6 minute read

Angela Johnson Biography

Selected writings


Children's writer

With over 40 books to her name Ohio-based Angela Johnson is one of the most prolific and celebrated children's writers. She began working full-time as a writer in 1989 and her work includes award-winning picture books, board books, poetry, stories, and novels for young adults. She has become well known for her realistic characters, many of whom carry over through several books, and for her sensitive depictions of family life, but she has also branched out to explore African-American history. Johnson is famously reclusive, disliking even to have her photograph taken, but she has won many awards, including the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, a no strings attached "genius award" of $500,000.

Born in Tuskegee, Alabama, on June 18, 1961, Angela Johnson is the daughter of Arthur, an autoworker, and Truzetta (Hall) Johnson, an accountant. The family moved to Ohio when Johnson was 15 months old, and she has lived there ever since. She attended Kent State University where she studied special needs education, but fearing having a degree would push her into teaching rather than allowing her to write she left before graduation.

Stories were an important part of Johnson's childhood. Her father and grandfather were storytellers and she enjoyed listening to stories being read at school. She wrote short stories and "punk poetry" while she was a college student, but she realized that children's writing was where her future lay while working as a nanny for the young son of writer Cynthia Rylant, author of the Henry and Mudge series, in the mid-1980s. Rylant's library of children's books along with her encouragement inspired Johnson to begin working on her first picture books. It was Rylant who submitted Johnson's first book, Tell Me a Story, Mama, to her publisher. Johnson subsequently bought Rylant's house when Rylant and her partner, Dav Pilkey, author of the "Captain Underpants" stories, moved away. She told the Pittsburg Post-Gazette that her readers love the idea that she lives in Captain Underpants' house. By 1993 when her first novel for young adults, Toning the Sweep appeared, she had published seven picture books, including the award-winning Tell Me a Story, Mama (1989), and When I am Old With You (1990).

Tell Me a Story, Mama was Johnson's first picture book. It won her the School Library Journal's "Best Books" award in 1989 and gave her the confidence to write more. By 1991 she had won two further commendations, the Ezra Jack Keats award for new writers, and her first Coretta Scott King award—she won three more Coretta Scott King awards in the 1990s. By then she had also established herself as a writer interested in exploring the relationships within families; between children, between adults, and between children and adults. When I am Old With You (1990), for example, is the story of a girl and her grandfather. Although her characters are black, Johnson aims to make her stories non-racial; the themes and issues they cover are rarely specific to the black community.

Johnson continues to produce picture books, but in 1993 she published her first novel for young adults, Toning the Sweep, and began to become well known. Toning the Sweep tells the story of Emily, a fourteen year-old who videotapes her grandmother during the last days of her life, recording stories, friendships, and family connections. The novel set the tone for many of Johnson's books for young adults, which address issues such as divorce, peer pressure, illness, and death, underpinned with the affection and reassurance the characters show for one another. But while that might sound like Johnson's work is unrealistic and overly sentimental, she is not afraid to confront difficult subjects. In Heaven (1998) the main character discovers that the people she thought were her parents are actually her uncle and aunt; and her collection of poems The Other Side, published the same year, was inspired by the Alabama town of Shorter, which was flattened by developers in her grandmother's time. Both of these serious works were widely praised by critics. Heaven won the 1998 Coretta Scott King Author Award, and The Other Side received an honor citation.

Johnson also has a less serious side. Maniac Monkeys on Magnolia Street (1999) and When Mules Flew on Magnolia Street (2001) celebrate imagination and life, but her picture books for young children are also light-hearted and playful while consistently supporting Johnson's belief in the power of affection and family ties. Shoes Like Miss Alice (1995) for example, centers on a babysitter who has a pair of shoes for every activity. She is often praised for the poetic style and cadences of her prose works.

Johnson's prolific output—two books a year since 1989—her consistency, and the range her work covers make her one of the most celebrated contemporary children's writers. In 2003 Johnson's importance as a writer was recognized with the MacArthur Foundation's "genius award," which presented her with $100,000 each year for five years to allow her to work without outside pressures. The high-profile award came as a surprise to Johnson, who resists interviews and avoids publicity.

At a Glance …

Born Angela Johnson on June 18, 1961, in Tuskegee, Alabama; daughter of Arthur (an autoworker) and Truzetta (an accountant) Johnson. Education: Attended Kent State University, Ohio, special education.

