One of the fun things of being friends with illustrators is getting sneak-peaks at art spreads before the book is published. I fell in love with this story back last Christmas when Hazel was busy working on the front cover, which is magical. So, I jumped at an opportunity to interview JaNay and Hazel on my blog. I also urge you to come back on Friday when I am reviewing IMANI’S MOON for Perfect Picture Book Friday, including a signed giveaway of the book. But, onto the interviews.
[JM] Janay, where did you grow up/are you from and how has that influenced your work?
[JBW] I was born in Southern California (along the Long Beach/Compton boundary line) but moved with my family to Fresno, CA shortly after my birth. I spent the whole of my childhood in Fresno being surrounded by loving, compassionate family members who colored my world in such a positive way. I think this is something that influences my work. In Imani’s Moon, Imani has a mama who encourages her and motivates her even though the world may be cruel and unsupportive. That’s similar to my experience because my family served, and still serves, as a secure base for me as well. They are this cohesive and strong unit that grounds me and helps me keep moving forward in all my ambitious endeavors. I actually have a new picture book under contract with Charlesbridge that is completely based on my family. I’m really excited about it! Lastly, I also think the encouragement I received from past teachers in Fresno have influenced me and urged me to keep writing, especially my 3rd/4th grade teacher Mr. Barnett and my 5th/6th grade teacher Mrs. Welch. I am so thankful to them too.
[JM] I love your name, JaNay. Does it have a meaning/origin?
[JBW] Thank you for the compliment. I love my name too (but I’m certainly biased since it is my name). I got my name from my dad who said he liked the name Renae, but wanted to do something a little different. So, he played with different letters and decided to add a “J” and spell it with a capital “N” and an “ay”. JaNay. He also was very particular that it did not include a space since it was one word, not two. Thanks to him, my name was born. He told me back then he had never heard of the name JaNay before and he liked it because it was special and unique. Of course, today, there are many others with various spellings including Janay, Janae, Zhanae, Jenée, etc. but I am yet to find anyone who spells their name the same as I do (if you are out there and you spell it JaNay, be sure to come say “hi” sometimes). I will say, though, if you do an internet search, you can find some sites that say Janay has a Hebrew-linked origin and a meaning tied to God’s graciousness. But, that wasn’t the inspiration for my name.
[JM] Tell us a little of your beginnings and journey as a writer?
[JBW] My writer beginnings go way back to grade school. I would always put together little stories, songs, and plays which I’d often perform for others at my aunt’s daycare. This carried over to coming up with stories on my computer at home, and thriving whenever I had assignments that included writing stories in class. I remember in third or fourth grade, I came up with a character named “Detective JaNay” and lots of stories where this detective would go on adventures and solve crimes. In sixth grade, I wrote and illustrated (with crayons and construction paper) a book called Taylor and the Tyrannosaurus Rex and Making Friends which was a character I came up with based on my little sister. I have to share what I wrote in the author’s note in the back, way back then. It says:
“Hi my name is JaNay Brown and I love to write stories. Mostly I write stories for kids around my age, but I can always make an exception. One of my goals is to become a wonderful and creative author, did you like my story?
So as you see, I had this ambition for most of my life. After college, I began to actually pursue it further and joined SCBWI, went to conferences, took classes to improve my craft, participated in a critique group, and kept at it. Not to mention, one of my critique group partners is the person who told me about the NAESP contest. Thanks to her, I submitted my story, and that’s how I got my start.
[JM] How and/or why did you choose a character from the Maasai tribe? I have had the privilege of meeting some young Maasai (in Nairobi, not out in their villages). And is Imani based loosely on anyone you know?
[JBW] I recall being captivated by the Maasai from seeing documentaries on television. When I wrote early drafts of the manuscript that is now Imani’s Moon, I remember my older sister, Erin, and I had a conversation about the protagonist jumping to the moon. She asked me if I had ever considered the Maasai for my story, which we both remembered were known for their jumping. She planted that seed, and the rest grew out of the additional research I did. I have not had the privilege of actually going to Africa and meeting the Maasai people, but I hope to do that in the future. I did, however, meet a Maasai woman at a Solar Cooking Festival in Sacramento. She took one of her beaded necklaces from off of her own neck and put it around mine as a gift. I wrote about that fantastic experience in my blog. You should totally check it out: http://www.janaybrownwood.com/blog/so-this-happened-in-sac-today
[JM] There has been a recent renewed call to greater diversity in children’s literature, were you consciously responding to this need when you wrote Imani’s Moon?
[JBW] The interesting thing is no, I wasn’t writing to that need at that point in time. I was writing a story that came from my heart and featured a young African girl. But, as my own awareness was raised about the dearth of diversity in children’s literature along with the recent rekindled discussion about it, I was reminded about how important a story like mine and Imani’s can be to the children in our country and worldwide. I am also reminded of the importance of my own voice, as an African American female author, and how I can help to fill the diversity void. I understand that I can be a model of perseverance and following my dreams, no matter what. So even though Imani’s Moon wasn’t written with the purpose of filling that need for diversity, she certainly does a fantastic job of helping. And, too, I will work as an author to offset that lack of diversity as well!
[JM] I adore the artwork for this story and confess I saw some of the early sketches in Hazel’s studio. Which is your favorite spread?
[JBW] That is such a difficult question because ALL of Hazel’s artwork is spectacular. From the cover to the blue zigzagged end pages. But if I had to pick, there are three that stand out as my favorites. First, the spread where Imani is standing sideways on the moon and we can see Olapa within the moon. That spread’s colors are so vibrant and the moon seems to radiate right off of the page. When I first saw it, it seriously took my breath away. My second favorite is when Imani and Mama are sitting and looking up at the moon and the constellations which show the great battle between two figures in the stars. I know that’s also my mother’s favorite too. And lastly, the cover. I love, love, love the cover. It is so inviting and warm and triumphant, and I hope it’ll bring readers in who will read the book, relate to Imani, and love the story.
[JBW] Thank you so much for taking the time to get to know me and Imani a little better. If you or any of your readers are ever interested in following me and learning more about me and my books, or even interested in setting up an author visit, you can visit my website at www.janaybrownwood.com or “like” me on Facebook” under JaNay Brown-Wood, Author & Educator. Also, be sure to “like” our Imani’s Moon Facebook page
Thank you again! JaNay Brown-Wood
I interviewed Hazel on Miss Marple’s Musings a couple of years ago, here. Hazel has illustrated several books and is repped by Ginger Knowlton, Curtis Brown Ltd., NYC. Her next book as author/illustrator will be TOBY from Candlewick, edited by Liz Bicknell Fall 2016.
I had one specific question for Hazel with regards illustrating Imani’s Moon!
[JM] Hazel, as an illustrator, is Google enough? What do you do when you can’t afford a plane ticket to go paint the Masaai in situ?
[HM] Pinterest and Google were my main sources, but also a couple of really good books on the Maasai, where I read a lot of background knowledge and saw pics that were not online. I also persuaded my husband, Mike, to pose for me as well as a young African American friend, Lizzie, whom I used mostly for gestures and figure proportion.
[JM] JaNay and Hazel, thank you so much for being on Miss Marple’s Musings and I wish you only success with IMANI’S MOON.