On today’s blog I share my conversation with author, illustrator Vanessa Brantley Newton, I’ve been such a fan of her books, that I’ve shared in my classroom library over the years. Take a listen below.
JE: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the culture curriculum chat podcast with your host Jebeh Edmunds, I cannot wait to share with you all. An amazing author and illustrator whose energetic prose and pictures will motivate you and inspire you every day. We have with us in the guest chair Mrs.Vanessa Brantley Newton.. Welcome, Vanessa.
VBN: Jebeh It’s such a joy and pleasure to be here with all of you. Thank you so much for inviting me. It’s, it’s indeed a pleasure.
JE:Thank you. So before we get diving into it, I’m gonna share your background real quick with our audience. Vanessa was born during the Civil Rights Movement and attended school in Newark, New Jersey, being part of a diverse tight knit community. During such turbulent times, Vanessa learned the importance of acceptance and empowerment in shaping a young person’s life. When she read snowy day by Ezra Jack Keats, it was the first time she saw herself in a children’s book. It was a defining moment in her life, and has made her into the artist she is today. As an illustrator, she includes children of all ethnic backgrounds in her stories and artwork. She wants all children to see their unique experiences reflected in the books they read. So they can feel the same sense of empowerment and recognition she experienced as a young reader. So I loved reading your biography of Ezra Jack Keats snowy data is one of my favorite books. And can you kind of share with our audience that spark that catalyst for change that made you the author illustrator that you are?
VBN:Oh, my gosh, it’s such an awesome question. And every time I give an answer for this book, because I’m asked that question so many times, it was the 1960s when this book came out, and I actually 1963 the year I was born, and gone to predominantly white schools where I was the only black child in the classroom, and not seeing yourself. As a child, I would walk up to my mom and I would often ask her, Am I invisible? You know, something, something wrong, people can’t see me. And it was because we weren’t granted children’s books where we could actually see ourselves. Everything was if you remember, and you’re my age. I’m 60. This year. Dick and Jane?
VBN:He dumped the magazines, Jack and Jill magazine, and all of these different magazines that came out focused on white children and their stories, you know, and so we as brown children, black children, never really got to see our hair textures, skin, what our parents look like, because I was raised with two parents and two parents who were Christian, you know, and so family was everything, whether you were Christian, Muslim, whatever. Family back then was very important. And my mom and dad would not spend their money on books that did not reflect that. Mrs. Russell, one of my favorite teachers, had one of the biggest afros I think I ever saw in my whole entire life. It was orange. She wore orange dresses that were so short that you did not want her to bend over to go go boots. And she was the coolest teachers I loved, loved love Mrs. Russell, and she wasn’t the nicest teacher in the world. But she knew children who learned different, and I learned different, I am dyslexic, I have something called synesthesia, which is the ability to see smell, feel, taste and your color. And I also am a stutterer. And so she knew that. And I remember the day Jebeh, she picked me up and put me on her lap and open up the snowy day. I am 60 years old. And I still get emotional. But it was the first time that I ever saw a black child. Beautifully painted that look like me. I even had a snowshoe. And so I thought Peter was a child that got lost in the book. That was my brother. And I just need to open that book and I could go and visit him anytime I wanted to reclaim the snow together. It was it was everything that book. As a matter of fact, I’ve cut my husband often when I leave here and go to be with the Lord put my Bible and a copy of the snowy day in my palm because I want to read it to the Lord. When I get there with what I get to have it. It’s that special to me. That book is that special to me. I love that book.
JE:Yeah, such a beautiful written book. I read it I had the big book when my first grade class just the innocent It’s a child playing in the snow and seeing his tracks and you know and what I see how you have transformed your work. It does give you that childlike glow about it. And it’s bright it’s vibrant and just how you even you know described your teacher in the Orange throne with a golden boots
VBN:Yeah yeah Orange throne with a golden boots. Girl The fashion you have in your character. Yes, honey. Yes. Hello Jabba mascara.
