Interview: Vanessa Brantley-Newton Creates Diverse Artwork

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I recently interviewed an award-winning illustrator. Her name is Vanessa Brantley-Newton and she has drawn pictures for almost 90 books!

I like her artwork, which is mostly of people. It is very colorful. When I look at the pictures, I feel happy. A lot of the pictures are people smiling and having fun. (You can see some of her work at the end of this post.)

Some of the books she has illustrated are the Jada Jones series that I reviewed and also a recent book called A Night Out with Mama, by Quvenzhane’ Wallis, the actress who plays Annie in the new version of the movie. Since I read so many books, sometimes I recognize the names of authors and illustrators. That’s how I realized I owned another book Vanessa Brantley-Newton illustrated. It’s called We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song. I will review it soon.

Even when she was a child Vanessa Brantley-Newton loved to draw. She tells a funny story about it below. My favorite part of her interview is when she talks about why children of all colors are important and that she wants them to be seen in her books. I agree with her!

I emailed her some questions and this what she wrote back:

Question: How would you describe your style?

Answer: My style is more retro collage mixed media digital. I use a little bit of everything.

Q: For your work in Jada Jones: Rock Star, how did you decide how Jada Jones would look?

A: Kelly (the author) has a beautiful daughter and she was my muse when creating Jada Jones. I want to hard to look like Kelly’s daughter. We want to African-American girls to identify with Jada Jones so we created her in a more brown tone with cornrows and regular clothes that a little African-American girl would wear. The response has been tremendous so many young brown girls have embraced Jada as their own.

Q: Why do you think diversity is important in children’s literature?

A: As a child in the 1960s and early ’70s I did not get to see myself in children’s books and it had a big effect on me. For a long time I thought I was invisible and I would constantly ask my mom was I invisible and could she see me?

Commercials and TV shows lacked color or diversity. I saw white people with blonde hair and blue eyes in the commercials and I wanted blonde hair and blue eyes also and this drove my mother and father crazy. You begin to think that you don’t belong and that you don’t matter.

When children cannot see themselves reflected in the books or media that they see, they begin to receive a message that they are not cared for and that they are not important. I want to change all of that so that every child, brown, black, yellow, red, and white, get to see themselves and each other in picture books created by me. The message that I want to send is that all children are important across the board.

Q: Who are your favorite artists? What are your favorite pictures by them?

A: The Snowy Day by Edward Jack Keats, The Wonderful Fluffy Little Squishy by Beatrice Alemagna, Goldilocks and Just One Bear by Leah Hodgkinson, Islandborn, by Leo Espinosa, My Pet Wants a Pet by Eric Barclay, and those are just a few.

Q: How many books have you illustrated?

A: I have illustrated over 87 books for children. By 2021 I will have illustrated 92.

Q: Did you always want to be an artist and how did you reach your goal?

A: I knew I wanted to be an artist at the age of three years old. I would draw on the side of the kitchen stove and then my mother would cook the stove heat up and all of my drawings would melt down into a puddle onto the floor LOL! My mom was none too happy about that. But I have always had a love for drawing and pictures and cartoons. Cartoons were like friends to me and that I could create something for my own pencil was very empowering.

I had to really work very hard in school. I am dyslexic and school was very hard for me. I spent most of my time in remedial reading classes and special ed classes because people did not know how to help children with dyslexia. So I was not very happy in school or a good student and this made very difficult. I had to art teachers who were very nurturing and caring and they would work with me and help me to get into college. After college there was really no work for a black illustrator in fashion. Those jobs were saved basically for white people so I worked in the hospital for many years, actually 25.

But I always drew so I would make greeting cards I would paint pictures for family members just to kind of keep the artwork going and finally one day I decided that I was going to build a portfolio and put it out there to an agent. I did a lot of praying I did a lot of positive thinking and a whole lot of hard work. Lots and lots of hard work and before I knew it I had an agent and I was working on my first picture book. It did not come without a lot of hard work. But this is the hardest work I’ve ever loved!

Q: Lastly, I see that you have written books, too. I can’t wait to read them! Which is your favorite?

A: Picking a favorite book that I’ve written is like trying to pick my favorite child LOL! I love all the books and I’ve created. Auntie Mabel is one of my favorites but Grandma‘s Purse has really stolen my heart.

Check out some of Vanessa Brantley-Newton’s beautiful work below. And read more about her at on her website or Painted Words.

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6 comments

  1. Hi Elena,
    I enjoyed reading your interview with Vanessa Brantley-Newton! I have had an Amazon Gift Card for months and hadn’t decided how to use it until I read your blog. I just put the Jaida Jones series in my Amazon cart! I teach 1st Graders in a very diverse Pike Township in Indianapolis, IN and my students will LOVE this series! I can’t wait to see what you do next!!! Best Wishes!

    Liked by 1 person

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