Northside Elementary Hosts Celebrated Writer
When Kathryn Cole, media specialist at Northside Elementary School (NES), learned one of her favorite writers lives in Charlotte, she set her sights on engaging her as a guest speaker. “When we were presented with the opportunity to bring in an author/illustrator to showcase for our students, I knew it needed to be Vanessa,” Cole said. “I also knew this would be a great opportunity to extend her message across the district if we could include an evening event in the proposal.”
Vanessa Brantley-Newton, acclaimed author and illustrator, presented “Diversity Designed by Adversity” for the community and then the students and staff at NES on the evening of November 29 and the morning of November 30, discussing the importance of diverse and inclusive representation in children’s literature. Her animated speaking style and the stories she told to convey her creative goals were richly detailed and intimate. She kept her Northside audiences spellbound.
Brantley-Newton has written three books for children, including the recent “Grandma’s Purse,” and she has illustrated more than 80 books. She was born in New Jersey during the Civil Rights movement, and she noted the first time she saw herself in a children’s book was when she encountered “The Snowy Day” by Ezra Jack Keats. As a child of the late sixties, Brantley-Newton said she spent years, waiting to find herself represented in literature and culture. “I wanted to be a Breck Girl because that’s who was on television. I wanted long blonde hair. There were no brown princesses when I was growing up.” She recounted how she used to dress up in her Sunday finery to watch “Romper Room,” hoping she would become visible to her “friends” on TV.
But the experience of sitting with a much-loved teacher and hearing her read “The Snowy Day” for the first time was transformative. The simple, classic story about Peter, an African American child, playing in the snow is iconic because it broke the color barrier in mainstream children’s book publishing. Keats once wrote, “My book would have Peter there simply because he should have been there all along.” Brantley-Newton said she wants all children to see their unique experiences reflected in the books they read, in order to share in the same sense of empowerment and identification she felt on first hearing “The Snowy Day.”
Brantley-Newton drew laughs from the audience as she described getting in trouble for drawing on the walls as a four year old. “I knew I was an artist then.” She said she has always wanted to be “that artist who gets it right. Is a picture worth a thousand words? Oh yeah.” The children in her picture books almost all wear enormous smiles, and they are often leaping and hopping from the unbound energy of their young lives. Through painting, drawing, digital design and collage, her illustrations are recognized and loved around the world for the vibrancy and joy they convey. Kirkus Review wrote of Brantley-Newton’s recent book, “Grandma’s Purse,” “She creates a whimsical interplay of patterns, rich color and her trademark lively expressions.”
During the week before Brantley-Newton visited NES , Cole helped lead students through studies of several of the artist’s books, so her students would be familiar with the stories. The evening of November 29, for the community event with families from the school and around the district, tables displaying many of the artist’s books brightened the already vibrant library. Flyleaf Books staff was on hand for book sales, and Brantley-Newton signed copies before and after her presentation.
Her pages are filled with children from all backgrounds, interacting and connecting. “I am a self-proclaimed spreader of sunshine,” she told her audience. “I draw colorblind friendships - I draw love on display.” She lifted her hands toward the crowd in front of her and said, “I want you guys to look around you - this is called diversity. You get to experience every culture - look at all the diversity in this room!"
Cole said, “I believe that we must uplift stories written and illustrated by authors of color that feature children from marginalized communities. We must be intentional and fierce about ensuring all children can see themselves in stories, in a positive, authentic light. We must ensure these stories are in our classrooms and school libraries, but that we are also using them in our practice -- sharing them out loud and putting them in our students’ hands. And while these stories are so important for our children of color, they are also great stories for ALL children that reflect our diverse world.”
She added, “As much as we speak to the importance of having diverse books, the same rings true for guests we bring into our spaces. Students need to see themselves reflected on the page and in person. It's important that we celebrate authors and illustrators of color and invite them into our schools to share their talents, and Vanessa is one I have always wanted to introduce to Northside.”
Reflecting on the impact Brantley-Newton had on the Northside community, Cole said, “I had second graders come in to the library after her visit and exclaim, ‘Hey, that's a Ms. Vanessa book!’ I love that -- they now speak of her on such a personal level because they experienced time with her and learned from her up close. Many students have been asking for her books and wanting to check them out from our library. And likewise, we have many staff members still sharing how inspirational her story was and how much they loved meeting her and connected with her experience. We will build on this experience over the course of this year as we work to ensure that we have reflective literature embedded into our curriculum and that supports our anti-racist curriculum we are actively building. But most importantly, I think having Vanessa visit our school allows students to see what's possible. To see themselves reflected back in her and realize that being an illustrator or an author can be a roadmap for their own lives. Recognizing that someone that has beautiful brown skin, dyslexia, learning disabilities and was seen as ‘less than’ when she was younger can go on to share her gifts with the world through story. It tells them those stories matter and are worth celebrating and in turn, their own stories matter and are worth sharing with the world. I think for some, they've already started writing.”
The residency with Brantley-Newton could not have occurred without a generous grant from the Public School Foundation. Lynn Lehmann, executive director, said, “PSF is grateful for our partners in the community who recognize the value of sponsoring visiting artists to our schools. With this project, it was a joy to see the smiles on the young students' faces as they connected with Vanessa as the author/illustrator of some of their favorite books. The significance of these children relating to the characters in Vanessa's stories is clear. Children need to be able to see themselves in the books they read, and diverse books for a younger audience are the keys to lifelong reading. Thank you to our PSF donors for supporting such an inspiring event."