JE:It’s it’s so vibrant. You’ve got African textiles in it in some of these. You’ve gotten jeans down to the stitching, and I need your attention to detail is just perfection. And what I love about your books, Vanessa, is it does it makes you set a little taller? Because even in 2023, there is this urgency to have more I have colleagues and neighbors and people ask me, Jebeh, where are the books that don’t look like my kids? And I’m like, ooh, do I have books for you? Because we want to have all of our kids to know that Vanessa is in Jebeh’s, we exists. Yeah, existing daily themes. You know, I as an educator, I always would have, you know, my students see me out in the community. And it’s like, yeah, I exist. I do human things. For it to be in a book to open that conversation. I feel like you have done it, my dear. With your becoming Vanessa book. Everybody has their first day of school. Everybody have the jitters? Everybody wants to have their special outfit and with your feather boa and your parents saying, Oh, yes. What are you going to do that special today? And I really, when I read your book, it really took me back to my first day of school experiences. I had a different knee, you know, and how to write it down. And I just love how you juxtapose having two S’s and how you’re still writing your name. Everybody else who’s done. Every year, we all have students like that they’re still working on their names. Other kids are at the door waiting to go to recess. You know, kids can relate to Vanessa’s story and, and what I love about how you wrote this, and I don’t want to give away too much audience, I want you to get this book, your mother sits you down and shows you and shares with you how important your name is, and why she means that. And I feel as as parents, we need to sit our kids down and say, Do you wonder why I gave you that name? You know, and I feel that gives that child that confidence. And whoa, I know my name and the meaning and why I’m named that and arrogant. eggless. Can you talk more about Yeah, becoming Vanessa. I just love that biographical feel to it.
VBN:I have to tell you and even in what we were first talking about, is I wanted to give children with Ezra Jack Keats .Yes, that that was the whole thing. If I could leave them feeling the same way as you made me feel. The day I got that book. I remember Jebeh going to the library and picking up that book, close to probably 25 times and the librarian threatened me. And he said if he take his book out one more time, she said there are other books that he’s written. Would you like to see them? I read them. And the next week went right back to snowy day. Yeah. You know, in becoming Vanessa. Name names are so important. And this is not to down Americans or America. As far as named, but concerned, this is not not about that. It is when you don’t know you continue to do the same things over and over and over again. When you do know the value starts to come. And then the worse starts to come.
VBN: And then the pride of you know what you have and that’s why naming your child. It’s something so very, very special. It’s looking at that child and it’s there’s something special special about you. And even that is because your mommy and daddy’s baby. There’s something special about you. I remember going here in low country, South Carolina, and I was in art gallery for African American art delegates. You my family’s delegates you from no country governor. Yeah. There was a woman that was in there she was beautiful, gorgeous woman had wrapping all I said, Alexa, what’s your name? And she says my name. I’m trying to remember how she said it. The thing is a great title. And I was so moved when she told them what her name cuz it’s really like a bell when she said it. She said my name is if a title I’ve said oh my god. What is that mean? She said it’s bringer of joy. As I told you, you don’t know how much joy you brought me by sharing your name with me said that name over and over, even if a title if a title. And I was like if I ever have another baby, I’m naming my baby if I type. Because if you’re naming your children names that don’t have any meaning to it, or something derogatory, that’s what you’re calling your child all the time. I lost several children, buried a daughter who would have been 23 years old. I have a 22 year old now named Zoe. VBN:And when I had Zoey, I knew that I wanted to name her Zoe. And the first thing people said to me, Jebeh was, oh, you named Chris Zoe. After Zoe on Sesame Street. I said, No. It’s a biblical name. Zoey needs the God kind of life, there was no depth in it. And I got to hold her. And now that she’s 22 years old, she has become her name. And so when I see her, I tell her constantly, baby girl, you are becoming your name, the God kind of life, there is no death in it. And so when I got my name as a child, I was in what a flight one of the one of the things that I used to do, I would go to school, and when the teacher would give me paint, I would put all the paint in the middle of the page, and then add some stuff together and then pull the page over instant butterfly, and butterfly butterflies. And my mother said neck girl, no, she loves butterflies. My mother was pregnant with my little brother, who was a stillborn as well. And I remember her going through the book and I told her I hate money. She said, You hate your name. Why do you say it it has two x’s in it? Two A’s. It is Harpy. People always ask me why your mama name up next. And I was embarrassed at the name. I remember one of my teachers, one of my teachers, white teacher told me she said that name is too big for you. And when she said that, you know when you said to a six year old that always thought something was wrong with me. And she goes NASA, what a rich name to give a child like you. And the thing to hurt me so bad. I didn’t even know I was hurt Jebeh until I got home.
