Oh dear readers, have I got some amazing treats in store for you this week! Today I bring you an interview with the delightful illustrator Vanessa Brantley Newton about her latest author-illustrator project: “Grandma’s Purse.” I heard her inspirational keynote speech in LA this last summer at the SCBWI Conference, and even got to talk with her one-on-one at one of the illustrator breakout sessions. Those few words exchanged with her were one of the highlights of that weekend for me. Just one, but still it will be a moment I cherish forever. She is a beacon of light, spreading joy and hope to all who come in contact with her.
You’re not familiar with Vanessa’s work? Are you sure? I bet you’re more familiar than you realize! Vanessa’s work has been popping up everywhere. I found it just the other day in the new curriculum we’re teaching to the students in the Anchorage School District (which I was delighted to discover)!
Vanessa celebrates self-love and acceptance of all cultures through her work, and hopes to inspire young readers to find their own voices. She first learned to express herself as a little girl through song. Growing up in a musical family, Vanessa’s parents taught her how to sing to help overcome her stuttering. Each night the family would gather to make music together, with her mom on piano, her dad on guitar, and Vanessa and her sister, Coy, singing the blues, gospel, spirituals, and jazz. Now whenever she illustrates, music fills the air and finds its way into her art. The children she draws can be seen dancing, wiggling, and moving freely across the page in an expression of happiness. Music is a constant celebration, no matter the occasion, and Vanessa hopes her illustrations bring joy to others, with the same magic of a beautiful melody. You can learn more about her at her website.
Me: Can you tell us about your artistic journey? When did you start and how did you get to where you are now?
Vanessa: Oh my goodness it’s been a journey for sure. As an African American back in the 60’s you never tell your parents that you want to be an artist! It just scares the hell out of them. They thought an artist is someone who starves and never makes a living. It’s only after they die that they become famous.
I started drawing at the age of 3. My parents would find my little drawings in the backs of cookbooks, and medical and history books. I was drawing on the sides of our kitchen stove and when it got hot from all the cooking it would melt into a puddle on the kitchen floor. My mom didn’t like that much and I spent a lot of time cleaning it all up with Comet cleanser. I have always loved drawing.
I didn’t talk much as a child because I stuttered so very, very badly. I didn’t even want to hear the sound of my own voice. My mom also stuttered very badly, but she was an amazing singer and taught me to sing. She taught me that if you sang you wouldn’t stutter so I still carry that with me everywhere I go. In my head there is a kind of opera, if you will, going on when I stand to speak or have a conversation with people. I am singing in my head so that I can get the words out.
I am dyslexic as well and it made it very difficult for me in school! I hated school with every ounce of my being. It was just a horrible experience from 2nd grade on. Teachers and students picked on me. And being the only African American child in the class made it even harder. My SAT scores where so bad that I was told that I would never work as anything more than a typist and that was even a long shot. I would attend F.I.T in NYC and then The School Of Visual Arts in NYC thanks to my Aunt Annie and my art teachers, Mr. Snall and Mrs. Dee. They believed in me and they got me into a great school. When I could no longer pay for college, my mom and dad really pushed me to go into a field that was medical in nature that I didn’t want to go into: a Phlebotomist (i.e., a professional Vampire, if you will).
I drew people’s blood for 25 years. I thought surely this was a waste of my time as an artist, but it taught me so much. I got to people watch, which works as an illustrator of children’s books and many other things. I learned body language and movement, facial expressions and most of all diversity. I continued to draw and would make greeting cards and pieces of art for galleries in and around Montclair and Bloomfield , NJ. I started an art blog called, oohlaladesignstudio.blogspot.com and built a wonderful community of illustrators and artists. I would post my illustrations on there, visit the blogs of my fellow illustrators, and learn even more about the world of freelance illustration. I got involved with a wonderful blog called IllustrationFriday.com where illustrators and artists would get a word prompt to illustrate every Friday morning. I started doing the word prompts and before I knew it I had a portfolio full of work.
