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Johnson, Angela 1961-

Johnson, Angela 1961-

Personal

Born June 18, 1961, in Tuskegee, AL; daughter of Arthur (an autoworker) and Truzetta (an accountant) Johnson. Education: Attended Kent State University.

Addresses

Home—Kent, OH.

Career

Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), Ravenna, OH, child development worker, 1981-82; freelance writer of children's books, beginning 1989.

Member

Authors Guild, Authors League of America.

Awards, Honors

Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award, U.S. Board on Books for Young People, 1991; Coretta Scott King Honor Book designation, American Library Association Social Responsibilities Round Table, 1991, for When I Am Old with You, and 1998, for The Other Side: Shorter Poems; Coretta Scott King Author Award, 1993, for Toning the Sweep, and 1998, for Heaven; MacArthur Foundation grant, 2003; Coretta Scott King Award, and Michael J. Printz Award, both 2004, both for The First Part Last.

Writings

PICTURE BOOKS

Tell Me a Story, Mama, illustrated by David Soman, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1989.

Do like Kyla, illustrated by James Ransome, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1990.

When I Am Old with You, illustrated by David Soman, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1990.

One of Three, illustrated by David Soman, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1991.

The Leaving Morning, illustrated by David Soman, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1992.

The Girl Who Wore Snakes, illustrated by James Ransome, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1993.

Julius, illustrated by Dav Pilkey, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1993.

Joshua by the Sea, illustrated by Rhonda Mitchell, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1994.

Joshua's Night Whispers, illustrated by Rhonda Mitchell, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1994.

Mama Bird, Baby Birds, illustrated by Rhonda Mitchell, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1994.

Rain Feet, illustrated by Rhonda Mitchell, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1994.

Shoes like Miss Alice's, illustrated by Ken Page, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1995.

The Aunt in Our House, illustrated by David Soman, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1996.

The Rolling Store, illustrated by Peter Catalanotto, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1997.

Daddy Calls Me Man, illustrated by Rhonda Mitchell, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1997.

Maniac Monkeys on Magnolia Street, illustrated by John Ward, Random House (New York, NY), 1999, bound with When Mules Flew on Magnolia Street, Yearling (New York, NY), 2005.

The Wedding, illustrated by David Soman, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1999.

Those Building Men, illustrated by Mike Benny, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1999.

Down the Winding Road, illustrated by Shane W. Evans, DK Ink, 2000.

Rain Feet, illustrated by Rhonda Mitchell, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 2001.

When Mules Flew on Magnolia Street, illustrated by John Ward, Alfred A. Knopf (New York, NY), 2001, bound with Maniac Monkeys on Magnolia Street, Yearling (New York, NY), 2005.

I Dream of Trains, illustrated by Loren Long, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2003.

Just like Josh Gibson, illustrated by Beth Peck, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2003.

Violet's Music, illustrated by Laura Huliska-Beith, Dial Books (New York, NY), 2004.

A Sweet Smell of Roses, illustrated by Eric Velasquez, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2005.

Lily Brown's Paintings, illustrated by E.B. Lewis, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 2007.

Wind Flyers, illustrated by Loren Long, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2007.

OTHER

Toning the Sweep (novel), Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1993.

Humming Whispers (novel), Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1995.

Songs of Faith (novel), Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1998.

Heaven (novel), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1998.

The Other Side: Shorter Poems, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1998.

Gone from Home: Short Takes (stories), DK Children's (New York, NY), 1998.

Running back to Ludie (novel), Orchard Books (New York, NY), 2002.

Looking for Red (novel), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2002.

A Cool Moonlight (novel), Dial Books (New York, NY), 2003.

The First Part Last (novel), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2003.

Bird (novel), Dial Books (New York, NY), 2004.

Work included in anthologies, such as In Daddy's Arms I Am Tall, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2003.

Adaptations

Many of Johnson's novels have been adapted for audiobook, including Humming Whispers, Recorded Books, 1997, and The First Part Last, Listening Library, 2004.

