Five questions for Breanna J. McDaniel and April Harrison

The picture-book biography Go Forth and Tell: The Life of Augusta Baker, Librarian and Master Storyteller (Dial, 5–8 years) introduces young readers to a groundbreaking Black librarian and her contributions. We spoke with author Breanna J. McDaniel (a former Horn Book Guide reviewer and graduate of the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Simmons University) and Steptoe Award and CSK and BGHB Honor–winning illustrator April Harrison to learn more about the creation of this noteworthy title. See also our Black History Month coverage.

1. Breanna, when and how did you first learn about this historic librarian?

Breanna J. McDaniel: My first connection to Ms. Baker was through Dr. Michelle H. Martin. She was the inaugural Augusta Baker Endowed Chair in Childhood Literacy at the University of South Carolina. Once while visiting her, I was able to attend one of the Augusta Baker’s Dozen storytelling festivals sponsored by the University of South Carolina’s School of Information Science, College of Information and Communications and the Richland Library. Then, many years later, Nancy Mercado at Dial Books mentioned to my editor at the time, Dana Chidiac, that Ms. Baker’s story was interesting and could make a good book. I was overflowing with ideas since I’d already had the connection to her — and now we’re here, with this new book on its way out into the world.

2. In your author’s note, you mention that you’ve had many Augusta Bakers in your life and that your childhood librarian, Michelle Carnes, “saved your life” and helped you become the scholar and writer you are today. What was it about her that made such a big impression?

BJM: I think part of it was that Ms. Carnes saw me as fully human. I think a lot of times we forget that just because children are smaller and may not have had as many years on this earth as we have, that doesn’t mean they aren’t just as complete in their humanity as adults. Ms. Carnes acknowledged that and accepted me and my love of Arthurian legends. She was also very kind and connected with my mother. My mom worked, and still works, very hard to make a thriving life for her family, and it was a testament to Ms. Carnes’s sterling character that my mother could see the library as a safe haven for us and for herself.

3. April, how is your approach to illustrating a real person’s life similar to or different from illustrating a fictional story?

April Harrison: Nonfiction: Accuracy, Truth, Research. With a real person’s story, the research, truth, accuracy, and details are everything when creating believable illustrations. I must keep in mind the actual historical timeline of the period. I do a lot of research online via relevant newspaper articles and reference books, and look at fashions from the era and world issues to get an idea of what the person may have been subjected to. I also reach out to existing family members (if possible) and obtain actual photographs and/or facts about the person’s life. I’ve been lucky in this area so far; I received firsthand information from the niece of Shirley Chisholm, and I’ve received actual photographs of Augusta Baker from her granddaughter and from a fellow author and friend of Baker’s.

Fiction: Imagination, Creativity, Sky’s the limit. When I create fictional imagery for books, I’m in my inner child’s playground and pretty much only limited by my own imagination. I can be free to create MAGIC! Rules don’t really apply here. This is my world, my creativity and personal renderings. I feel like I can fly well above logic and rules to soar among the eagles. I’m working on one such fictional book now, which is allowing me to enter the world of make-believe, a place where the only creative limitations I have are the ones I place on myself.

4. What is your collage material–collecting process?

AH: Over the years as a fine artist, I have been blessed not only to collect my own collage materials, but I have collectors who also send me materials via the mail! I was even blessed with wedding gown scraps from the 1930s from one of my collectors. I hoard scraps of papers from old paintings, newspapers, magazines, and found objects from car garages, the street, and everywhere in between. I do all this to create texture in my work. I’m also creating my own stamps as well as using old stamps from foreign places. I’d like to think of my work as organized clutter which re-creates a rich quiltlike tapestry of love. The finished pieces are also a sensation to the touch, and I wish that readers could feel the finished book’s art the way it was meant to be felt.

5. What most surprised both of you about Augusta Baker while working on this book?

AH: That at one point, such a phenomenal librarian and storyteller was in my own backyard! I’m about 1.5 hours from the University of South Carolina and I could have met her. I guess my only other surprise is that Augusta Baker and I are similar in our understanding of the importance of creating believable, honest, and accurate representations of children of color during her career and now during mine.

BJM: The fact that she was such a Renaissance woman surprised me. Consulting, hosting a radio show, teaching, traveling, writing…Ms. Baker knew how to hustle! I think she would fit in so well nowadays with the way folks have to have more than one way to get to where they want to be. It’s great to have her still so close to us culturally and with her work, even though she’s no longer physically with us.

From the January 2024 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Photo of Breanna J. McDaniel: Tina Chang.
Photo of April Harrison: Josh Norris.

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