Angela Johnson (1961-) Biography
Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Adaptations, Sidelights
Born 1961, in Tuskegee, AL; Education: Attended Kent State University. Politics: Democrat.
Agent—c/o Author Correspondence, Orchard Books, 387 Park Ave. S., New York, NY 10016.
Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), Ravenna, OH, child development worker, 1981-82; freelance writer of children's books, 1989—.
Authors Guild, Authors League of America.
Best Books, School Library Journal, 1989, for Tell Me a Story, Mama; Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award, United States Board on Books for Young People, 1991;
Coretta Scott King Honor Book, American Library Association Social Responsibilities Round Table, 1991, for When I Am Old with You; Editor's Choice, Booklist, Best Books, School Library Journal, and Coretta Scott King Author Award, 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 genius grant, 2003.
Tell Me a Story, Mama, illustrated by David Soman, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1989.
Do Like Kyla, illustrated by James Ransome, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1990.
When I Am Old with You, illustrated by David Soman, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1990.
One of Three, illustrated by David Soman, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1991.
The Leaving Morning, illustrated by David Soman, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1992.
The Girl Who Wore Snakes, illustrated by James Ransome, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1993.
Julius, illustrated by Dav Pilkey, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1993.
Toning the Sweep: A Novel, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1993, reprinted, 2000.
Joshua by the Sea, illustrated by Rhonda Mitchell, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1994.
Joshua's Night Whispers, illustrated by Rhonda Mitchell, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1994.
Mama Bird, Baby Birds, illustrated by Rhonda Mitchell, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1994.
Rain Feet, illustrated by Rhonda Mitchell, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1994.
Humming Whispers, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1995.
Shoes Like Miss Alice's, illustrated by Ken Page, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1995.
The Aunt in Our House, illustrated by David Soman, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1996.
The Rolling Store, illustrated by Peter Catalanotto, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1997.
Daddy Calls Me Man, illustrated by Rhonda Mitchell, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1997.
Songs of Faith, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1998.
Heaven, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1998.
The Other Side: Shorter Poems, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1998.
Maniac Monkeys on Magnolia Street, illustrated by John Ward, Random House (New York, NY), 1999.
The Wedding, illustrated by David Soman, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1999.
Those Building Men, illustrated by Mike Benny, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1999.
Down the Winding Road, illustrated by Shane W. Evans, DK Ink, 2000.
Gone from Home: Short Takes (stories), Dell (New York, NY), 2001.
When Mules Flew on Magnolia Street, Alfred A. Knopf (New York, NY), 2001.
Rain Feet, illustrated by Rhonda Mitchell, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 2001.
Running Back to Ludie, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 2002.
Looking for Red, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2002.
I Dream of Trains, illustrated by Loren Long, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2003.
The First Part Last, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2003.
A Cool Moonlight, Dial Books (New York, NY), 2003.
Just Like Josh Gibson, illustrated by Beth Peck, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2003.
Violet's Music, illustrated by Laura Huliska-Beith, Dial Books (New York, NY), 2004.
Bird, Dial Books (New York, NY), 2004.
Contributor to several anthologies, including Gone from Home: Short Takes, DK Publishing, 1998, and In Daddy's Arms I Am Tall, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2003.
Humming Whispers was recorded on audio cassette and released by Recorded Books, 1997.
Angela Johnson is the winner of a 2003 MacArthur Foundation genius grant, a half-million-dollar prize awarded to a select few individuals in the arts and sciences who are thought to be making unique contributions to the betterment of society. In Johnson's case the award recognizes her ability to craft sensitive children's books about African-American family life and the wider issues of growing up in the modern world.
Johnson first drew the attention of critics through her picture books presenting warm portraits of African-American children and their relationship to parents, grandparents, siblings, and friends. Many reviewers have pointed out, however, that Johnson's stories capture emotions and experiences that are familiar to young readers of all cultures. Her books for and about older children tackle difficult issues such as divorce, the death of a sibling, and chronic illness with emphasis on learning to survive and thrive such devastating events. "Johnson is a master at representing human nature in various guises at different levels," asserted Twentieth-Century Children's Writers contributor Lucille H. Gregory. Gregory also noted a "high consistency" in Johnson's books, a commendation underscored by Rudine Sims Bishop in Horn Book, who maintained that all of Johnson's works "feature charming first-person narrators…. The characters are distinct individuals, but their emotions are ones shared across cultures."
