Angela Joy and Janelle Washington Talk with Roger

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With Choosing Brave: How Mamie Till-Mobley and Emmett Till Sparked the Civil Rights Movement, author Angela Joy (Black Is a Rainbow Color) and debut illustrator Janelle Washington collaborate to mourn a tragedy, honor a heroine, and engage young readers in the quest for racial justice.

Roger Sutton: What was the impetus for this book, Angela?

Angela Joy: I heard a podcast about Mamie, I think it was on Stuff You Missed in History Class, and I was ashamed because I did not know the history of  this woman. I started asking around. My friends didn’t know. Even my girlfriend from Chicago, where Mamie lived, didn’t have the full story of who this woman was and what her contribution was to the civil rights movement. Those are the moments as a writer where I say, “Aha! This could be a book.” The more I read about Mamie, the more impressed and moved I was by her life and legacy. Everything bloomed from that podcast episode.

Photos: Angela Joy by Blossom Blue Studios (left);
Janelle Washington by Glass & Style Productions (right)

RS: I love the way that even books for younger children, like yours, can bring people into public consciousness who hadn’t been there before. I knew about Emmett Till, but I didn’t know about Mamie.

AJ: That’s what happens so often. We concentrate on the victim, and not necessarily the people around them who were survivors, heroes, and civil rights activists. Mamie is one example. We’ve left a lot of women behind in the story of the civil rights movement, and that was another reason I thought this was important to talk about. That’s a part of history I want every child to know, it wasn’t just men who led. It was regular people, regular women, who stood up for something and spoke out, spoke their truth. That’s something we can all do.

RS: And brought there by circumstance, right?

AJ: Yes. She wasn’t looking for the big stage at all. I think that’s the common denominator for all these mamas who have to stand up and speak out for their sons and daughters who were taken too soon. No one was looking for it, but they’re channeling that pain and frustration into power to move forward, to make things better. It’s something that I don’t know that I could do, but I admire these women who are able to do so.

RS: Janelle, what was your knowledge of the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley story before working on this book?

Janelle Washington: I grew up knowing about Emmett Till and his death, and that was about it. I didn’t know much about his mother, other than her decision to have an open-casket funeral and forcing everyone to look at what had been done to her child. Outside of that, I didn’t know about her life, where she grew up, that she went to college later in life and started the Emmett Till Players. This book was also a history lesson for me as I did research and watched documentaries about her. I was in awe of Mamie and all that she did. Like Angela said, this wasn’t something Mamie signed up for, but she found the courage to do it and wanted some change to come through it. It was inspiring to learn more about her.

RS: Angela, what was your most surprising discovery about Mamie?

AJ: There are so many. One was that she had survived so much prior to Emmett’s murder. Some people have it easy, but Mamie was not one of those. Her father left her, her first husband’s abuse — things we couldn’t put in the book about abuse from other men in the church, trusted men. This woman went through so much. And yet she was still able to stand. You have to wonder, were those terrible things preparing her for that huge moment? And then there’s the story of Emmett and Mamie: when I learned that a bout of polio left Emmett with a stutter and that Mamie taught him to whistle to help him get his words out — the same whistle that led to his death — I think that was the most shocking part of the story for me. His practice whistle might have been what did him in. He could have been trying to stutter through the word bubblegum. That will forever sit with me. Mamie’s family had moved from Mississippi to Chicago to get away from Jim Crow — it’s almost like this story was meant to happen. I hate to say that because it was such a horrible, horrible thing. But everything that leads up to Emmett’s death seems to have been fated somehow. My general takeaway is that our best intentions can turn out horribly, and the most horrible actions can be turned into something good, something positive, something beneficial to those around us.

RS: I guess this is a question for both of you, but I’m going to start with Janelle. What kind of artistic choices did you make to convey the horrible things that happened, as well as the great things that happened afterward, but without scaring or overwhelming children too much?

JW: That was definitely the hardest part. I didn’t want to show Emmett’s face when Mamie was looking at the casket. I put the focus instead on Mamie’s emotions, looking down at her child and being sorrowful. I didn’t feel like we needed to see the horrors of Emmett’s body — that is a known story, and if you don’t know it, you can find it on your own. For this book, I wanted to prioritize her feelings of seeing her child. I thought that would be something everybody could relate to, a mother wailing about the death of her child. Another challenge was Emmett’s whistling — how do I show that? I decided to emphasize his breath. I didn’t show him whistling at anyone or talking to a woman; I focused on what was it that led to his death. I wanted to find what was most important to show without showing the whole entire story.

AJ: Janelle is the perfect illustrator for this book. As a paper-cut artist, she uses perspective so well, and you don’t feel like you’re missing anything. You feel like you’re seeing the whole story. It’s just depicted so beautifully. I love the way that Janelle shows sound throughout the book.

RS: I love that line connecting the mother and the son making a word together. That was a beautiful illustration.

AJ: Just beautiful. And the heartbeat. She did a great job with that.

JW: I worked with preschool kids for several years, and I know what books look like, and what kids need to focus on, and what they need to see. Kids look at the pictures, and they think about what’s going on, and how does that relate to them? That background really helped me a lot.

RS: What was it like for you, moving from studio art to art for a picture book?

