Monday, March 25, 2024

Q&A with Dinah Johnson




Dinah Johnson is the author of the new children's picture book biography Ida B. Wells Marches for the Vote. Johnson's many other books include H Is for Harlem. She is a professor of English at the University of South Carolina, and she lives in Columbia, South Carolina.


Q: What inspired you to write this picture book biography of journalist Ida B. Wells (1862-1931)?


A: Christy Ottaviano, my long-time editor, asked me to write a picture book inspired by the role played by Black women in the fight for the vote. After doing some research, I landed on Ida B. Wells.


There are many books about her, but most of them focus on her activism in the campaigns against lynching. I thought that the Women's March of 1913 would be a small story within her larger story that is worth amplifying.


Q: What do you think Jerry Jordan’s illustrations add to the book?


A: I don't think that anyone would guess that this is Jerry Jordan's first picture book. He's an accomplished fine artist, but illustration has its own demands. 


He did extensive research, finding source material that I had not seen while doing my own research. His art conveys Ida B. Wells in her dignity, beauty, and resolve.


Q: The School Library Journal review of the book said, “Johnson writes with the conviction of Ida B. Wells and her inherent beliefs about right and wrong…. Until her name is as familiar as Abraham Lincoln’s, we can’t have too many books about Wells.” What do you think of that description?


A: I love it, of course! It touches on a couple of important points. Even though some ideas can be debated, I believe that there is something inside of each person, a moral compass, that tells us when something, some action, some statement, is right or wrong.


Ida B. Wells, I believe, had that kind of moral compass and had the courage to pay attention to it.


There can never be too many books about a complicated person. With the picture book form in particular, it is difficult and not necessarily desirable to tell the details of a person's life in the way that is possible in a middle grade or young adult book. 


So each book contributes something distinct to the telling of a person's story. I hope that Jerry's and my book adds highlights this one event as a meaningful one in Ida B. Wells's story.


Q: What do you hope kids (and adults) take away from Wells' story, and what do you see as her legacy today?


A: Her legacy is expansive. As a teacher myself, I think that her work as a teacher, when she was still very young, underscores the centrality of a solid education no matter one's work. She models for all of us that every person has a gift that can be used in the service of others.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I'm always working on numerous projects at once. One is a documentary film about the history of Black Children's Literature.


I'm also working on a picture book about Kitty Black Perkins, a Black woman (from my home state of South Carolina) who was, for over two decades, the head designer of clothes for Barbie Dolls/Mattel. There are just so many stories to tell!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I'm a scholar of children's literature. My life's work has been to help reconstruct the history of African American children's literature, dating at least back to January 1920 through December 1921 when Jessie Fauset and W.E.B. DuBois edited The Brownie's Book magazine, a stunning periodical for children in the US and internationally.


Also, I love doing school visits. So don't hesitate to reach out to me at


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

No comments:

Post a Comment