June 18, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Margaret Edwards Award Winner Angela Johnson Just Wants To Tell a Good Story

Illustration by Caitlin Kuhwald

Angela Johnson’s books for young people tackle teen pregnancy, war, family secrets, and the loss of loved ones, among other topics. But the 2018 Margaret A. Edwards Award winner doesn’t write to make a statement about social issues or to tell her readers how to think or feel.

“I’ve never set out to teach a lesson, to lecture anyone,” she says. “I just want to tell a good story.”

Johnson is the type of person to whom strangers tell their stories, she says. Sometimes a tale will form the kernel of a novel. An elderly woman who sat beside her on a bus once told Johnson about her plans to meet the man she had fallen in love with as a teenager. They had been torn apart when he went to war but stayed in touch. The two became Johnson’s characters Sweet and Curtis in Sweet, Hereafter, the final book in her “Heaven” trilogy (S. & S.).

Other ideas come from people who just catch Johnson’s eye. A teenage boy with a baby she saw while riding the subway in New York became Bobby, the protagonist in The First Part Last, the second of the “Heaven” books.

“I wondered about his story,” says Johnson. “At 10 in the morning, why is this 15-year-old–looking kid on a train in New York City with a baby?”

“That’s how I write,” she says. “That’s how I get my stories.”

Johnson has written more than 40 books and received numerous honors, including multiple Coretta Scott King Author Awards, the Printz Award, and a MacArthur Fellowship, known as a “genius grant.”

Jonathan Hunt, chair of the 2018 Edwards committee, praises Johnson’s ability to appeal to many audiences and cited her novel The First Part Last in particular. “It is extremely literary,” says Hunt, lead coordinator of library/media services at the San Diego County Office of Education. “You can really appreciate the craft that went into it, but it’s also an extremely popular book. It’s probably the first and only book that was the Printz Award winner, made a top 10 for the best books for young adults, and also the top 10 for quick picks for reluctant readers. That’s the kind of appeal her work has across the board.”

Hunt also calls Johnson’s writing timeless, nuanced, and elegant. “It’s not dated by allusions to pop culture,” he says. “A lot of her books feel like they could have been written today. They could have been written 30 years ago. That’s part of the reason she is enduringly popular.”

Fellow Edwards Award winner and National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Jacqueline Woodson calls Johnson’s writing style realistic, engaging, and accessible. “You can tell by reading her work that she takes her time with the narrative and truly cares about the characters,” says Woodson.

Johnson’s characters are primarily African American, and her novels cover universal themes, such as the need to belong and tensions in the parent-child relationship during adolescence. “I want African American children to see themselves when they open a book, and I want children who aren’t to see a universal story that encompasses them also,” she says.

Johnson was born in Tuskegee, AL, on June 18, 1961, and her family moved to Ohio when she was a toddler. She still lives there today.

She published her first book in 1989 but discovered the power of writing when she was in fourth grade, when her mother bought her a diary for Christmas. “I thought it was absolutely amazing,” says Johnson. “It was a wonderful [place] to put your thoughts, your beliefs, your anger, your happiness, and you didn’t have to tell anyone. Getting the diary was truly what made me know that how I felt and what I was feeling at the time was valid and I could write it down.”

In high school, she filled notebooks with “punk poetry”: Think bleak cityscapes and lots and lots of angst. Still, Johnson says, “when I was that young, I wanted to do everything else but be a writer.” She wished to be a teacher or a lawyer.

During college at Kent State University, studying special needs education, her feelings changed. She knew she wanted to write—so much that she dropped out of school to pursue writing full-time.

“I had the big fear that if I became a teacher, I wouldn’t do it,” says Johnson. “I would get totally involved in my teaching and the kids. In the summer, I’d rest. I’d be sitting in a lawn chair reading, and I really didn’t think I would have the energy.”

Johnson admits to being a very private person, and she mostly avoids events like writers’ conferences. Her website doesn’t even feature her picture. When she visits schools, she prefers to speak to children in small groups rather than a large audience in an auditorium, citing shyness and a desire to give the children a more personal experience.

She has also written several award-winning books for young children. Her first published work, Tell Me a Story, Mama, was a picture book that won the Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award, and she still writes for children of all ages. Johnson credits her first editor, Richard Jackson, then at Orchard Books, who encouraged her to write whatever she wanted.

“I just thought if you were a children’s book author you wrote for kids. To me, children were zero to 18, so [I wrote] for all of them,” she says.

Today, few authors write across categories like that. Johnson says, as someone who never studied writing in college, she didn’t know the rules.

Although her writing for young children was not a consideration for the Edwards committee, Hunt says it’s part of what makes Johnson such a standout author. “She’s an extremely gifted picture book writer, but then she’s equally gifted as someone writing for young adults,” says Hunt. “She’s been able to toggle back and forth between those two genres and has done it as well as anyone has over the last two to three decades.”

When Johnson started her career, publishing was a lot different. She used to fax her work to her editor. “I would get an idea,” Johnson says. “I would fax it to Dick. He’d read it and say, ‘I love it. I want to buy it.’ ”

Today, decisions to publish go through a lot more hands. Johnson imagines large tables full of other members of the editorial team and the marketing department. Writers usually can’t even get in the door unless they have an agent, something she started without, and a social media presence, which she avoids.

“I might have sold a lot more books if I’d been on social media, but I couldn’t do it,” says Johnson. “It’s not my world. I’m not that person. I have a website. That’s as much as I can do. I think if I’d been a few years younger, I would have been better about this, but it’s okay.”

Johnson turns 57 this month and was excitedly preparing for a visit from her 19-month-old grandnephew on the day of this interview. She has no plans to stop writing, although she has slowed down a bit.

“There was a time when I could write three novels a year. That was no problem, and that’s an issue now,” she says. “Do writers retire or just run out of ideas? I have no clue. I’ll see, I suppose.”

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Marva Hinton About Marva Hinton

Marva Hinton is a contributing writer for Education Week and the host of the ReadMore podcast, a show that features interviews with authors including Nicola Yoon and Daniel José Older.

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