VBN: And I told my mother I didn’t like my name. And my mom and dad sat me down and then I’ll never forget. They said your name is Vanessa. Do you know what Vanessa means? I had not a clue. She said what’s your favorite thing to draw? Vanessa? Butterflies. So that’s what Vanessa means. It means butterfly, the pride and the joy that I felt in my soul. I still get teary eyed when I tell the story because my self esteem was so in the toilet. I failed completely through school at Cindy’s until I got out of high school. And didn’t want people to call my day. Because I thought something was wrong. When they come by then, of course, she’s dyslexic girl. Oh, she’s a girl. That’s synesthesia now, that crazy stuff. And she started. So every reason to pick on me. So there was like, I don’t know why my parents gave me this name. But in grasping it and now learning it. I just want to empower babies, to know their names. And to know that there was worth to every single one of them. It is so planted in my heart. It is what I pray about in the morning. If God gives me a heart of Christ, where children are concerned, because I love children. I don’t want to see them abused. Don’t call them out in their names, even when it’s something that has really angered you. Take your time and breathe and say what you need to say to them soundly of course and everything. And I am a believer in spanking by. Yes, I got old school. Okay. The second thing, my desire to see children thrive and grow is from a very we’ll we’ll place because I’m five years old, I’m still
JE: And you have done it beautifully. Any time some your gift and I apologize that you felt that way as that child and I remember when I was going into education, my mother she was a teacher just retired a couple years ago and she always said it’s it’s yeah, a big blessing. My favorite teacher was my mom in it. Like, she always said, you know that one may need to see your face that you exists that you’ve done wrong in that role in two. I always thought of the words of Maya Angelou, they’ll never remember the lesson you taught them how you made them feel
VBN:that you made them feel
JE: Yes.And as an educator, and now you as an artist showing your work, you’re sending hope to those kids that felt small, you’re sending hope to those kids that sell to others. You know, what could you you know, I’m at the bookstore. I like yes, I would all the titles. Yep. And I was telling every cashier, I’m interviewing her on my podcast, like I said, Yes. You know, I want to share your work, because even back in the day when you illustrated that one love my mom.
JE: I had my first grade class, you know?
JE: No, you’re my fan girl moment. I’m like, Oh my gosh, but even thing. I’m just so honored and your work is just bright, and vibrant. And it’s so happy. It’s sharing, and even your solemn pictures that you have on your website. They make you think they make you get rooted down, you know, to understand your not the breadth and depth of your work. But even to switch gears on you’re just like me your book of poems. I just love how self affirming it is. And I feel like you were writing this to your younger Vanessa. Yeah. I mean, I’m just gonna quote one quick sentence from all I mean, there’s so many I love me mas wisdom it reminded me of my favorite that one and yes, oh my gosh, and yes, I am a canvas and just I even I have two you know, biracial boys and 14 and 11 and even reading it out to them you know, it’s just like yeah, there’s gonna be days where you’re not feeling it. You’re feeling you know, bluesy kind of way just to show you that yeah, it will get better you know and you have to be painted of your words is just beautiful. Warrior I mean went up in those moments I’m just like, I’m willing for a good fight to speak up and stand up for myself yeah, yeah good fight when love and oh, it’s just in Italia. I am like freaking out in a good way. Because how you have this this not just for girls only. I mean, you have a written in the girl’s voice. But all students can you know, take it every student can take away from it. Yes, every suit he can take away from it. Feelings are so many poems that teachers can write about analyze, and come up with you know, ideas of their own, you know, feelings after they’ve read it. That comfort of having your grandmother’s face to face conversations. over texting I’m Lea. And among those are the things that we need that human connection. And it brings me back to those moments with my grandma sitting on her lap and having her Sandy’s cookies, I can not go past the grocery store having Sandy’s cookies, you know, and I just love it and your paper, your paper chains is just beautiful. Yeah, everybody needs to have that just like we’re holding each other pulling each other up. And I quote, and it’s a powerful link that we are together. It just culminates who we are as human beings, you know?