Reaching a wide audience is exactly what Johnson strives for in her writing. As she once told SATA: "In high school 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. Of course, ten years later, I hope that my writing is universal and speaks to everyone who reads it. I still have the necklace, though."
Many of Johnson's books for children feature young black protagonists narrating events that are common to children their age. In Tell Me a Story, Mama, which Rudine Sims Bishop called an "impressive debut" in Horn Book, a little girl asks her mother for a familiar bedtime story and ends up doing most of the storytelling herself as she reminds her mother of each favorite part. Horn Book reviewer Maria Salvadore, one of a number of commentators offering a favorable assessment of Johnson's first book, observed: "By providing a glimpse of one African-American family, Johnson has validated other families' experiences, regardless of racial or ethnic background."
In subsequent works Johnson has continued to feature characters whose lives are enriched by familial affection and reassurance. In Do Like Kyla, a young narrator describes how she imitates her older sister all day long. But when it's time for bed, the young girl revels in the fact that "Kyla does like me." When I Am Old with You spotlights a boy who describes to his grandfather the things they will do together when the boy catches up to him in age. The young narrator of One of Three relates the fun she has being one of three sisters, as well as the frustration of not being able to join in some of the things her older siblings do. Reviewing One of Three, a Publishers Weekly critic praised Johnson for her "perceptive and understated text," while Karen James, writing in School Library Journal, admired the way Johnson captured "the underlying love and strength of positive family relationships."
Unusual pets join the young protagonists in The Girl Who Wore Snakes and Julius. In the former, Ali's strong interest in snakes, which she wears as jewelry, surprises everyone in her family except her snake-loving aunt. Julius, illustrated by Dav Pilkey, features a young girl named Maya who receives Julius, an Alaskan pig, from her grandfather. Together, Maya and Julius teach each other new tricks and enjoy a variety of adventures. Betsy Hearne, writing in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, called Julius a "gleeful celebration of silliness."
In 1993, Johnson published her first work for older children, Toning the Sweep. In this novel, fourteen-year-old Emily participates in the final days of her cancer-stricken grandmother's life by videotaping the ailing woman as she visits with friends, recalling stories of the past. "Full of subtle nuance, the novel is overlaid with meaning about the connections of family and the power of friendship," maintained School Library Journal contributor Ellen Fader. Booklist reviewer Quraysh Ali lauded the work, asserting: "With ingenuity and grace, Johnson captures the innocence, the vulnerability, and the love of human interaction as well as the melancholy, the self-discovery, and the introspection of adolescence." Mary M. Burns in Horn Book cited for special note "the skill with which the author moves between times past and times present without sacrificing her main story line or diluting the emotional impact."
Humming Whispers, another young adult work, tells the story of Sophie, an aspiring dancer who becomes worried that she is developing the schizophrenia that afflicts her older sister. Hazel Rochman characterized the novel in Booklist as "a bleak contemporary story of suffering, lit with the hope of people who take care of each other in the storm." School Library Journal contributor Carol Schene observed that while "there are no easy answers" for the characters in the book, "the frailty and strength of the human spirit" displayed by each one makes the story memorable. Elizabeth Bush, writing in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, stated that the author "ably demonstrates the pervasive effects of mental illness on an entire family," and a Kirkus Reviews critic praised the way Johnson "carefully and richly fleshes out the characters."
Johnson returned to picture books with Shoes Like Miss Alice's and The Rolling Store. In the former work, Sara is hesitant about being with a new babysitter. Her fears are quickly dispelled, however, and a bond is formed when Miss Alice changes into a different pair of shoes for each special activity they do together. "Tucked in the tale is a nice message about being open to new people walking into your life," noted Booklist reviewer Ilene Cooper. In The Rolling Store, a young black girl tells her white friend a family story about a general store on wheels that used to serve her grandfather's rural community when he was a boy. With help from the visiting grandfather, the girls create their own mobile store out of a small red wagon. "Johnson's family story has a certain nostalgic appeal," noted Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books editor Janice M. Del Negro. Booklist reviewer Stephanie Zvirin deemed The Rolling Store "a sweet, upbeat story."
