In today’s Picture the Books Two Debut Interview, debut author Alison Goldberg interviews debut author Andrea J. Loney about her two new picture books, TAKE A PICTURE OF ME, JAMES VANDERZEE! and BUNNYBEAR.
Congratulations on both of these wonderful books, Andrea! Before we discuss them, your bio says that you once ran away to live with the circus… What was that like?
Yes, after I got my MFA, I ran away with Big Apple Circus in New York so I would have something to write about besides being a student. I met amazing people (and animals) from all over the world, learned the secret to making magic every day (hard work and dedication), and started my entertainment career with an intriguing resume (“you worked at a WHAT?!). It was one of the greatest adventures of my life and I suggest that everyone run away with a circus someday.
That sounds like a very inspiring setting! If you could visit the world of any picture book, what would it be?
Ooh, good question! Right now it’s a tie between dancing and partying with the dinosaurs in Kelly Starling Lyons ONE MORE DINO ON THE FLOOR, or knitting and singing sea chanteys with the mateys in Diana Murray’s NED THE KNITTING PIRATE. Tough decision.
TAKE A PICTURE OF ME, JAMES VANDERZEE! is the story of a real photographer. How did you find your subject?
Ever since I was a kid, I loved looking through vintage Victorian-style African American photographs. Years later I read a biography of James VanDerZee and discovered that even though he’d been taking pictures since he was a child, he didn’t get “discovered” as an artist until he was in his 80s! That’s when I realized that I just had to find a way to share his amazing comeback story with children.
The depth of research shines through on every page. What was your process like? Did you uncover particular details that surprised you?
Thank you! The book covers about 85 years of his life, so there was a lot of material to wrangle. I read everything I could find on him, I looked at hundreds of his photographs, I spoke to people who’d met him — including his widow, and I even ended up searching through public records online to fill in some of his family details. The most surprising things that I found in the research is that James VanDerZee was raised in a fairly integrated town where black and white people attended school and church together and that he became the unofficial town photographer at age 15.
His story is so compelling. What are some of your favorite picture book biographies?
Oh, there are so many that I adore! I love FRIDA by Jonah Winter, ME, JANE by Patrick McDonnell, JIMI SOUNDS LIKE A RAINBOW by Gary Golio, THE COSMOBIOGRAPHY OF SUN RA by Chris Rachka, MANFISH: A STORY OF JACQUES COUSTEAU by Jennifer Berne, NEO LEO: THE AGELESS IDEAS OF LEONARDO DA VINCI by Gene Barretta. SOME WRITER! THE STORY OF E. B. WHITE is not exactly a picture book but it is one of the most delightful biographies I’ve read. I really enjoy picture book biographies that are designed to help the reader experience the world of the story through the subject’s unique point of view.
TAKE A PICTURE OF ME, JAMES VANDERZEE! won the 2014 Lee & Low New Voices Award. This writing competition is an important part of efforts to increase diversity in children’s publishing. What has this award meant for your book?
At first, the award meant that I received nicer and personalized rejection letters! But the Lee & Low New Voices Award has definitely brought more attention to my writing. It got the attention of my agent, Jill Corcoran, and after she saw my other work she decided to sign me. The award has definitely put this book on the radar for many teachers, librarians, booksellers and more.
Earlier this year you released another terrific picture book, BUNNYBEAR. How did you get the idea for the story?
I was just brainstorming silly ideas with a friend and I blurted out, “A bear who feels like he’s really a bunny.” But then I thought about all of the times in my life and my friends’ lives when we didn’t feel like we would ever fit in, and how we struggled to just be ourselves.
I love when Bunnybear says, “You just look one way on the outside and feel another way on the inside. That’s okay.” This is such an important statement for children to hear and read, again and again.
The poet E. E. Cummings once said, “To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.” I think it’s important for children to know that even if they don’t always fit into the neat little boxes that society has already laid out for them, they’re still okay. Maybe they’re made to stand out instead. I also remind them that if they just keep being themselves, they’ll eventually find someone who likes them just the way they are.
What’s next for you?
My next book, Double Bass Blues, comes out in 2019 with Random House Knopf. It follows the adventures of an imaginative young black boy as he carries his double bass home through various neighborhoods, surrounded by the music of the city.
And I am always, always, always working on more picture books.
I look forward to reading them. Thank you, Andrea! Congratulations!
Andrea J Loney’s picture book BUNNYBEAR, (Albert Whitman & Company, January 2017) is about a bear who believes in his heart that he’s really a bunny. Her upcoming debut picture book, TAKE A PICTURE OF ME, JAMES VANDERZEE! (Lee & Low Books, Spring 2017), is the 2014 New Voices Award-winning picture book biography of the legendary black photographer of the Harlem Renaissance, and her third picture book DOUBLE BASS BLUES shares the adventures of a young black boy carrying his double bass home from school (Random House Knopf, 2019). A community college instructor with an MFA in Dramatic Writing from New York University, Andrea is also a proud volunteer for Reading to Kids and the We Need Diverse Books campaign. She lives in sunny Los Angeles, California with her devoted family, embarrassingly spoiled pets, and towering stacks of picture books. Visit her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest.
Alison Goldberg is a writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I LOVE YOU FOR MILES AND MILES, illustrated by Mike Yamada (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, December 2017) is her debut picture book. Before becoming a children’s book author, Alison worked for economic justice organizations and wrote a resource guide about social change philanthropy. These days, she blogs about activism in children’s literature and loves researching everything from marine life to contemporary art for her books. She is represented by Kathleen Rushall of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. Learn more at www.alisongoldberg.com or on Twitter.
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