VBN: Absolutely, absolutely
JE: I can’t get enough of your book. So please keep sharing more. Is there anything else that you would want educators to know, with your books, or anything that is in that multicultural literacy space that you would want them to know, like, strategy that they can do tomorrow?if
VBN:Absolutely, you know, it’s important that we talk to each other? No, I’m not talking about Texan. I’m talking about really, you know, now that COVID is somewhat controlled to a degree conversation is necessary. It’s necessary for parents to really you know, I know you got in from work and you’re tired, and you don’t want to go to that school meeting or that PTA meeting. But this is where we get to talk to each other. And you get to hear the teacher, and the teacher gets to hear you. And hopefully we’re listening, where we’re not just talking at each other. But we really come in with an open heart to listen, because at the end of the day, it’s about the child. It’s about the child. We teach racism. We teach it, we teach it extensively. You know, when I hear parents say, well know where that came from. I’m walking through the supermarket. And this little boy says the N word. Mommy is that and she kind of looks at him like she Shut your mouth. You know, you don’t say things like that in public. You know and and she was in, I don’t know where he got that from none of that no wigs we got and get it from the teacher. He got it from yourself. For 25 years job as a professional phlebotomist, that’s the person who takes blood. And my specialty were children, women with cancer, people with AIDS, everything, nobody wants to be bothered. Okay, when you’re holding a premature baby in your hand, and I have tiny hands, and a baby can fit in my hands. And I’ve been when I tell you, I took care of children of every ethnicity that has walked this planet. I have, I’m taking care. Okay. The one thing that I’ve learned that’s what I want to leave with your listeners is, babies want three things, children, one of the things. Is there a clean diaper when I mess this one up? Right, or is there a bottle or breasted here with some milk in it? Are your arms in your heart strong enough to hold? Well, that’s all this other stuff? Oh, you think about slavery? Why babies were put on the black brush. But were treated like animals. Basically, the women were treated like animals. I’m doing what you should do for your own.
VBN: We need to break this thing of racism, and send it back to the pit of hell from once again, begin to see people as people get to know my character. Let them know who I am, before you just start jumping off with oh, they’re black. Oh, they’re white or Asian, Latino or Hispanic. So they had nothing. Oh, get to know me first.
JE: Get to know me first.
VBN:So the message that I want to leave them first of all is to all your educators. I appreciate every last one of you. You work so hard to put lessons together. And there are times you can’t teach your lesson. Because you got a parent. Student It takes away from you even tried to teach. But I want you all to know we appreciate there are a bunch of us that know the hard work that you all put in the late night the whole thing just wanting to see children succeed. I love you all. I thank you all I pray for you all that God would continue to cover you. When can you give me more money because you deserve it? Or that? Anywhere in where you want to go? You shouldn’t have to pay a dime.
JE: I know our educator friends are like Thank you. We feel seen because yeah, you can have the best boss, beautifully written lesson plan but something always happened. Okay, that away pivot, how do I keep it going? How do I still get my work in that my students need to achieve before they move on to the next grade. And I can tell you, they tip my hat. It’s a profession that is honored by the educators who do it every day. We just hoping that honor will be reciprocated by more people that have reciprocated it. We feel it. We love it. And we appreciate y’all because y’all keep us going in those trenches especially lovely. So I love my love. Yeah.Oh my goodness, this has been an amazing talk. Where can my listeners get your books?
VBN:Absolutely. You can get my books at most indie bookstores. You can find it at Amazon and on Barnes and Nobles websites as well. You can always go to Penguin Books and find my books there. But I would love it if you would follow me over at Instagram at Vanessa Brantley newton.com. You can find me on Facebook at Vanessa Newton. And Vanessa Brantley Newton, I have actually two pages. And that’s about it for social media. But I also have a website of Vanessa Brantley newton.com,
JE: I will put all of that information in our show notes too, as well. Oh, Vanessa, it’s such a blessing to get to know you and laugh with you and just cry with you and tear up with you with your most beautiful, heartwarming, inspiring stories. And you’re one of those students that you know, really did defeat and beat the odds of having someone say who you are, but you define it in your way.
JE:Even when I went to Barnes and Noble in Duluth, Minnesota, your books are on those selves got going on last night.
JE: I cannot thank you enough
VBN: Oh, dear Thank you. Thank you.
JE: I’m honored to just share this chat with you today. So that’s all we have today, folks. And yes, I’ll see you next week. Bye bye.