My sister Coy and I talked about what would be my next step: joining SCBWI (The Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators). I went to my first conference in NYC and it changed everything. I came home hungry and wanting to do more children’s book illustrations. I took courses when I could afford them and when I couldn’t, I created my own courses at home. I studied and taught myself how to do digital illustration and worked with different software like Corel Painter and Photoshop. I taught myself how to be proficient in all of it. It wasn’t easy and some days were really very hard.
Lots of artists didn’t want to share what they knew and I was often met with coldness that I had to shake off and keep on moving. Before long I had so much work that it covered my dinning room table. My husband and I had run out of money. We literally were going from hand to mouth and there was nobody to get money from. I got busy working on my portfolio to send out work to publishers. A very good family friend came over to my home. My husband had asked several times for me to clean off the dinning room table so that we could eat on it and I would sarcastically reply, “ Why? We ain’t got no food to put on it!” Then I went right back to working. Anyway the friend comes over and she asked, “Vanessa, who does all the wonderful artwork?” I told her, “Me!” She said, “ In all the many years that we have known each other, you never told me that you were an illustrator and artist! You’re hired!” “Excuse me?” I said. “ I work as an Editor over at Scholastic Books in NYC. You are hired!” The rest was a lot of hard work and growth.
Me: What draws you to picture books over other genres? Have you ever considered writing or illustration work in other formats (writing middle grade, illustrating book covers or chapter books, etc.)?
Vanessa: I love pictures books! They are my favorite! I love working in the picture book format. It’s storytelling in my own way. I love to illustrate other people’s books, but I really love illustrating my own. I am branching out now. My friends have encouraged me to do a middle grade reader or YA novel and I am getting ready to do that.
Me: Oh my goodness! How interesting! I can’t wait to read that! “Grandma’s Purse” looks absolutely adorable! What is one of your favorite scenes that you illustrated in this book?
Vanessa: My favorite scene is in the middle of the book where the character puts on everything that makes Mimi, or Grandma, Grandma. I just love the colors and the textures and the confidence that she shows.
Me: What was it about this story that just had to be told?
Vanessa: As children we love to explore. I was taught that it was very rude to go through a woman’s purse. That was something very personal. My Grandmother was a very interesting woman. She carried all kinds of goodies and sometimes bad things in her purse. The curiosity of this little girl wanting to know what Grandma was carrying in her purse was like me. Like most children, it was a mystery that had to be solved and it starts with her asking a very important question, “Will you show me?” In this way, the little girl gets to know certain thing about her Grandma and she finds the things that make Mimi, Mimi if you will. There is a bonding that is taking place. Grandparents are just as important as parents. Children need to learn that older people are interesting and have stories to tell, and that they can learn so much about themselves by spending time with a grandparent.
me: What is one thing that surprised you in writing and/or illustrating this story?
Vanessa: That I’m not a writer so much. I am a Storyteller and that is all right for a dyslexic girl! LOL!
Me: Any advice for other picture book writers or illustrators?
Vanessa: Write about what you know or what you have experienced. Stop measuring yourself to others. There is something that only YOU can bring to the creative table and you need to get busy doing, loving and expressing what you do. It’s magical!
Me: This book is about a little girl’s fascination with her grandma’s purse. Did you have a close relationship with your own grandparents?
Vanessa: Yes indeed I had a wonderful relationship with my grandmother Bertha! She was a hoot. She was a Fisherwoman and loved to dress up and wear beautiful clothes, hats and shoes and always, always carried a gorgeous purse.
Me: Is this story really autobiographical of you as a little girl with your grandma?
Vanessa: Oh yes indeed it is! LOL!
Me: Or, knowing your flair for fashion, are you the one with the magic beautiful purse these days?
Vanessa: Yes indeed Darling!! I just love handbags. They say something about a person. I love a good statement bag! Every woman should have one!
Thank you for stopping by my blog Vanessa and sharing some of the sunshine! Readers, you will have to be on the lookout for this one! “Grandma’s Purse” isn’t released until next January! BUT you can preorder it now here. Run out and do so now! You won’t regret it!