The author drew particularly favorable reviews for her novel Heaven. Fourteen-year-old Marley is the beloved only child in a happy family—until, by accident, she discovers that her parents are actually her uncle and
aunt, and her real father is an itinerant "uncle" she hardly knows. This revelation leads Marley to investigate exactly what constitutes a family unit and how her identity is shaped by those who love her. Praising the book for its "plain, lyrical writing," Booklist contributor Hazel Rochman concluded that the author "makes us see the power of loving kindness."
Johnson has also written collections of poems and has contributed to poetry anthologies. One of her best known poetry books is The Other Side: Shorter Poems. This work was inspired by the fact that her grandmother's hometown of Shorter, Alabama, was razed for redevelopment. During a nostalgic trip to the small town, Johnson wrote about her memories of growing up there. Nancy Vasilakis in Horn Book called The Other Side an "intriguing collection" and a "captivating narrative," while a Publishers Weekly critic noted that the book offers "an unforgettable view of an insightful young woman growing up in the South."
Not all of Johnson's novels are so serious in tone. Maniac Monkeys on Magnolia Street and its sequel When Mules Flew on Magnolia Street introduce Charlie, a youngster who must adjust to new friends and new surroundings after moving to Magnolia Street. Told from Charlie's point of view, the two stories reveal how the youngster adapts to new situations by being "open to the small wonders around her," to quote Helen Rosenberg in Booklist. In her Booklist review of When Mules Flew on Magnolia Street, Denise Wilms likewise praised the "small slices of life" that Johnson serves to early readers.
Difficult family situations inform the novels Running Back to Ludie and Looking for Red. In Running Back to Ludie, a teenaged narrator explores her mixed emotions as she prepares to meet the mother who abandoned her to live in the woods. Joanna Rudge Long in Horn Book felt that the free verse style of the work helps to highlight the young person's feelings of rejection and reconciliation. "Johnson's exploration of the process is subtle and beautifully wrought," the critic concluded. Looking for Red offers a more straightforward narrative with a dark secret at its core. Red's sister Mike is still reeling from grief in the wake of his disappearance, and she receives small solace from Red's equally traumatized friends. Only as the story proceeds does the reader realize that Mike and Red's friends share some of the responsibility for his accidental death. "The strength of this story is the accurate portrayal of the surreal nature of grief laden with guilt," observed Jean Gaffney in School Library Journal. In Horn Book, Joanna Rudge Long praised the "luminous ease" with which Johnson depicts the characters, "both their estrangement from reality and their eventual return toward it."
A Cool Moonlight tells the story of Lila, a child stricken with xeroderma pigmentosum, a rare over-sensitivity to sunlight. Forced to live a nocturnal lifestyle, Lila takes solace in imaginary friends until her ninth birthday, when she comes to terms with her individuality. Once again in Horn Book Joanna Rudge Long commended the novel, particularly for Johnson's "deft touches that make this spare portrait so effective."
Readers first met Bobby, the hero of The First Part Last, in Heaven. In The First Part Last, Johnson spins the story of Bobby's unexpected teenage parenthood, how it compromises his ambitions to be an artist but in return offers him the opportunity to love his infant daughter and connect with his parents. The responsibility for a helpless infant is scary—and at times frustrating—but Bobby is sustained by his fond memories of the past and moments of enjoyment in the present. A Publishers Weekly critic of The First Part Last liked the way Johnson "skillfully relates the hope in the midst of pain."
Johnson is still creating at least one new picture book per year. One successful title is I Dream of Trains, a poignant look at engineer Casey Jones through the eyes of a fictional black field worker. A young boy toiling in the heat lives for the moment when the mighty engine roars by and dreams of the day when he will board a train and leave the hard work behind. He is bolstered in his fantasy by the knowledge that some of those who work with the mighty Casey Jones are black men. In Black Issues Book Review Suzanne Rust wrote: "Bold and provocative in prose, picture and content," I Dream of Trains is "a work worthy of any contemporary collection."
Since 1989, Johnson has published one or more books per year and continues to write at a steady pace. The author once told SATA: "I don't believe the magic of listening to Wilma Mitchell read us stories after lunch will ever be repeated for me. Book people came to life. They sat beside me in Maple Grove School. That is when I knew. I asked for a diary that year and have not stopped writing. My family, especially my grandfather and father, are storytellers and those spoken words sit beside me too." As a genius grant recipient, Johnson will be awarded one-hundred-thousand dollars each year through 2008.
