Monday, April 15, 2013

Renee Watson's 'Blackbird' Celebrates Harlem Renaissance

The best non-fiction books for children bring facts and historical events to life in colorful and memorable ways. They make understanding our past more accessible and interesting, and Renée Watson's picture book Harlem's Little Blackbird (Random House, 2012) is a perfect example. An author of picture books, middle-grade, as well as poetry and performance, Renée is also a teacher. And it shows in her beautiful telling of the story of Florence Mills, a lesser-known figure of the Harlem Renaissance. Earning a starred review in Booklist, Harlem's Little Blackbird is lushly illustrated in a mixed-media, folk-art style by Christian Robinson.

Florence Mills could sing as sweetly as the birds, and she performed across the United States and London, even wowing the Prince of Wales. But she was painfully aware of the racism of the times and that her friends and family were kept out of the theaters where she performed. She became an activist against discrimination, refusing to perform unless the white-owned theaters allowed her loved ones to be part of the audience. She even turned down an opportunity to join the Ziegfeld Follies, opting instead to work a show that promoted young black talent.

Question: Florence Mills is a lesser-known artist of the Harlem Renaissance. How did you come to learn her story, and what inspired you to share it with a young audience?

Renée Watson: After finishing my first picture book, A Place Where Hurricanes Happen (Random House, 2010), my editor and I discussed what I wanted to write next. I told her I wanted to tell a story about an African American woman who did extraordinary things, that young people might not know about. We learn about the brave and legendary women Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman often. I wanted to add an unsung hero to the list.

My editor recommended I research Florence Mills. I had never heard of her but as soon as I started learning her story, I knew I wanted to tell it.

Q: One of the challenges of writing a picture book is distilling your story to its most important elements. Was it hard to choose what details of her life to include and what to leave out?

RW: Yes, it was definitely a challenge to figure out what to put in and what to leave out. A question I asked myself with every scene of the book was, “Why is this important to tell a child?”  or “Why does this matter?”

My hope was that young people—regardless of if they wanted to be a singer—would see that you’re never too young to use your voice for something good and that regardless of where you come from, you can achieve great things.

Q: Because no recordings or films of Florence Mills' performances exist, it must have made researching her life a challenge. How did you go about getting the information you needed to tell her story?

RW: I did most of my research at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which is located in Harlem. The Schomburg Center has a research collection on Florence that has news clippings from the '20s, playbills from her shows, letters she wrote—all kinds of personal artifacts. I was able to read firsthand accounts and see photos of her. The book wouldn’t have been possible without the resources at the Schomburg. I also read Bill Egan’s book, Harlem Jazz Queen.  Bill’s extensive research on Florence was also a great resource for me.

Q: You are the author of other picture books, a middle-grade novel, you write poetry, perform onstage–what do you hope to achieve in your art? What message do you hope your readers take away from your writing?

RW: I don’t think there’s one specific thing I hope readers take away from my work. In general, I hope I am bringing characters and situations to young people that they can relate to. My writing mixes the bitter and the sweet. It puts deep sorrow and profound joy right next to each other because often times, that’s how it is in life. We are experiencing many emotions at once, having good days and bad days in one week. I hope that young people walk away from my books accepting that and feeling like they can handle whatever life throws at them.

Q: Harlem's Little Blackbird is a beautiful book in both its story and in the remarkable pictures by Christian Robinson. Do you have a soft spot for picture books and the way they can bring a story to life so creatively? What medium do you enjoy the most and why?

RW: As an educator, I love using picture books in the classroom to teach even my older middle- or high-school students. I use them to teach plot, story arc, symbolism—there’s so much you can do in the classroom with picture books.

And then, there’s my role as an auntie. I love snuggling with my nephews and nieces and reading morning or bedtime stories with them. There really is something special about witnessing a child discover words, point to pictures, and name the things they see.

So, yes, I do have a soft spot for picture books. As a writer, it is so moving to see my words inspire a visual artist to create illustrations. Every time I receive a sketch, I am in awe. I enjoy the collaboration that happens between an author and an illustrator. There’s a certain level of trust and humility that goes into this work, and I have been so fortunate to work with two very talented artists. Both Shadra Strickland and Christian Robinson deepened the meaning of my words with their illustrations and that’s what you hope happens.


  1. What a fabulous interview. Reading about other's writing process never fails to shed light on my own. I am going to purchase Harlem's Little Blackbird. I am one who loves to read about steadfast, strong woman. I could use a little of the spunk it sounds like Florence Mills had.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Sue. I agree! I love discovering historical figures who have been overlooked, and Renee's treatment of Florence Mills is wonderful. I enjoyed the illustrations, too. It's a keeper!

  3. Thank you both for this fascinating interview.It sounds like a marvelous book -- one to buy for grand kids.