JW: It was very hard! I like to put a lot of detail and background, but I didn’t want to overpower the words. I tried to accentuate different points in the text. I had to do a lot of learning to change how I normally work to illustrating a book. It was a challenge, but I think I succeeded.

AJ: Sure did.

RS: Angela, did you have pictures in mind as you wrote? How did it feel, looking at Janelle’s art when it came back to you?

AJ: I am a visual writer, so I always have images in my mind. That can be a challenge because I’m writing about what I see, which I imagine makes it harder for illustrators. I hadn’t really encountered paper-cut art before, and I was pleasantly surprised at how much more depth and creativity there was in Janelle’s illustrations, so much more than what I envisioned in my mind.

RS: I think the bookmaking, too — the design, the size of the pages, et cetera — it’s such a beautifully unified piece of work between the text and the pictures here. I don’t know who gets the credit for that.

AJ: Janelle, absolutely.

JW: Well, the publisher did ask me what size pages, and I thought a longer page would be better since that’s usually how I work. My artwork needs to be connected. I thought about how I could connect one page to the facing page. The majority of the illustrations are one sheet of paper, connected to the next page.

RS: I know that illustrators think about page turns as they create books. Angela, is that something that a picture book writer does as well? Do you think about what’s going to be on each page, and what’s going to happen when the page gets turned?

AJ: No. That is something that our editor, Connie Hsu, had to work out for me. I am not a trained picture-book writer, so I’m focusing on the beats of the text as a poem. Page turns are not something that come to mind. Connie went through and said, “Okay, this should be a page; that should be a page.”

RS: So, Janelle, is that something that Connie did for you first, or is that something you do in collaboration? How does that work?

JW: It was in collaboration. When I got the manuscript, there were some notes in there from Angela. And sometimes Connie would want me to shift my thinking a certain way. The first couple of drawings I did of the courtroom for the murder trial, I showed the actual men and the witness stand, putting attention on them. Connie said, “We don’t want to focus on them, focus on Mamie.” She helped me understand where my thought process needed to be; she guided that and helped me expand on that. The final illustration includes more figures than Mamie, but this is her story, not everyone else’s. She’s in the forefront and in the majority of the illustrations; we see her emotions throughout the book.

AJ: The same thing happened with the manuscript. I wanted to out the killers. I wanted people to know their names. I wanted their families to be ashamed of them. Their names were in the original manuscript. They were also in the back matter; there was a lot more about what happened to them after the murder. But they’re dead now, and we don’t want to bring any more notoriety to them. Connie said, “They don’t deserve to be in this book.” They’re side players to all that Mamie did, and that idea does shift the book. I’m really proud of that decision. This book isn’t about the perpetrators.

RS: Yes, I noticed in the pictures that the killers, along with Mamie’s feckless first husband, are silhouettes. They’re just these dark brooding figures off to the side.

JW: It’s better not to give a lot of attention to them, but they are still a part of the story. The silhouette does help bring them in in a subtle way. They are the ones that helped create this story, but they’re not necessarily the important people that we need to be focusing on. Emmett’s father, and even Mamie’s father — these are men that showed up in her life, but left, for many reasons. They’re there, but they’re not really there.

RS: Last question. I would think it’s really hard to sink into something so horrible as Emmett Till’s murder. How did you keep yourselves going? How did you keep it from not being too dark and depressing and horrible?

JW: It was really hard, because I live close to DC and there were a lot of protests going on as I was dissecting this story. I shed a lot of tears, not only for Emmett but for his family, for Black people, I had to take a lot of naps. Walk away. There’s a nice little area near my condo where I can sit outside in nature, just sit in the sun and decompress. Read books. I tried to remove myself from the ugliness of the story, but it’s hard. It’s a stain you can’t really rub out. It’s always kind of there, this horror in our history. Even when I was making pictures, I would tell Connie, “Look, I’m not going to meet this deadline because I’m having a hard time.” COVID-19 was also going on. It was so much, but I found ways to ease it and work through it.

RS: Angela?

AJ: The timing was horrible. We started the seed of this idea in 2017, 2018. Diving into the research and getting rough drafts out was tough, for sure. Reading Mamie’s memoir (Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime that Changed America, coauthored by Christopher Benson), there were many times I had to put it down and walk away. I had to have the book facedown — I couldn’t walk by and see Emmett’s face. Then COVID-19 hit, and George Floyd was murdered. Minneapolis is my hometown. My nieces were on the front lines, protesting. They were almost run over by a truck on the freeway. And I’m doing edits on Choosing Brave. I could cry right now. I could feel the weight of my people on my shoulders, and I went into a major depression. Not sure I’m all the way out of it now, but there were days I wanted to crawl under the bed and not come out. But here’s Mamie. That’s not what Mamie does. I’m writing this story about this woman who doesn’t wither away, so I can’t either. I was able to pull some inspiration and strength from her. And from the angels in my head, Maya Angelou and Oprah Winfrey. But that feeling, that weight never really goes away. We hear his name today — the Emmett Till Antilynching Act was just passed by Congress. We had five children murdered in Minneapolis last summer, just random violence. But if you’re going to move on and choose to live, you have to channel that energy into something else. Through Mamie’s story, I hope to bring inspiration to others who are suffering, to talk about it in a positive and hopefully constructive way. That gives me the little bit of hope I need to keep moving. But it is very difficult.

RS: Choosing brave.

AJ: That’s perfect. We have to choose brave every day.


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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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