Tonya Bolden’s work has been recognized with the NCTE Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children and the Carter G. Woodson Book Award, among others. His book Maritcha: A 19th Century American was an honorary title of author Coretta Scott King. Eric Velasquez has illustrated many children’s books lately She was the first!, which won an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Children’s Literature. He won the Pura Belpré prize for his illustrations in grandma gift and the Coretta Scott King–John Steptoe New Talent Award for her illustrations in The man at the piano by Debbi Chocolate. Bolden and Velasquez recently collaborated on Go to placesa non-fiction picture book about green book, a travel guide written and published by a black postal worker who wanted African Americans to stay safe while traveling in the United States during segregation. We asked the duo to discuss the genesis of their new book, the story behind the green bookand why it is still relevant today.
Eric Velazquez: Tonya, I am delighted to speak with you about our book Go to places. Although we had known each other for a while and talked about growing up in Spanish Harlem during the same time, we went to different schools so never met. I’ve always wanted to ask you, have you ever traveled South as a child and experienced Jim Crow laws? Did this experience inspire you to write Go to places?
Tonya Bolden: When I was a kid in the 1960s, before and after de jure Jim Crow ended – my family often drove south to visit family, especially Dad’s folks in Charlotte, North Carolina. (In 1962, Mom’s key relative in Greenwood, South Carolina, had died.) Anyway, if I remember correctly, we always left New York when it was dark, late at night or early in the morning. morning. My sister and I learned that it was all about avoiding traffic. I later learned that was only partially true. My parents didn’t want us to be in parts of the South when it was dark. And, yes, we rolled around with sandwiches and other foods, mostly because ours was a working-class family. As for our trip, if my memory serves me right, after Maryland House, where we stretched our legs and Dad filled up the gas in our 98 Oldsmobile, I don’t think we stopped again unless it was. was to get gas or use the bathroom in a place my parents thought was safe.
Once we arrived at our destination, we stayed with relatives. If we went out to eat, it was in a black-owned restaurant. So my sister and I never knew about Jim Crow. Our parents protected us from this by keeping us within the black community.
On the inspiration for Go to places, it was not my idea but that of our editor Karen Chaplin. Funny thing, when she contacted me to do a book on the green book my first thought was, no! But then I thought of some misconceptions in the air. People thought that back then, when it came to housing, the only options for black people were the dumps. People who believe that before the green bookblack people had no idea about safe and welcoming places to eat or stay, for example, as if traveling when black people weren’t a problem before the 1930s. With these things buzzing in my brain, I got really excited about the project, eager to put the green book in context as I paid tribute to Victor Hugo Green for putting so much valuable information in one convenient place. Now about you. When you read my manuscript, did you immediately know that you wanted to illustrate it? Or did you need to think?
Velazquez: Most of the time, I know right away. When I read Go to places the first time, I was blown away by the manuscript. The images danced instantly in my head as I read the words. I knew I wanted to illustrate this book. Mostly because I could relate to it in so many ways.
Bold : What do you mean you could relate to it in so many ways?
Velazquez: Well, as an African-American author-illustrator who travels to various states for lectures and school tours, I too have felt the sting of traveling black – possibly higher ranked like microaggressions from a few hotel workers and taxi drivers. It never ceases to amaze me that remnants of the American past are still alive in the souls of some Americans. I sincerely believe that books like Go to places can help explain where these practices began and hopefully help to remedy these attitudes.
Bold : I hope so too – and I know exactly what you mean about these microaggressions. If I had a hundred dollars for every look that lets you in. At a B&B in Boston, the doorman practically interrogated me when I arrived and insisted on phoning my white host before letting me have my room. And, you know, it was a pretty seedy place, so much so that I chose not to have breakfast.
Now back to those images that dance through your head… Did you know at a glance how you wanted to illustrate the story? Did you know from the start that some pages would be like coming out of an album? And before you answer, let me repeat something I know I’ve told you before: I was over the moon when I heard you said yes to illustration Go to places. Your work is wonderful and you are such a master of mood/mood.
Velazquez: Wow! Thanks Tonya. I have been such a fan of your work over the years. To have someone of your stature say that about my work means the world to me.
No, I didn’t know in a flash how I was going to illustrate the story. Even though I knew what I wanted to illustrate, I hadn’t fixed the how. After doing my first set of rough thumbnails, I started looking at Victor Hugo Green’s designs for the green book on the New York Public Library website. I started seeing the issues as beautiful in the way they were put together as a mix of scrap art collages and everything else. In addition, I was also inspired by a line of the text which referred to postcards from different cities delivered by Victor Hugo Green when he was a postman.
I shared all of this in an email to my art director, Rachel Zegar, who then helped me get started by sending me one of my sketches with the postcards incorporated into the composition. After that, I was able to see the whole book. I experimented with different compositions and the rest is history.
I loved it [in the book] you mentioned Langston Hughes, Augusta Savage and several other famous and talented residents of Harlem. This helped set the tone of the book. Have you always been aware of all the talented people who lived in Harlem?
Bold : Nope, I wasn’t always aware of all the amazing people who lived in Harlem at the time. This is knowledge gained from researching previous books. The only exception is Langston Hughes. When I was a kid – a kid who had absolutely no interest in history – a history-loving uncle took me to Hughes. Not to go inside, just to see him as he kept talking about the importance of Langston Hughes. If that uncle could see me now, someone who never tires of history!
Velazquez: You also mention Oak Bluffs on Martha Vineyard and “Black Eden” among other vacation destinations for African Americans. Has your family been to these places?
Bold : Oh no! We couldn’t afford this stuff and didn’t know anyone who had a summer house anywhere.
When you talked about your process, it reminded me that I envy people like you who are both author and illustrator. When you come across an idea that you want to both write down and illustrate, what comes first, pictures or words?
Velazquez: Excellent question. I always write the words first and pretend someone else is going to illustrate the story. This way, I can tell the story regardless of my artistic limitations. Then I illustrate the story and pretend someone else wrote it. Therefore, I’m not tempted to go back and change the story. Which explains how I wrote a story about an octopus that grew to huge proportions without ever having drawn or painted an octopus before.
Bold : It takes a lot of discipline, something I don’t always have – or maybe I’m being unfair to myself. What I’m thinking about here is that when I’m writing, I tend to jump around. I don’t write in a straight line. I could write scene or chapter A, scene or chapter B, then go to scene or chapter D, because what I know has to be in scene or chapter C just doesn’t happen, either because I’m confused about an engaging way to say what needs to be said or because there’s research I need to do that I’m just not in the mood to do. When working on sketches and later on final art, do you work in a straight line?
Velazquez: I find that fascinating. When I make the first sketches of the storyboard, I have to follow the chronological order so that I can control the pace of the book. I can go back and do a spread or two again, but I’m moving in a straight line. Now, when I’m working on the finishing touches, I mostly bounce around the book depending on the degree of difficulty and the time frame.
Because Go to places is made up of so many pieces like art, did you write Go to places in a straight line or did you bounce?
Bold : I didn’t bounce back much. After research – and after I got the “go places” hook at the start – the story pretty much flowed. It was then a question of pruning it, of refining it. I probably did three or four drafts before our editor saw the “first draft”. It was like that with our book beautiful moon. And I hope we can collaborate on many more books.
Going Places: Victor Hugo Green and his glorious book by Tonya Bolden, ill. by Eric Velazquez. Quill Tree, $17.99 October 4 ISBN 978-0-06-296740-4