Dr. Dianne “Dinah” Johnson is a children’s book author and professor of children’s literature at the University of South Carolina (US). She is an intellectual who has travelled the world. She’s written six picture books for children, and edited or co-edited various publications including: The Best of the Brownies’ Book (a compilation of fiction, poetry, photographs and more, from the 1920’s children’s magazine edited by W.E.B. Dubois and Jessie Fauset); the African American Review (a special issue devoted to black children’s authors and illustrators); and The Collected Works of Langston Hughes. She is also involved in the production of a documentary film called Beautiful by Design: The Story of African American Children’s Literature.
Through the IBBY Africa Regional Meeting, we had the pleasure to exchange with her about her career, perspectives and prospective on African children literature.
Muna Kalati (MK): How were your first experience with books and reading? *
Dianne Johnson-Feelings (DJF): There were always many, many books in my home. My mother was a teacher and both of my parents were big readers. My siblings and I read much more than we watched television. I started thinking of myself as a writer when I was 12 years old. My teacher gave a creative writing assignment every week and I began writing poetry in response to her assignments.
MK: What were the first children’s books you read? Were they African? Any childhood authors you remember? What did these reading practices teach you as a child? *
DJF : I am African American, so I read primarily American books, with the exception of folklore and a book of Persian stories my parents purchased when we lived in Iran. I don’t recall any specific authors. But I was fortunate enough to know a few individuals who were published authors. This made being an author seem like a real possibility to me.
MK: Could you give us an overview of your career? Why did you become interested in the world of children’s books? Is it a choice or a stroke of fate? *
DJF : In college, I majored in English and in Creative Writing. But when I went to graduate school, I set aside the creative writing. Instead I began researching the history of African American children’s literature. This was the beginning of my career as a professor of children’s literature. I’ve taught at the University of South Carolina for almost 30 years. I’m very proud of my contribution to the reconstruction of the literary history of black children’s literature, dating back to at least 1920-21 when Jessie Fauset and W.E.B. Du Bois published The Brownies’ Book, a magazine for black children. Since I entered the field, there are many more scholars who are devoting their careers to the field of black children’s literature. The other part of my career is as “Dinah Johnson”, children’s book author. You can see my books at www.dinahjohnsonbooks.com
MK: What are the difficulties and obstacles you have faced? Has access to publishers been easy? Is it possible to make a living only from this profession?
DJF : I am very fortunate to hold a secure position in the university, because it would have been impossible for me to earn a living solely through the publishing of scholarly books and children’s books. I have been fortunate, as well, to have published several books with the same publishing house. However, as the publishing industry has changed, it is necessary for me to work with an agent in order to get my work in front of more potential editors.
MK: How do you promote your books? What is the reception of your work with the public?
DJF : I love visiting schools and doing programs for the children, helping them to develop a love for literature, written and spoken aloud. Unfortunately, all of my books are now out of print and can be purchased only on the internet. (I do expect that one of my titles will soon have a new life.) This is a problem for many black American authors. Too many teachers and educators erroneously think that books centered in a “black experience” are only for black readers. This is outrageous, of course. Good literature is for everyone!
MK: How many children’s books have you published to date? Could you name them? Would you like Muna Kalati to make some analysis on these books?
DJF : The titles of my picture books are 1) All Around Town: The Photographs of Richard Samuel Roberts, 2) Sunday Week, 3) Hair Dance, 4) Sitting Pretty: A Celebration of Black Dolls, 5) Black Magic, 6) Quinnie Blue, and 7) The Best of The Brownies’ Book. You can see reviews of them on my website: www.dinahjohnsonbooks.com.
MK: What is your relationship with African children’s book authors/illustrators? Do you collaborate with Cameroonian children’s book professional?
DJF : As an American, I have not collaborated with any Cameroonian professionals. But I would love to!
MK: In Africa, children’s literature is located on the periphery and seen as a marginal genre compared to classical literature. What do you think of that?
DJF : I think that this is deplorable. Children’s literature is, in some ways, THE most important literature. It is one of the places from which children get ideas about their cultures and our ways of living and beliefs. Children’s literature should be central instead of marginal!
MK: What is your vision for the future of children’s literature in your country?
DJF : In my country, the United States of America, there are efforts to increase appreciation of children’s literature created by authors and illustrators of all ethnic, racial, religious and cultural backgrounds. My vision, my hope, is that people begin, more and more, to see that everyone has a story and that we all benefit from hearing a variety of stories
MK: Any last word?
DJF: I am so appreciative of my experience at the IBBY conference in Accra. I hope that it is just the beginning of a long relationship with some of the African colleagues I met and admire.
Selected CHILDREN’S BOOKS
• Black Magic, illus. by R. Gregory Christie, Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, 2009.
• “African American Women Writers of Children’s and Young Adult Literature,” in The Cambridge Companion to African American Women’s Literature, edited by Angelyn Mitchell and Danille K. Taylor, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
• Hair Dance, photography by Kelly Johnson, Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, 2007.
Find out more about Dinah Johnson at http://www.Dinahjohnson.com