Biographical and Critical Sources
Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 32, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2000.
Children's Literature Review, Volume 33, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1994, pp. 93-96.
Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, 4th edition, St. James (Detroit, MI), 1995, pp. 493-494.
Black Issues Book Review, July-August, 2003, Suzanne Rust, review of I Dream of Trains, p. 65.
Booklist, April 1, 1993, Quraysh Ali, review of Toning the Sweep, p. 1432; February 15, 1995, Hazel Rochman, review of Humming Whispers, p. 1072; March 15, 1995, Ilene Cooper, review of Shoes Like Miss Alice's, p. 1334; February 15, 1997, Stephanie Zvirin, review of The Rolling Store, p. 1026; September 15, 1998, Hazel Rochman, review of Heaven, p. 219; November 15, 1998, Helen Rosenberg, review of The Other Side: Shorter Poems, p. 579; January 1, 1999, Helen Rosenberg, review of Maniac Monkeys on Magnolia Street, p. 878; February 15, 2000, Michael Cart, review of Down the Winding Road, p. 1118; November 15, 2000, Anna Rich, review of Heaven, p. 657; January 1, 2001, Denise Wilms, review of When Mules Flew on Magnolia Street, p. 960; February 15, 2001, Henrietta M. Smith, review of Rain Feet, p. 1161; January 1, 2002, review of Running Back to Ludie, p. 858; September 1, 2003, Hazel Rochman, review of The First Part Last, p. 122; October 1, 2003, Carolyn Phelan, review of A Cool Moonlight, p. 324; October 1, 2003, Gillian Engberg, review of I Dream of Trains, p. 328.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, May, 1993, Betsy Hearne, review of Julius, p. 284; April, 1995, Elizabeth Bush, review of Humming Whispers, p. 278; May, 1997, Janice M. Del Negro, review of The Rolling Store, pp. 325-326.
Horn Book, September-October, 1992, Rudine Sims Bishop, "Books from Parallel Cultures: New African-American Voices," p. 620; March-April, 1993, Ellen Fader, review of Julius, pp. 196-197; September-October, 1993, Mary M. Burns, review of Toning the Sweep, p. 603; March-April, 1995, Maria Salvadore, "Making Sense of Our World," p. 229; November, 1998, Nancy Vasilakis, review of The Other Side: Shorter Poems, p. 750; November-December, 2001, Joanna Rudge Long, review of Running Back to Ludie, p. 766; July-August, 2002, Joanna Rudge Long, review of Looking for Red, p. 463; September-October, 2003, Joanna Rudge Long, review of A Cool Moonlight, p. 611.
Kirkus Reviews, April 1, 1995, review of Humming Whispers, p. 470.
New York Times Book Review, November 16, 2003, Marsha Wilson Chall, "One-Track Minds," p. 24.
Publishers Weekly, August 9, 1991, review of One of Three, p. 56; August 3, 1998, review of Heaven, p. 86; November 16, 1998, review of The Other Side: Shorter Poems, p. 76; November 23, 1998, review of Maniac Monkeys on Magnolia Street, p. 67; March 22, 1999, review of The Wedding, p. 91; March 6, 2000, review of Down the Winding Road, p. 109; May 27, 2002, review of Looking for Red, p. 60; June 16, 2003, review of The First Part Last, p. 73; October 20, 2003, review of I Dream of Trains, p. 53 and A Cool Moonlight, p. 55.
School Library Journal, October, 1991, Karen James, review of One of Three, p. 98; April, 1993, Ellen Fader, review of Toning the Sweep, p. 140; April, 1995, Carol Schene, review of Humming Whispers, p. 154; January, 2001, Maria B. Salvadore, review of When Mules Flew on Magnolia Street, p. 101; March, 2001, Susan Helper, review of Those Building Men, p. 236; October 22, 2001, review of Running Back to Ludie, p. 77; December, 2001, Nina Lindsay, review of Running Back to Ludie, p. 164; July, 2002, Jean Gaffney, review of Looking for Red, p. 120; September, 2003, Maria B. Salvadore, review of A Cool Moonlight, p. 215; October, 2003, Catherine Threadgill, review of I Dream of Trains, p. 126.*
- Angela Johnson Biography - Selected writings
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