Andrea J. Loney is the author of the new children's picture book Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee!, which looks at the life of the Harlem-based photographer. She also has written the picture book Bunnybear. She lives in Los Angeles.
Q: Why did you decide to write this picture book of photographer James VanDerZee, and what do you see as his legacy today?
A: Ever since I was a kid, I loved looking through vintage Victorian-style photographs of African Americans. Years later I read a biography of James VanDerZee and discovered that even though he took up photography as a child, then took tens of thousands of photos throughout his career, he didn’t get “discovered” as an artist until he was in his 80s!
That’s when I realized that I just had to find a way to share his amazing comeback story with children. Ultimately, I think James VanDerZee's legacy lies in his ability to capture the love, pride, and joy of the people of Harlem over the decades, one photo portrait at a time.
Q: How did you research the book, and what particularly surprised you in the course of your research?
A: I read everything I could find on James VanDerZee, I looked at hundreds of his photographs, I spoke to people who'd met him -- including his widow -- and I even ended up searching through public records online to fill in some of his family details.
While researching his life I was particularly intrigued by the fact that James VanDerZee never formally studied photography. Although he studied the pamphlets that came with his cameras, he mostly learned the craft of taking and developing portraits by trial and error.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from James VanDerZee’s story?
A: After reading Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee!, I hope that readers will feel inspired to pursue their own dreams, no matter how far away they may seem at the moment. I also hope that it inspires them to take more pictures of their own loved ones.
Q: What do you think Keith Mallett’s illustrations added to the book?
A: Keith Mallett's illustrations are the perfect match for the rich, vibrant, and nostalgic feeling I wanted to create with this book. The amount of artistic and historical detail he used to bring this story to life is truly breathtaking.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: In 2019 I have a new picture book coming out with Random House Knopf -- Double Bass Blues, illustrated by Rudy Gutierrez. But for now, I am working on several different picture books.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Honestly, I am just thrilled that this book is finally out so I can share the details of James VanDerZee's life with the world. He was a remarkable man who created remarkable works. Thank you for interviewing me about the book.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb