Angela Johnson packs a whopping dose of feeling into her award-winning picture books, novels and poetry. Her tight writing style breathes life into charming characters with a variety of dilemmas that speak to children across cultural lines. But the enduring theme in Johnson’s work is love. “When you leave the house at eighteen. . .the reason you’re going to be a wonderful adult and maybe have children of your own or make the world a better place is because you left the house feeling like somebody loved you. . .I like for the children in my books to love each other. I want kids to be able to pick up a book and see kids. . .caring about each other.”
Johnson grew up in a loving, supportive family—a family that worried when Johnson left Kent State to write just before receiving her degree, but who never called her desire a pipe dream. “I was afraid I wouldn’t write if I got my degree; I’d go right into teaching.” In the mid-80s, Johnson supported herself as a nanny. One of her charges was a little boy whose mother was Cynthia Rylant, author of many successful children’s books including the Henry and Mudge series. Johnson started to read from Rylant’s extensive library of children’s books. “The short stories I wrote [in college] were for adults, but when I began reading children’s books, I realized where my voice lay.”
Johnson wrote seven picture books before working up the courage to write her first novel,Toning the Sweep (Orchard, 1993), which won the Coretta Scott King Award. During a visit to her brother’s house in the California desert, Johnson met some incredible people who became the inspiration for the vibrant characters in Toning. Each of Johnson’s subsequent novels (Humming Whispers [Orchard, 1995] and Heaven [Simon & Schuster, 1998]) is set in a place she’s visited. Her carefully chosen words in each slim novel convey the depth of her characters and their struggles. Johnson is fond of saying, “If I can’t say it in 105 pages, it can’t be said.”
The idea for Julius (Orchard, 1993) came from a neighbor’s pot-bellied pig that acted like a dog. According to Johnson, Julius’ personality is an amalgamation of her brothers who she describes as “wild children.” Generally, Johnson takes her inspiration from “anything that moves.” An article in Time about young gang members became the inspiration for Sweetness in the Gone From Home anthology (DK, 1998). Friends with bipolar siblings provided Johnson with raw material for Humming Whispers. A school visit shed light on Shoogy Maple, a secondary character in Heaven.
Technically, Johnson lives alone in Kent, Ohio, but when she’s writing she says her characters seem to “kick the door down, eat out of the fridge, crowd themselves on the sofa, inhabit my clothes, and walk around in my shoes. . .I think about them all the time.” But when Johnson completes a book and sends it off to her editor, the characters are gone, too. If an editor returns a book for some final editing, Johnson finds it hard to get back with her characters. She compares them to uninvited relatives: “Oh, you just showed up at the door! You should have called!”
Johnson describes her work habits as “unschooled and undisciplined. I’d rather watch an old movie, take a walk, or go to the gym.” Generally, she doesn’t write every day, and even goes weeks and months without writing, but this system works for her because when she’s not writing, she’s thinking—about story, characters, problems, letting the pieces fall into place. She doesn’t have a computer, preferring to write each story out in long-hand on yellow legal pads, and she’s notorious for changing the titles of her stories part way through—sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally. She also loses things—like the first 25 pages of her first draft of Toning the Sweep. “They were gone. I lost them and had to rewrite. . .It happens all the time!”
Johnson believes writing for children carries added responsibility because adults are no longer part of a child’s world and the temptation is to teach or preach. Her stories captivate young readers because she respects her audience and digs deep within herself to remember the joys and sorrows of her own childhood.