My friend Shadra Strickland has illustrated a lovely book about the love for a library called PLEASE, LOUISE written by the award-winning Toni Morrison. Shadra stopped by to talk about her latest work...
Q. Shadra! Congratulations on PLEASE, LOUISE! That had to be an amazing moment when you were asked to illustrate a book by Toni Morrison, yes?
A. Thanks so much Liz.
Having my agent tell me that Toni Morrison wanted me to illustrate her book was surreal. Yes, it was a wonderful moment when I was offered Please, Louise. I really could relate to the message behind the story and felt that I could add something artistically to Ms. Morrison's text. I can't say that it wasn't the most nerve wrecking project I have taken on before, because it was! I was nervous almost every step of the way, but once I got into the art and heard how happy Ms. Morrison was with the work, I was able to push through.
Q. The book is written in rhyme with so much symbolism. Did it require a lot of abstract thought on your part as you approached your illustrations?
A. It did! All of my other books have been longer stories at 40 and 48 pages where the text did a lot of the heavy lifting. This was the first time I was responsible for building a concrete story from a more symbolic text. After reading the manuscript, it struck me to really play up the changing mood throughout Louise's journey and to figure out a way to illustrate something as abstract as imagined fear. I think I was pretty successful, but as with most of us, there are a couple of visual ideas that I wish I had pushed even more.
Q. I'm sure you're familiar with the prevalent #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign in the kidlitosphere right now. Both you and Toni are African American, and Louise is of Asian descent. What are your thoughts on diversity in children's books today?
A. I think that the campaign is valid and I am happy that people are letting their voices be heard, but at the end of the day, real change comes with real action. I feel that there needs to be more diversity reflected in kidlit, but more importantly, the books that do reflect diversity need to be supported by everyone, not just the people who's stories are depicted in them. As a maker of books, my job is to try and reflect a diverse world in the projects I take on. As an educator, I talk about these types of issues with my students in hopes that they will be a part of the change that we need to see in kidlit.
Louise is a bit racially ambiguous, though I did have my very good friend, Taeeun Yoo (www.taeeunyoo.com) and myself in mind when I created her character. The character's ethnicity has zero to do with the story that is being told and I am still shocked when I read a review that makes a pointed statement about it. It's a story about a girl who banishes her fears through books and knowledge and that is story that can be told through many different types of characters.
Q. You illustrated BIRD (written by Zetta Elliott), which won several awards including the Coretta Scott King Award and the Ezra Jack Keats Book Award. What was that like, watching that book soar, and how has it impacted the books you've created since then?
A. Bird was a very special book for me. Prior to that, I had been submitting my work for a long time with no luck in getting a major book deal. To have been offered such a powerful story where I was able to take artistic liberties that I hadn't in my past work, and then have the book do so well with reviewers and readers was just an amazing experience and great validation for me.
Every book since then has been much different in tone and language, but I still try to bring some element of play into all of the books that I work on, and of course, I do try to outdo myself each time. I want to look over my body of work twenty years from now and see consistent growth.
Q. You were in Georgia when we met, but you're now teaching illustration at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. How is that and what do you tell your students about breaking into illustrating children's books?
A. Yes, when we first met, I had moved back home to Georgia after a six year stint in New York. MICA is a great fit for me. I have always liked telling people what to do (in a very helpful way, of course), so it makes perfect sense to be in the classroom. There is so much talent at MICA and I get really excited when I meet students who fall in love with storytelling and making picture books. I tell my students that if I can do it, so can they, but they must work really hard, read tons of picture books, keep making work and sending samples out, and be patient with themselves. I also encourage them to live inclusive lives so that they can reflect that point of view in the work they make.
Q. What are you working on now?
A. I am finishing up a new book with Lee and Low called Sunday Shopping, written by Sally Derby. After that I begin work on a book with Delores Jordan (MJ's mom), and then I will get to illustrate my first authored book, which has always been my ultimate goal. Living the dream! ;-)
Q. Thanks so much for stopping by Shadra! We miss you here in the Southern SCBWI region!
A. Thank you for having me! And CONGRATS to you on all of your deserved success with A Bird on Water Street!
You can find Shadra at:
craftsy.com (The Art of the Picturebook)
Shadra is graciously giving away a free, signed copy of PLEASE, LOUISE to one of my lucky participants. Must live in the US or Canada to win. Enter below.