Children’s author Dianne Johnson

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“Good literature stays with you.  You hear the echoes of certain lines.  Good literature creates a certain feeling that you recall later,” said Dianne Johnson.

Her golden honey skin is as smooth as her poetry, and her locks as long and intricate as the stories she spins.  Dianne Johnson knows good literature.

Dianne Johnson is an English professor at the University of South Carolina who has a doctorate in American studies from Yale University.  Under her childhood nickname, Dinah Johnson, she also writes children’s literature.

JOHNSON THE LIFE-CHANGING TEACHER

Johnson taught a writing class for educators in the spring of 1996.  In that class she taught Sandy Richardson, who became a published writer because of their relationship.

“She was the first African-American teacher I had ever had,” said Richardson who wrote “The Girl Who Ate Chicken Feet.”  Richardson is a writer and retired teacher from Sumter, S.C.

“I was mesmerized by her presence, even a little awe-struck and shy, but her own passion for reading and writing drew me out over the weeks.  As an adult, I fell in love with young adult literature and children’s literature all over again.  She opened up a new perspective for me,” said Richardson.

Richardson wrote five short stories for the course’s final project.  After reading the stories, Johnson asked Richardson to call her.

“I was terrified she didn’t like my stories, and, worse, that she was going to make me rewrite them, but she loved them.  She offered me an introduction at two publishing houses,” said Richardson.

One week after Richardson sent the stories to publishers, Richardson was called by the publishers.  After a few weeks she signed her first book contract.

Richardson clearly remembers that first phone call.

“I remember walking around the house after the phone call shouting, ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’ and ‘God bless Dianne.’  For a long time after that miraculous phone call, every time the phone rang, my children would yell out, ‘New York is calling again!’” said Richardson.

The authors spend many hours together talking and eating now.

“I believe we are old friends, as in old souls travelling through eternity together.  I am so happy to have found her this time around,” said Richardson.

“She was my mentor, my encourager, my fairy godmother with the magic wand who gave me my heart’s fiercest dream,” she said.

JOHNSON THE PROMISING CHILD

Johnson absorbed literature throughout her childhood.  Her mother and father both read to her.  She read to herself so much that her parents joined a book club for her and her siblings.  Her parents made her keep a filing system recording all the books she read.

“She read an awful lot.  She must have read hundreds of books,” said Beatrice Johnson, Johnson’s mother.  Beatrice Johnson is a retired teacher.

Johnson’s mother passed down the stories from her grandmother that “may have been made up or exaggerated,” like all good stories.

“She always liked writing.  She began by writing little poems.  Her sixth grade teacher told us we should keep them because they might be worth something one day,” said Johnson’s mother.

JOHNSON THE WEAVER OF BEAUTIFUL STORIES

Johnson’s teacher was right.  Johnson has written six children’s books, edited four books and magazines dealing with African-American children’s literature and helped produce a documentary, “Beautiful by Design: The Story of African American Children’s Literature.”

Her children’s books either tell the stories of African-American in South Carolina or assert the beauty of blackness.

Johnson says that her writing process is not “conscious.” “What I do is just write the best stuff that I can write,” said Johnson.

The Publishing Process

For Johnson, getting published was a challenge initially.

“I started sending out manuscripts: cold, unsolicited,” said Johnson.

Johnson received several rejection letters including encouraging ones. An editor expressed interest in “Quinnie Blue” but soon left the company.

Christie Ottaviano of Henry Holt Books for Young Readers inherited the editor’s office years after Johnson sent in her manuscript in the “slush pile.”

Henry Holt Books for Young Readers has published all six of her books: “Black Magic,” “Hair Dance,” “All Around Town: The Photographs of Richard Samuel Roberts,” “Quinnie Blue,” “Sitting Pretty: A Celebration of Black Dolls” and “Sunday Week.”

“All Around Town”

Jeffery Smith, a bearded man in jeans and a blue windbreaker who frequents the North Main Street Library, cradled a copy of Johnson’s picture book “All Around Town.”  He poured over each of the 29 pages, read every word.  He analyzed the black and white photographs like an art historian.

He laughed at the boy with his arm around a chicken.  He sighed at the father holding his bonneted baby.  He sniffed at the soldier in uniform.  He gasped at the man with an early video camera.  He paused at the last pages: Side-by-side pictures of a coffin being put into a hearse and a smiling mother holding her giggling baby.  “Rebirth.  It’s all about rebirth,” he said.

Johnson smiled as she watched Smith read her book.

“People of all ages see value in a children’s book.  That man probably enjoyed my book as much as a child,” said Johnson.

“All Around Town” is a children’s adaptation of “A True Likeness,” a collection of Richard Samuel Robert’s photographs of African-Americans in the South in the 1920s and 1930s.

Johnson 34 of her favorite photographs by Robert. She wrote narrative and descriptive text and questions to complement the pictures.

“Wasn’t she sassy!  Wasn’t he sharp!” wrote Johnson of a woman in shiny shoes, black tights, a flapper dress and a thick knee-length fur coat and a man in knee  britches, high socks, a sport coat, vest and tie with a cane hanging from his wrist.

“Sunday Week”

“Sunday Week” is the poetic recount of a child’s week, from Monday to Sunday.

“On those true blue Mondays the whole neighborhood has the blues.   The grown-ups don’t want to go to work, and the children don’t want to go to school.  Miss Clara says, ‘One day at a time, sweet Jesus, that’s all I’m asking from you,’” wrote Johnson.

The week revolves around church events: choir practice on Wednesday to prayer circle on Thursday to the fisherman frying fish on Friday, “’just like Jesus feeding the multitudes,’” wrote Johnson.

After Sunday morning’s church service, the family goes for a car ride.  “Just go where the road goes or go where the heart goes and you’ll find yourself at the home of friends,” wrote Johnson.

“Children respond to rhythm, but they also respond to a good story.  It helps them to appreciate the spoken word,” said Johnson, who wrote a collection of poetry inspired by her 1980 trip to Africa for her 1982 undergraduate senior thesis.

“People need to hear literature read aloud,” Johnson added.

“Black Magic”

“Black Magic” is a children’s book inspired by Ann McGovern’s 1969 book of poetry and pictures, “Black is Beautiful.”   McGovern wrote “Black is Beautiful” after she attended a rally in New York City in memory of Martin Luther King Jr.  During the rally she heard a man shout, “Black is beautiful!”

“Black is big like a star-filled sky and tiny like the sparkle in my daddy’s eye when he hugs me with his strong black arms,” wrote Johnson.

Johnson’s books have a focus that allows her to speak to children and adults.  “The thing about my books is there is very little plot.  My focus is on the feeling, the emotional experience and the sentiment explored,” said Johnson.

“Don’t approach children’s literature as books to teach children to read,” said Johnson.  “It’s not good to write something with the aim of teaching.  That book is doomed.

“Aim to tell a good story, to write a good piece of literature,” Johnson said.

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