When Dolores Johnson was a child in Connecticut, she knew she could draw, but didn’t consider herself an artist. “You see, I had an artist living in the house with me, my older brother Billy. . .Billy ate, slept and drank art.” Johnson didn’t. She enjoyed other pursuits like piano, sewing, knitting and reading. Although Johnson chose to study art at Boston University, but jumped from job to job after graduation, never completely finding her niche. Eventually, she moved to the Los Angeles area and applied her talents to advertising and television, but was still unsatisfied because her art wasn’t creative.
So Johnson challenged herself to create. Every night after work she made pottery, stained glass, and painted with oils and water colors. She’d never considered using her art in children’s books until a friend suggested it to her. Once the seed was sown, Johnson enrolled in picture book writing and illustrating courses, then wrote, painted, and submitted to publishers for five long years. Finally, she was asked to illustrate Jenny by Beth P. Wilson (Macmillan, 1990).
Since 1990, Johnson has written and illustrated several of her own stories. She finds compelling ideas in the basic issues every child faces: “being left with a baby-sitter, coming home to an empty house, performing in a school play.” According to Johnson, “I still remember the intensity of experience brought about by these chapters in my life. Perhaps through my writing and artwork, I can help young children find comfort, maybe even a laugh, and hopefully a solution to some of the problems that trouble them.”
What Will Mommy Do When I’m at School (Macmillan, 1990) is the first book Johnson both wrote and illustrated, and it comes directly from her memories. When she went to school for the first time, her mother went to work. “Many of my first books have aspects of my personal history which I use to create the story’s conflict.” What Will Mommy Do continues to resonate with Johnson. The strong main character remains her favorite because “she knows what she wants and she uses all of her resources to achieve her goals.”
Now Let Me Fly (Macmillan, 1993) began as a Black History month exhibit for the San Diego Children’s Museum. “I was commissioned . . .to write a story and create illustrations for an educational and cultural program called Roots & Wings. . .dedicated to telling the African-American story to all children with complete honesty and sensitivity.” AlthoughNow Let Me Fly isn’t a happy story with a tidy ending, Johnson taps into her characters’ emotions and vividly portrays the life many Africans were forced to face from the mid-1500’s to the mid-1800’s.
In her first nonfiction book, The Children’s Book of Kwanzaa (Aladdin, 1993), Johnson spent many months researching African American history. “I also had to create recipes, crafts, a story, and most of all, make Kwanzaa accessible and involving for children.” Johnson’s comprehensive book is a practical guide which takes children through the preparation of traditional decorations and appropriate gifts, while simultaneously weaving in the significance of family, symbolism, and ritual.
Like most children’s authors, Johnson reads a great deal of children’s literature. Her favorite author is Virginia Hamilton, author of Newbery Medal winner, M.C. Higgins, the Great; Newbery Honor book, Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush; and The People Could Fly. “I admire Virginia Hamilton’s work, her great breadth of knowledge, her sophistication and what she brings to children. . .she’s not defined as a great ‘black’ writer or a wonderful ‘female’ writer—she is simply a phenomenal WRITER!”
Johnson’s childhood was different from most children’s authors—she rarely had books around her and didn’t come from a storytelling family. According to Johnson, “I write the kinds of books I would have liked to read as a child.”