a flowering?

FM: I’ve got an idea on that. I live in Atlanta, and every once in a while I’ll ride by this barbeque place. They have that pit outside, and you smell it. People gather. In Harlem, you had all this talent coming together. You had these jazz artists coming together, from New Orleans and Chicago. You had the artists that were bringing ideas from all over the place. And you’ve got my man up there writing—Langston Hughes. You’ve got my guy downtown, Jacob Lawrence. You’ve got Romare Bearden. You’ve got all these artists coming together. You’ve got thousands and thousands of people in this hustle and bustle, and now these creative juices are flowing. They’re together now, not separated, not one state and the other state. The ideas are coming together like LEGO at this point. How could you not notice or hear or smell? I would love to go to Sylvia’s, if it’s still around, but there are a couple of other restaurants from the time that are there. And then you’ve got the Apollo. You can sing, but can you sing? People put all this talent together in Harlem.

RS: And integrating so many different kinds of arts. Langston Hughes is writing poetry, he’s writing novels, he was writing books for children. You had other people doing fine art. You had people doing illustration. You had dancers in both popular dance and classical dance. It must have been an amazing time and place.

FM: Could you imagine? You could throw a piece of paper in the air and it comes down with music notes on it.

MD: You on a roll, bro. You said all this.

Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

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