Angela Johnson, Children’s Author
2008 MID-CAREER AWARD FOR LITERATURE
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.