The way Coretta Scott King Award-winning illustrator Michele Wood approaches her picture books is a bit unusual, compared to the traditional way most picture books are made, and her newest book is but one example. Like a Bird: The Art of the American Slave Song was her concept, and for it she created 13 striking original paintings. She then submitted the images, as she explains to me below, to author Cynthia Grady, who wrote text to accompany the artwork. Millbrook Press, a division of Lerner, took on the project, and it arrives on shelves this month.
The book is a tribute to African American spirituals, songs that “helped [slaves] pace their movements, lift their spirits, and communicate with one another,” as Grady notes in the book’s opening. Wood’s rich paintings for the spirituals are accompanied by music, lyrics, and Grady’s notes about the songs’ biblical and historical roots. It is a book that, as the Kirkus review notes, gives new life to old songs.
I interrupted Michele’s writing (and Master’s studies) to ask her about this particular book. She tells me that it may be one that reflects the African American experience—“I want every child to have exposure to books that reflect their experience,” she adds—but that it is ultimately for everyone. It is also a book that, as she puts it, means the world to her, and she hopes it “engages the reader in dialogue, while educating and inspiring.”
I love how in this book the author responds to, comments upon, and asks questions about your paintings. Does this mean you submitted paintings first and then the text was written?
In 2012, I received inspiration for the book. I titled it Like a Bird, because I read about Harriet Tubman dreaming that she could fly like a bird.
“She used to dream of flying over fields and towns, and rivers and mountains, looking down upon them like a bird.” –Harriet Tubman: Slavery, the Civil War, and Civil Rights in the 19th century
It is located in the Bible –Psalms 124:7 NIV.
“We have escaped like a bird
from the fowler’s snare.”
Yes, before the proposal was composed I worked on the Gospel Train image. So, yes, after the paintings and investigations were complete, I handed it to Cynthia. Often, we do not think of the artist doing research along with painting, but it is a part of my process.
You mentioned in your acknowledgment that, as a child, your mother bought your first paperback book about Harriet Tubman. Can you talk about that and what it meant to you?
My mother, Karolyn, bought me all kinds of books. She is an avid reader. Mostly, I would receive beautiful pop-up books. But the one that stood out was a small black and beige page paperback book on Harriet Tubman. I don’t remember what I thought at the time, but I still can visualize the cover that was done in two colors, black and purple. It is ironic that I depict her life story in my books.
I am so touched by Harriet Tubman’s towers of faith and strength. She was in a place of hearing from God, unbelievable faith, and wisdom. Her walk with the Father had to be close in order for her to shepherd over 300 hundred slaves to freedom. Just imagine this little woman leading men and woman through the terrain – and being hunted like an animal by men with guns and dogs. She was beyond fierce.
It is remarkable the textures you pull off in these acrylic paintings. Do you prefer working in acrylics? Did you know right away you wanted this book to be rendered in that medium?
Yes, I do prefer to work in acrylic, because it is forgiving. Yes, I did know right away. I can work faster in acrylic, because it dries quickly.
Your bio says you're currently pursuing your Master in Divinity. What did it mean to you to work on a book of spirituals?
First of all, I am so grateful for my agent, Caryn Wiseman; Lerner Publishing; and Cynthia Grady for believing in my concept for the book. This is a day that I prayed about, a day of joy and a day of confirmation. Spirituals are soul-stirring, and to work on the book was more than inspirational. It was a continuation of my previous work, but it was a divine time to give God the glory.
In the lyrics of the Negro Spiritual songs are visions of heaven, escaping, crossing over into freedom, direction, justice, and inspiration. In that time, people endured horrific hardships, lynching, and dehumanizing elements. Faith and hope are two pillars that shined. I aimed to depict them with dignity, even though dignity was being torn, ripped, and severed from them. I say these things, because it was gratifying to know that your inspired idea would come to fruition, but it was no easy journey. It was a flip-sided coin to hear such uplifting, moving music, yet on the other side is what they had lived and experienced in order for me to be uplifted.
At times, I was so on-purpose and full of joy, and other days brought sleepless nights. I would work on the paintings and, after working for hours, I would take the unfinished painting and place it next to my bed. It was in eyesight. This was so that I could see the picture first thing in the morning with fresh eyes and look for ways to improve on the art and to tell its story. It is more than having the ability to illustrate; it is a gift to tell a story through pictures.
What's next for you?
I am filming my first documentary, titled Two Doves. It is an uplifting journey that will inspire, immerse you in music and history, and encourage dialogue. I have been on a journey since my mentor in the ‘90s, Lamidi Olonade Fakeye, said to me, “You have the ability to paint, but you have no subject matter.” Not easy words to digest. It was enough to shift me in the right direction.
I renewed a relationship with my deceased grandmother, Kathryn. We would talk, and she would share her life story. She was alive when she talked about her birth place. The glimmer in her eyes was more than light; it was a pillar of hope. The paintings from my first book, Going Back Home, were created from our engaged conversations. Recently, I have discovered two women in my DNA – the African Woman and Jewish Woman. The pillars they represent are those of hope, strength, faith, love, prayer, determination, and tenacity. I am discovering these pillars exist within me. I have decided to document my journey through film. My producer and I will travel to Africa, the Middle East, and Europe with a film crew to uncover and unlock the lives of the two women in my DNA. In early November, we will start a Go Fund Me page to help support the film. We will have many rewards for supporters who invest in the documentary. We will have books, prints, jewelry, t-shirts, film credit, and more – even one of my original paintings. Along with the documentary, there will be a body of work I am excited about. The paintings will be for an adult audience.
One of the things I am looking at as an artist is: How do I tell the truth? How do I inform the truth of the story so that you may not turn away? The truth is not always pretty. There is a fine line, and I must straddle it to bring you work from the documentary. The work beckons me and calls my name. I have visions of work that I have never created before, not in this way. I hope that I will do it justice and birth what I believe the Lord wants me to do.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
LIKE A BIRD: THE ART OF THE AMERICAN SLAVE SONG. Copyright © 2016 by Cynthia Grady. Illustrations © 2016 by Michele Wood. Illustration used by permission of the publisher, Lerner Publishing Group, Inc.