Oh dear readers, have I got some treats in store for you in 2020. Just hang onto your hats as there is already stacking up to be quite a line-up of interviews with picture book authors and illustrators in the year ahead! Starting today!
After I met Vanessa Brantley Newton in person at my first SCBWI LA conference, I just knew I had to interview her here so you all could meet her too (and I did). She is so vivacious and positive that you can’t help but be inspired by her work, and she is incredibly giving of her time. Little-ol’-newbie-illustrator-me approached her asking for advice on something and she was incredibly kind in her encouragement. I honestly don’t remember my question or her exact words, but I do remember her “don’t give up, keep doing you and you’ll get there” approach that had me sailing out of the room on clouds of hope. She has that effect on many people, every time she presents. So when I heard she was working on a book of poetry, I admit my heard began to sing!
Her latest creation is a picture book poetry collection for girls called “Just Like Me.” It is released later this month (on January 14th) and is every bit as positive as Vanessa is herself. This is something every little girl will want to read (let alone us adult readers!). I cannot begin to tell you dear reader, just how excited I am for this to be released into the world.
Me: You have illustrated picture books and written and illustrated a few of your own. This is your first collection of poetry. What made you decide to take that leap?
Vanessa: I love poetry and honestly, I love the spoken word. I keep a book with poems in it, but I didn’t share them with many people because I was a little shy. I found that a lot of my poems where about my childhood and those memories. I would only share them with close family and colleagues. I think I struggled with people understanding them. In my own head I formed an opinion of it as a limerick, haiku, sonnet and such. But when I put pen to paper I follow what my heart, mind, and spirit want to say. If it rhymes then awesome if not then great!
One day I put my poems in front of my agent. I shared that I had been writing these for the longest time, but thought, “I don’t know if they will ever get seen, but here you go.” She read them and let’s just say this about my agent: she is not soft and fluffy like cotton candy. She is hard and blunt. When I saw tears in her eyes and the eyes of the editor I thought, “Ummmm, I did that?” LOL!! I’ve known my agent for 12 years and I have never seen her cry. So that is how I decided to take the leap to do poems for children.
Me: You have talked in the past about having several learning disabilities while growing up that sometimes still prove challenging. Was writing poetry a challenge? Or did it flow easier than writing fiction?
Vanessa: The poetry came so very, very easily because I was writing the feelings and memories of my heart. I felt as free to share moments and my thoughts as when I am journaling. I am a songwriter as well and so writing songs is so very easy for me. Music moves me to speak my truth and my heart. So this was SO much easier than writing a story. Since I have this learning difference I have learnt be more forgiving of myself and instead of correcting myself while writing, I just put it all on paper as it flows. Then I go back and have someone I trust go over it again. Usually my sister Coy or Claire my other agent.
Me: What was it about these poems that you wanted to get out into the world?
Vanessa: After watching so much of what is out there in TV land—teens misbehaving badly, women fighting and cussin’ out each other on the big screen—I got to thinking about what I wanted to leave for children. Girls. What I wanted someone to say to me when I was little. I had awesome parents, but they didn’t know how to encourage self esteem and love for one’s self. We were taught to give and give and give until we had nothing. That is not want I wanted to pass on to my daughter and other children. I wanted them to learn to love themselves first. Be the best that they can be for themselves and then spread it to family and then the community. I wanted girls to see that they were not the only ones who wished for a daddy, or had a pimple, or wanted to live somewhere else or make a friend. That truly what makes us different really makes us the same.
Me: Were there any poems that got cut out of the collection or that you wish you could have included?
Vanessa: Actually, there is a whole other volume of poems that didn’t make it into this book. We are praying and hoping that this one will do so well that the others will be shared. I have thought to do poems about boys as well. I have tons of poems about them. LOL!
Me: Oh! That would be fantastic! What is one thing that surprised you in writing and/or illustrating this collection?
Vanessa: How magical it was to be sharing these illustrations and writings in this way! Through Poetry!
Me: I can only imagine! Any advice for other picture book writers or illustrators?
Vanessa: This is so not an easy industry to break into for a lot of reasons. I went to school for fashion illustration and design and I couldn’t find a job out there in the industry. So I took another job and put my dream on hold and mute until I couldn’t. I tell students and my people that I mentor, “If it wakes you up in the morning and remains on your mind all day and it’s the last thing you think about before you go to bed, or if you could do it for no pay at all, then maybe this is what your heart wants you to do.” It was easy and it didn’t happen overnight for me. I worked in a hospital as a Phlebotomist (i.e., the person who draws blood) for 25 years. I would draw something every now and again, but in my family being as artist was not a suitable job for an African American woman. You should be a nurse or teacher or something like this.
This is what I believe and what I would want someone to have said to me when starting out: Keep your precious dreams to yourself and don’t share them with anyone, until you make head way through the rough parts of getting to where you want to go. Study writing and illustration. Read every children’s book you can get your hands on and know the anatomy of a picture book. Read YA novels and journal about your own childhood. Find positive affirmations that help lift, inspire and encourage you. Say them OUT LOUD in the MIRROR to yourself. Be kind to yourself while working on it. Get away from negativity that wants to keep you in your place. Be willing be alone while stories brew. If you write, write something every single day. If you draw, draw something every single day. Take a course in writing. Find a blog or website where you can learn writing lessons or drawing lessons. Invest in you. Don’t get discouraged so quickly. Chin up and think positive.
Me: If you could go back in time and present this book to your younger self, do you think she would read it? What message would you want her to hear the most out of this collection of poetry?
Vanessa: Ooh my goodness YES! Lil’V would have picked up this book and be in a corner somewhere for hours looking at the pictures and then discovering the words. The words always came last for me as a child. The picture came first and told me a story.
I would want Lil’V to hear, ” I see you little brown girl. You are not alone. You can do anything you set your mind too. You can be a friend and make a friend and go anywhere through the pages of this book.”
I love that! I think I would love to tell that to my younger self as well. Dear readers, keep a look out for this book. You don’t want to miss it. It’s well worth the read!