Editor’s Corner: Harlem’s Little Blackbird
I’ve been working with Renée Watson for just about five years. And I know that whatever the format—poem, picturebook, novel—she is going to tell a gorgeously detailed story in simple, expressive language. From the earliest draft of Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills, it was clear that Renée connected with this talented performer from the early 20th century. Last summer as she put the finishing touches on her manuscript, I gave a copy to art director Ellice Lee. Florence’s story struck a chord with Ellice as well. The timing was perfect because she’d seen Christian Robinson’s work and immediately thought of him for this book. Over the next few months Ellice and Christian talked and traded emails filled with sketches, photos, layouts, and stories about dreams and inspiration. All of it, from first sketch to final painting demonstrated just how much Florence’s life resonated with Christian in his art. Here’s a glimpse at some of the behind-the-scene moments.
—Suzy Capozzi, editor
C: The name Florence Mills was completely foreign to me. Reading Renée’s beautifully written manuscript was like being a child discovering some lost treasure. Florence’s story is powerful she was a real hero. Immediately I felt very fortunate just being considered as a potential illustrator for this project. How could I not want to be apart of sharing this inspiring story with young readers?
E: Stories about people who use their natural gifts out of an overflow of joy, but who also live for more than just themselves, resonate deeply with me. The story of Florence Mills would not leave me—her gently bold, yet brief, life needed to be shared. Renée penned it in a way that shows the harsh reality Harlem’s little blackbird lived in, but in a most lyrical & inviting manner. An artist who felt the same about Florence was an absolute requirement. Then, along came Christian and our search was over.
C: Thank goodness for Ellice! Her genuine, encouraging feedback really gave me confidence to trust in my own creative process. And her ability to share constructive ways in which I might improve a layout or composition motivated me to push myself further. There was a real sense of creative freedom, I wasn’t asked to alter my style or to make something that “…looked more like this thing over here.” It was as if whatever came naturally for me was appreciated, which is like having a huge weight lifted. There was room for play and exploration, which made illustrating a positive experience and a lot of fun.
E: Serendipitously, Christian & I found that we both don’t own TV’s or microwaves & have record players. How we like to dabble in a little digital, but mostly physical. So, when I discovered his creative process, I knew we would speak the same visual language.
Christian’s cut paper-style possesses an energy that is undeniably full of soul. It’s both sophisticated & playful. It just felt right & I couldn’t imagine it any other way.
Once his character sketches came in, Florence’s spirit began to jump off the page—her spunk, talent, boldness, grace.
C: Way before my pencil hit paper or xacto blade cut out shapes, I like to do my research. I spent quite some time in the library soaking up all the imagery I could of Florence and the time period in which she lived. I love collecting these resources that help me connect with the subject. It’s when inspiration really builds and ideas are formed. My goal was to honor Florence’s spirit, whatever contribution I could make felt like a privilege. Florence Mills lead a beautiful life; I hope my art could help convey that, I had to do her Justice.
E: I could not stop staring at Christian’s work & others fell into the same trance as I pinned up his creations. It’s as if Florence was speaking to not only me, but to others as they passed by. Florence was more than just a lovely singer; she was an advocate for social justice in both bold & humble ways.
We both feel so honored to play a part in bringing her story to children everywhere & hope that her life would inspire many for years to come.
Don’t miss this stunning picturebook when it’s available, October 23!