Angela Johnson, Childrens Author


When author Angela Johnson was young, her father banned reading—well, at least during family meals. It happened one evening when he realized that every family member—Angela, her two brothers, and her mother and father—was reading a book at the dinner table. Otherwise, though, reading was very much approved. Her father and grandfather were storytellers, and Johnson loved listening to their stories and the ones that were read at school.

Born 1961 in Tuskegee, Alabama, Angela moved with her family to Ohio when she was a baby. By the time she was in high school, she has said, “I wrote punk poetry that went with my razor blade necklace. At that point in my life, my writing was personal
and angry. I didn’t want anyone to like it. I didn’t want to be in the school literary magazine, or to be praised for something that I really didn’t want understood.”

After high school, she softened a bit, attended Kent State University hoping to become a special-education teacher. But feeling that if she stayed in school and got her degree she would not be able to continue to write, she dropped out. She became a child development worker with Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) in Ravenna, Ohio, and worked as a nanny to the son of Newbery Medal-winning children’s author Cynthia Rylant, who lived in Kent.

Rylant, author of the Henry and Mudge series, read Johnson’s first book, Tell Me a Story, Mama, and, believing it was worthy of greater attention, submitted it to her publisher, Orchard Books. In 1989, Story was published. Since then, Johnson has written nearly 40 more children’s books and young-adult novels. She says she has never forgotten the emotions of being a child. Her works address the problems with which all kids struggle as they grow up, while some also cover the extra challenges many African-American children face. Some of her books also deal with sensitive issues, such as divorce, terminal illness, death, mental illness and teen pregnancy.

Johnson’s books maintain a sense of optimism and stress the need for the love and support of family and friends. Her picture books feature African-American children in loving relationships with their families. Her themes are universal. “By providing a glimpse of one African-American family,” one reviewer wrote, “Johnson has validated other families’ experiences, regardless of racial or ethnic background.”

Besides her nearly 40 children’s picture books and young-adult novels, Johnson has also published several collections of poems and has contributed to poetry anthologies. Among the many honors she has received for her writing, three of her books have won the Coretta Scott King Author Award, and one of them was named an American Library Association Notable Book. In 2003, she received a genius fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

In two ironic, and cool, turns of events: Johnson eventually bought her mentor Cynthia Rylant’s house when Rylant and her partner, Dav Pilkey, author of the popular Captain Underpants stories and many other best-selling picture books, moved away; and in 1993, Pilkey illustrated one of Johnson’s books.


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