By Khadejah Khan
Today we’re pleased to welcome Ibi Zoboi and Loveis Wise to the WNDB blog to discuss The People Remember.
Ibi, this is your debut picture book for a younger audience, which is different than who you have written for in the past. What appealed to you about writing for children? What challenges were there along the way?
I’m a mother of three and my children are close in age. When they were all little, we spent lots of time in the library and I bought just about every picture book featuring Black children I could find. We read them over and over again. I was already writing poetry, so the short form and lyricism came naturally. I also wanted to be a storyteller, as in, the oral tradition—someone who told and performed folktales and myths. That is very hard to do, so I stuck with writing instead.
When I decided to write for children, I knew that it also included picture books, middle grade, and young adult, including nonfiction. I’ve always written for different age groups, it just so happens that my YA books were published first. There are so many things I want to say, and I want to be able to say them in different forms, different genres. I guess the challenge is that I don’t fit into any one category, which is nice. What will remain consistent is that I write about Black children and Black people in whatever form I choose.
Similarly, Loveis, a lot of the ethos in your illustrations as an overall artist is about creating joy. Given the subject matter that this book explores, both sadness and excellence from the African diaspora, was illustrating this book a challenge? If so, how?
This book has been one of the most challenging and inspiring projects for me in that sense. I typically don’t create work that centers on trauma & pain but I felt it was important for me to showcase the range of emotion our ancestors have felt throughout the diaspora. Black people, historically, have been through so much suffering but have always found ways to transmute our pain into freedom and so much of the creation of this book reminded me of that.
Children have the capacity to grasp such complicated subjects, even at a young age. Ibi, how did you decide how to tell the hardships of the African diaspora for an age-appropriate reading level. How did you decide what elements to keep and how to portray them?
Well, it’s been done before. I’ve read Kadir Nelson’s Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans and he also illustrated The Village that Vanished. I also own a copy of Tom Feeling’s The Middle Passage. I’m just continuing the long legacy of tackling tough subjects and history in picture books. With The People Remember, I brought the experience I have with the oral tradition and spoken word, celebrating Kwanzaa with friends and family, and my knowledge of both African and Black American history into one book. It’s one long poem and I was relying on lyricism and how people move through time and space while connecting the principles of Kwanzaa. I’m Haitian and this is how Haitian school children learn their history—through song and rhyme. I kept those moments in history that related to each of the Kwanzaa principles, and left out some others; however, Loveis was able to capture those moments in their beautiful illustrations.
Loveis, much of your art incorporates Black excellence, dreaming, magic, wonder, and resilience. What do you draw on, perhaps from your life, intrinsic factors or external, to inspire these illustrations and your unique style of drawing?
Many of these themes have found their way into my art practice by way of my growing spiritual practice. I feel it’s important for folks to dream and remember their inner authentic truth as a way to connect with healing, so I always try my best to include the alchemy of joy in everything that I create. There have also been many artists that I found inspiration from such as Faith Ringgold, Kerry James Marshall, and Aaron Douglas also assisted me in creating my own style.
What do you want children to take away when viewing your drawings in conjunction with the story? What about the adults who may be reading the story to them?
For both children and adults, I would love for everyone to feel curious, to feel seen, and want to connect more with their history. It would be beautiful if this book helps families who want to develop their own relationship with Kwanzaa to celebrate community & their ancestors.
How about you, Ibi? What do you hope both adults and children take away from this book?
That history can be remembered. Literally. I wrote this book in a way that can be memorized and performed. Loveis’s illustrations can be performed as different tableaus. Maybe while celebrating Kwanzaa, a child or any member of the family can each memorize a principle to recite before or after lighting one of the candles on the kinara. This book should also be used and celebrated throughout the year. The principles don’t expire after the holidays. I see The People Remember as a book that is passed down and gifted over and over again.
What’s one question you wish you were asked more often, whether it’s about your craft, process, or something quirky about yourself (and the answer)?
Loveis: What a fun question! That would be: What books inspired you when you were a kid? To that, I would answer, Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold, The Stinky Cheese Man by Jon Scieszka, illustrated by the phenomenal Lane Smith, Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes, and The Very Hungry Caterpillar by the late Eric Carle. Without these books, I wouldn’t have found my way into picture making and I’m thankful for them!
Ibi: I wish more people would ask me about being a mother and raising Black children while writing for Black children. I can honestly say that the conversations that happen in the children’s book world are different from the conversations Black mothers are having. For example, a lot of us buy books for our children because we don’t trust what’s being assigned by their teachers, and we don’t see diverse books in their classrooms. There’s no doubt that Black women are a well-read demographic. Add Black mothers to that number, and we represent a large portion of the book-buying public. Black mothers are also beginning to homeschool our children in large numbers, especially after the pandemic. Sometimes I feel as if we’re invisible.
Loveis, What books are you reading right now that you’d recommend?
Currently, I am bouncing between: We Are Bridges by Cassandra Lane, The Stars, and The Blackness Between Them by Junauda Petrus, and Salvation: Black People & Love by bell hooks.
Ibi Zoboi is the New York Times bestselling author of American Street, a National Book Award Finalist, Pride, My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich, and the Walter Award-winning novel-in-verse Punching the Air co-written with Exonerated Five member Yusef Salaam. She is also the editor of the anthology Black Enough. Born in Haiti and raised in New York City, she now lives in New Jersey with her husband and their three children. You can find her online at www.ibizoboi.net.
Loveis Wise is an illustrator & designer from Washington, DC. They are currently based in Los Angeles and their work often speaks to themes of joy and liberation. Their work can be found through The New Yorker, Google, Adobe, and the New York Times. You can find them online at www.loveiswise.com.
Khadejah Khan is a blog volunteer for We Need Diverse Books. Like Grandpa Joe, she lives in pajama co-ords and never leaves her bed, where she is wrapped burrito-style in her blankets. She has an insatiable sweet tooth, as well as a voracious appetite for fiction, children’s stories, and historical non-fiction. In her free time, she’s quoting SpongeBob, rewatching MCU movies and reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show, roller-skating, or tanning like a rotisserie chicken poolside in Florida. She is currently a mentee with Penguin Random House UK & Creative Access for writing children’s picture books, and she is a full-time Editorial Assistant at LUXE Interiors + Design. You can find her on Twitter @khadejah_k.