Meet the Biographer: Jen Cullerton Johnson

In 2010, writer Jen Cullerton Johnson and illustrator Sonia Lynn Sadler published Seeds of Change, a picture-book biography of Kenyan environmentalist and Nobel Peace Prize Winner Wangari Maathai. Since its publication, the book has garnered many accolades: Seeds of Change was named a Notable Children’s Book by Smithsonian Magazine and a 2011 Notable Book for a Global Society by the International Reading Association. Sadler received the Coretta Scott-King/John Steptoe award for New Talent in Illustration.

Jen Cullerton Johnson is a writer and educator who focuses on green issues and lives in Chicago. Last week, I spoke with her about Seeds of Change and the challenges inherent in writing about injustice for young readers.

Kidsbiographer:  I think of writing picture books – both fiction and nonfiction – as an act of distillation: in short, pruning a story to its essence. Which aspects of Wangari Maathai’s life were the most difficult to simply for a young audience and why?

JCJ: In many ways Wangari’s life is complicated. When Wangari was young, she knew that many young girls did not have the opportunity to go school and earn a living. Not being able to go to school for being a girl is something some American school children have a hard time comprehending, but when we discuss issues of Civil Rights in the United States, students are able to grasp the concepts of gender and racial inequalities.

Conversations about gender, race and race, no matter how difficult allows young readers to engage in the world around them in a critical fashion. They are able to have compassion for others.

In many ways, conversation is community.

Kidsbiographer: In Seeds of Change, you don’t shelter readers from human nastiness and injustice. You describe how the Kenyan government and multinational corporations, feeling threatened by Maathai’s activism, imprisoned her. How did you decide how to approach this subject for children? After all, some well intentioned, if naive, parents and educators attempt to shield kids from any mention of cruelty or unfairness.

 JCJ: As a parent, I believe the only way my child has a chance to making the world better is if he can enter into an honest conversation about human rights. If we shelter our children from details that are “too nasty” we are giving our children a message that says we do not trust them to understand difficult information. I hope that I am able to give my son the tools of conversation and tolerance so that he may solve problems, not prolong them.

 As a writer, my purpose is to reveal what is hidden, to shed light in areas of darkness. I want my readers to experience Wangari’s life so that when they are done reading they can have critical conversations about how to treat people and the environment.

Kidsbiographer: Can you describe the creative partnership between you and Sonia Lynn Sadler? How did you collaborate to bring Maathai’s story to life?

JCJ: Normally, when you write a book, the publisher contracts the illustrator. Sometimes the write and the illustrator work together, but most often times they do not. I did not have the chance to meet Sonia until after the book was published. In fact we met at the Green Book Awards at Salisbury University. When we met, it was like fireworks on the 4th of July. She is an amazing artist. Her vision of art and its healing aspects are amazing. Since we met in April, we did a second book together called Rise: The Story of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Sirleaf is the president of Liberia and the first female head of state on the African contentment. Right now the book is at the acquisition stage with Lee & Low, so cross your fingers!

In addition, we wrote a grant to spearhead a project called Color on the Horizon, which explores 8 women of color contemporary artists and their art.

Kidsbiographer: Would you like to share any particularly gratifying feedback you’ve received from young readers about Seeds of Change?

JCJ: In many, many ways, Seeds of Change adds to the conversation going on about the environment and our role in saving it. Young people, especially young African American girls, like to point out themselves when they read the book. I’ve seen students say, that’s me, right? Also, they like to pick out the faces of Barack Obama and Martin Luther King Jr (in the final illustration). What drives teachers to talk about Wangari Maathai and the Greenbelt Movement is that they want children to know there is possibility and opportunity for them. Children, as Wangari says so elegantly, are the seeds of the future. I feel very grateful to connect teachers and children with Wangari. I am blessed to be part of the conversation.

Kidsbiographer: Can you tell us about any current or future projects?

Jen Cullerton Johnson: I just submitted a children’s nonfiction book called The Town That Said No. It is a biography of a town that refused to allow a nuclear power plant to be building along the shores of Lake Michigan. The town happens to be the town I grew up in as a young girl and my parents were part of the people who said no. So writing The Town that Said No has been a wonderful experience to connect with neighbors and history of Lake Michigan as well as explore nuclear power plants.

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