Vanessa Brantley Newton was born during the Civil Rights movement, and attended school in Newark, NJ. 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.
For what age audience do you write?
I create for ages 3-8 for picture books and then 8-12 for middle grade.
Tell us about your latest book.
My latest book is happily called, GRANDMA’S PURSE, written and illustrated by me. It’s been a while. The book is with Random House Publishing and due out in Jan 2018. All about a little girl who finds goodies in her grandmothers purse.
Henry: Grandmas are also known for hiding tissues in their sleeves.
What do you hope readers will get from reading that book?
Simply the love and relationship of grandchild and grandparent, and that we can find out a lot about a person from what they carry with them.
Henry: So true!
What aspect of illustrating and writing do you find most challenging?
It’s always been the sketching for me. Layout out a book is so very frustrating to me. Each time feels like the first, and I approach each book like it’s the first one. Yeah I know I’ve done it a couple of times, LOL!! I really don’t know why, but it’s a little difficult to wrap my head around it. I think that I over-think it too much, and the need to please OTHERS can really rattle me a bit.
As far as writing is concerned, I am dyslexic and it makes it really difficult to come to an empty page and fill it with words. I don’t spell very well and my vocab is very simple, if you will. Not a really deep one, LOL! I have my own way of expressing myself, and as a dyslexic person I have to do it in a way that makes sense to me first. I love to write poems and sing. Music helps me to tell my stories. I also learn through rhyme. Once I get something, it sticks and I am able to use it however I need. This is how most children with dyslexia learn. I really don’t consider myself a writer, but more of a storyteller.
Henry: And a hugger!
What is a powerful lesson you’ve learned from being a writer?
That we have to power to tell children stories that can uplift, scare, inspire, provoke empathy, cause them to see their beautiful selves, and to be creative — and that is a pretty power, but even more powerful, NEVER EVER LET ANYONE SPEAK FOR YOU!
What has been a memorable experience that you never would have had if you had not been a writer?
Just recently, a book that was pulled by Scholastic called, A BIRTHDAY CAKE FOR GEORGE WASHINGTON. Honestly, one of the most painful experiences of my career in children’s books. No one ever wants to be censored or have their book pulled, but this is what happened, and while it was painful, there was so much that I learned from the experience. I found my own voice and my own stories. We often like to give our characters adversity, but we will have none of it in our own very real lives. The fact is, we love adversity and hard times and frustrations put on to our characters. It’s the stuff that good books are made of. But in order to give your character that kind of magic that makes your readers care and feel about the character, you have to sometimes experience your own trials and tribulations as well. How did you come through the very hard stuff? The whole debacle made me turn in and go really deep. While very painful, much like baring a child. Nobody likes the labor pains, but holding the child makes it worth the while, and that is what this book did for me. I doubt that people would have even heard of Vanessa Brantley-Newton if this didn’t take place. Truly what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger for the journey ahead. It’s time to get busy telling children of color and children period, a different type of story. Stories that give them life.
Henry: You persisted!
What advice would you offer aspiring authors and illustrators?
Hone your talent. Really be willing to stretch yourself and put yourself in a real teachable environment. Learn all that you can from watching other illustrators and reading other authors works – people that have made it. What do you love about their creative flow? Compile that information in a notebook or sketch book. Try adding it to your work. I never had the chance to meet Erza Jack Keats, but I was student of his wonderful work. I put it in front of me and tried to copy as much as I could without copying LOL! I studied his line and how he laid out his books. Still studying him today along with Mary Blair and Fiep Westendorp and a host of others. DO YOU! You bring something special to the creative table that nobody else brings! Stop comparing your beautiful self to other people! They can’t do what you do, and you can’t do what they do. We are looking to see what you are going to share with the world.
Do you have any favorite quotes?
“Thoughts become things, so get busy thinking right thoughts and watch what happens.”
Henry: Nice. I like the related: “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.”
Do you have any strange rituals that you observe when you work?
I don’t know if this is a really strange ritual, but seriously music and comedy in my office and lots of dancing heightens the frequency and creative flow. Every single day. Live, Love, Laugh!
If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
Oh this is one of my favorite questions ever!!!!! Okay I would like the power of Manifestation. The ability to make it so! To think about something and see it manifest before my eyes.
Henry: I’m gonna’ manifest myself some pizza and beer right now.
If you could have three authors over for dinner, who would it be?
Langston Hughes because he makes me feel. Maya Angelo because she allows me to see me. Ezra Jack Keats because he’d cause me to do both.
Henry: But, I come in a close fourth, right? 🙂
What is your favorite creature that exists only in literature?
Venus because she was love and beauty.
Henry: Congratulations. You are the first author to answer that question with a goddess.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
Sing Jazz and cook and laugh, laugh, laugh!
What would you like it to say on your tombstone?
Here lies a woman who loved God and loved people and they all felt it.
Henry: Anyone who meets you feels it! 🙂
Where can readers find out more about you and your work?
Henry: Thanks for spending time with us. I had the pleasure of meeting Vanessa. She’s a hugger!