Career: Child development worker, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), 1981-1982; freelance writer, 1989–.

Awards: Best Books, School Library Journal, 1989, for Tell Me a Story, Mama; Coretta Scott King Honor Book, American Library Association Social Responsibilities Round Table, 1991, for When I Am Old with You; Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award, United States Board on Books for Young People, 1991; Editor's Choice, Booklist, Best Books, School Library Journal, and Coretta Scott King Author Award, 1994, all for Toning the Sweep; Coretta Scott King Author Award, 1998, for Heaven; Coretta Scott King Honor Book citation, 1998, for The Other Side: Shorter Poems; MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, 2003.

Addresses: Office—c/o Orchard Books, 7th Fl, 95 Madison Ave, New York, NY, 10016-7801.

Selected writings


Tell Me a Story, Mama, illustrated by David Soman, Orchard Books, 1989.

Do Like Kyla, illustrated by James Ransome, Orchard Books, 1990.

When I Am Old with You, illustrated by David Soman, Orchard Books, 1990.

One of Three, illustrated by David Soman, Orchard Books, 1991.

The Leaving Morning, illustrated by David Soman, Orchard Books, 1992.

The Girl Who Wore Snakes, Orchard Books, 1993.

Julius, illustrated by Dav Pilkey, Orchard Books, 1993.

Toning the Sweep, Orchard Books, 1993.

Joshua by the Sea, illustrated by Rhonda Mitchell, Orchard Books, 1994.

Joshua's Night Whispers, illustrated by Rhonda Mitchell, Orchard Books, 1994.

Mama Bird, Baby Birds, illustrated by Rhonda Mitchell, Orchard Books, 1994.

Rain Feet, illustrated by Rhonda Mitchell, Orchard Books, 1994.

Shoes Like Miss Alice's, illustrated by Ken Page, Orchard Books, 1995.

Humming Whispers, Orchard Books, 1995.

The Aunt in Our House, illustrated by David Soman, Orchard Books, 1996.

The Rolling Store, illustrated by Peter Catalanotto, Orchard Books, 1997.

Daddy Calls Me Man, illustrated by Rhonda Mitchell, Orchard Books, 1997.

Gone from Home: Short Takes, DK Publishing, 1998.

Songs of Faith, Orchard Books, 1998.

Heaven, Simon & Schuster, 1998.

The Other Side: Shorter Poems, Orchard Books, 1998.

Maniac Monkeys on Magnolia Street, illustrated by John Ward, Random House, 1999.

The Wedding, illustrated by David Soman, Orchard Books, 1999.

Those Building Men, illustrated by Mike Benny, Scholastic, 1999.

Down the Winding Road, illustrated by Shane W. Evans, DK Ink, 2000.

When Mules Flew on Magnolia Street, Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.

Rain Feet, illustrated by Rhonda Mitchell, Orchard Books, 2001.

Running Back to Ludie, Orchard Books, 2002.

Looking for Red, Simon & Schuster, 2002.

I Dream of Trains, illustrated by Loren Long, Simon & Schuster, 2003.

The First Part Last, Simon & Schuster, 2003.

A Cool Moonlight, Dial Books, 2003.

Just Like Josh Gibson, illustrated by Beth Peck, Simon & Schuster, 2003.

Violet's Music, illustrated by Laura Huliska-Beith, Dial Books, 2004.

Bird, Dial Books, 2004.



Essence, February 2004, p. 34.

Pittsburg Post-Gazette, Saturday, February 21, 2004.

World Literature Today, September-December 2004, p. 75.

Publishers Weekly, January 3, 2005, p. 55.


"Angela Johnson," African American Literature Book Club, http://aalbc.com/authors/angela.htm (April 21, 2005).

"Angela Johnson," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (April 21, 2005).

"The Accidental Genius," Chilren's Lit: Meet Writers and Illustrators, www.childrenslit.com/f_johnson.htm (April 21, 2005).

"Who Wrote That?" Patricia M. Newman, www.patriciamnewman.com/johnsona.html (21 April, 2005).

—Chris Routledge

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Dan Jacobson Biography - Dan Jacobson comments: to Barbara Knutson (1959–2005) Biography - Personal