Five questions for Kevin Young

Emile and the Field (Make Me a World/Random, ages 3–6; illus. by Chioma Ebinama) is the picture-book debut of Kevin Young, an acclaimed poet, poetry editor of the New Yorker, and the Andrew W. Mellon Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. In the lyrically told and gorgeously illustrated story, readers experience the through-the-seasons love a young Black boy has for the expanse of nature where he can rest, play, explore, and be himself.

1. What inspired you to write a picture book?

Kevin Young: Growing up reading so much, and especially at a time when Black picture books were experiencing a resurgence, I always had that sense of how a picture book can transport you. I still have many of my favorite books from when I was a kid! Getting to read them to my stepdaughter and son only brought that home more. Plus, many of the poets I admire wrote picture books — including Lucille Clifton — and so I love that tradition. I even put together an exhibition of children’s books by poets when I was a curator over a decade ago, so you could say it was in the cards.

2. Do you read aloud as you’re writing poetry? Have you heard the book read aloud?

KY: I do read aloud my poems — the sound is, of course, much of the sense. With a picture book, the sound affects the pacing, I learned, especially when to turn the pages. I really loved getting to know that kind of form, which changed some of the lines. It took me back to reading to my kids when they were little. I tried to channel that audience when I was doing the audiobook.

3. Were you surprised by anything in the art?

KY: The dog! It’s a terrific addition. I love the lush look of the book, an homage in some ways to the Black kids' books I grew up reading, but with its own flair. The artist, Chioma Ebinama, is terrific.

4. Is there a field like Emile’s in your life?

KY: I think there are places we all have where we feel at home, hopefully a bit of green that can take us out of ourselves. It can be strange if they change or worse, go away, but we always carry them with us. My recent adult book of poems, Stones (2021) evokes a number of such places — especially in Louisiana, where my family is from. I think Emile and the Field honors these changes and reassures us that change is natural, and even good.

5. How do your roles as poet and director of prestigious Black cultural institutions (Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African American History and Culture; formerly at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library) affect one another if at all?

KY: Being a poet can be good training for leading institutions, I find — poets make connections between things, revealing or making meaning, and that’s very much what the museum does. The NMAAHC draws connections between people, who recognize themselves and each other; between objects and experiences; and connects the past with the present, and hopefully the future. We need those kinds of connections, especially now, to remind us where we’ve been and to help us figure out where we’re headed, together.

From the March 2022 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Julie Danielson

Julie Danielson

Julie Danielson writes about picture books at the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. She also reviews for The Horn Book, Kirkus, and BookPage and is a lecturer for the School of Information Sciences graduate program at the University of Tennessee. Her book Wild Things!: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature, written with Betsy Bird and Peter D. Sieruta, was published in 2014.

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