Dinah Johnson is a children's book author and a professor of English who specializes in African-American children's literature. In Dinah Johnson's book, All Around Town, we experience the lives of African-Americans living in Columbia, South Carolina in the early twentieth century. The poetry in Dinah Johnson's new book, Sitting Pretty: A Celebration of Black Dolls, is inspired by her collection of dolls from around the world. Dinah discusses these books, and other books written by her, in our interview.
Dinah Johnson reads from her book, Sitting Pretty: A Celebration of Black Dolls, in the following video clip:
When did it "gel" for you that you were a writer?
I've been writing every day since I was in sixth grade, when my teacher had us do creative writing. I have thought of myself as a writer ever since then.
Did you find that there was a need for writing for African-American children?
The biggest problem is that books with black characters have been written by people who don't know about African-American experiences, so there have been lots of stereotyped images of African-Americans. Now there are a lot of African-American writers and illustrators working. There still aren't as many books as there should be, but there are more than people know about.
The first book, All Around Town is about a wonderful photographer, Samuel Roberts. How did you find him?
His story should be well-known to all South Carolinians. He was a photographer during the early decades of the 20th century. Those photographs were saved and published in a book called A True Likeness.
He was showing black people in the early 20th century graduating from college, who were nurses, who were magicians, who loved their families, who did a whole range of things. I think it is important that he shows black people doing all kinds of things.
Tell us about Sunday Week:
"Sunday week" means a week from Sunday - the coming Sunday. The book shows an entire neighborhood going through the week leading up to Sunday.
Tell us about some of the days, there is "Blue Monday". Lots of people have those blue Mondays...
[quotes from book] "Blue Monday, everybody's got the Monday morning blues. On those true blue Mondays the whole neighborhood has the blues. Grown ups don't want to go to work and the children don't want to go to school, one day at a time sweet Jesus is all I am asking from you."
And "Double Dutch Tuesday?"
I guess I was inspired on that day by Columbia's own Double-Dutch Forces which is a world renowned Double-Dutch team.
Wednesday, the evening choir practice?
I think Wednesday is a day when lots of activities like that are taking place.
And then Thursday, the story time, reading with Miss Augusta?
Miss Augusta refers to Augusta Baker. She was the long-time storyteller-in-residence at USC. Before that, she worked in New York City public library, where she was probably the most influential children's librarian in the country or the world.
And Friday, the fish man comes?
That's just one of those fun days - you're happiest at the end of the week.
Saturday might be called a "blue Saturday" because it's a workday?
When I was growing up, we had to have the whole house clean before we went outside, so that's what that whole day is about.
Quinnie Blue was chosen by Time Magazine as one of the best books of 2000. You have to be proud of that...
Yes, it was really fun to see the name of the book and my name in Time Magazine.
What was the inspiration for this book?
I have the rare experience of knowing all four of my great grandmothers. Their names are Hattie, Lottie, Annie, and Quinnie. So I put together all of their names to make this character - Hattie Lottie Annie Quinnie Blue. The book is about this little girl asking her grandmother a whole series of questions about what her life was like when she was a little girl.
Do you think humor is important, such as the name Hattie Lottie Quinnie Blue?
I was thinking of the music of it, I don't want people to think of it as a funny name.
What about your new book, Sitting Pretty: A Celebration of Black Dolls.
I have always had a lot of dolls. I grew up in a military family and my father bought dolls for me from all around the world. About 10 years ago, I began collecting dolls with ties to Africa - all over Africa, America, and the Caribbean.
The dolls live in my house, I have over 100 dolls and they fly from the ceilings and hang on the walls. They sit on the beds and the bookcases and I know their personalities very well. I hope their personalities come across in the poems.
You say that books and reading are very important to you?
It's a tool you have to acquire. At a point in history it was illegal for black people to read and write. In my office, there is a poster of Frederick Douglass. It has a quotation by him about learning to read - that once you learn to read you will be forever free. To have any power over one's world or have any impact on one's society you have to master the word.