Sidelights

Angela Johnson first drew critical attention for creating picture books depicting African-American children and their warm, loving relationship to parents, grandparents, siblings, and friends. While Johnson's stories focus on black families, they also capture emotions and experiences that are familiar to young readers of all cultures. Her fiction for older children, which includes both short stories and novels such as Running back to Ludie, The First Part Last, and Bird, tackle difficult issues such as divorce, the death of a sibling, and chronic illness with an emphasis on learning to survive and thrive such dev-

astating events. "Johnson is a master at representing human nature in various guises at different levels," asserted Twentieth-Century Children's Writers contributor Lucille H. Gregory. Rudine Sims Bishop, writing in Horn Book, maintained that Johnson's books "feature charming first-person narrators." These narrators "are distinct individuals," Bishop added, "but their emotions are ones shared across cultures."

In Tell Me a Story, Mama, which Bishop called an "impressive debut," a little girl asks her mother for a familiar bedtime story and ends up doing most of the storytelling herself as she reminds her mother of each favorite part. Another creative child is featured in Lily Brown's Painting, as a little girl is transported to amazing places through her art—and the illustrations created by noted illustrator E.B. White. In her Horn Book review of Tell Me a Story, Mama Maria Salvadore maintained that by "providing a glimpse of one African-American family, Johnson has validated other families' experiences, regardless of racial or ethnic background." Also transcending culture and race, Lily Brown's Painting will "inspire readers to don their painting smocks and create new worlds of their own," according to School Library Journal critic Marianne Saccardi.

Johnson features characters whose lives are enriched by familial affection and reassurance in books such as One of Three, When I Am Old with You, Just like Josh Gibson, and Violet's Music. In Do Like Kyla, a young narrator describes how she imitates her older sister all day, then at bedtime revels in the fact that "Kyla does like me." The young narrator of One of Three relates the fun she has being one of three sisters, as well as the frustration of not being able to join in some of the things her older siblings do. The Coretta Scott King Honor Book When I Am Old with You spotlights a boy who tells his grandfather the things they will do together when the boy catches up to him in age. Reviewing One of Three, a Publishers Weekly critic praised Johnson for her "perceptive and understated text," while Karen James, writing in School Library Journal, admired the way Johnson captures "the underlying love and strength of positive family relationships."

Just like Josh Gibson tells a story of empowerment as a young African-American girl repeats the family story of how her Grandma was trained to play baseball almost from birth. Growing up during the 1940s and 1950s and encouraged by her father to be as good a player as Negro League athlete Josh Gibson, Grandma was allowed to play with the local team only occasionally. The girl eventually shows off her skill when she pinch hits for an injured player and assures the all-male Maple Grove All-Stars a win. The story "has a baseball announcer's suspenseful rhythm," according to Engberg, and in an afterward Johnson includes a biography of the well-known real-life baseball player. While calling Johnson's story "slight," Susan Scheps concluded in School Library Journal that Just like Josh Gibson successfully communicates the message "that a girl can succeed at a ‘boy's game’ if she sets her mind to it." "Johnson never disappoints," a Kirkus Reviews writer declared, describing Just like Josh Gibson "a sweetly powerful and slyly subversive tale."

A young girl wins like-minded friends through self-expression in Violet's Music, as Violet's love of making music is nurtured by her family until it blooms as a talent for playing guitar. Gillian Engberg praised Johnson's decision to depict Violet as upbeat and committed to following her muse rather than a lonesome outsider, writing in Booklist that the "repetitive phrases and … onomatopoeia" featured in Violet's Music "continue the story's cheerful energy and beat." Praising Johnson's "jazzy story," School Library Journal contributor Jane Marino added that the book "celebrates music as much as it applauds being true to what you love."

Unusual pets join the young protagonists in The Girl Who Wore Snakes and Julius. In the former, Ali's strong interest in snakes, which she wears as jewelry, surprises everyone in her family except her snake-loving aunt. Julius, illustrated by Dav Pilkey, features a young girl named Maya who receives Julius, an Alaskan pig, from her grandfather. Together, Maya and Julius teach each other new tricks and enjoy a variety of adventures. Betsy Hearne, writing in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, called Julius a "gleeful celebration of silliness."

In Shoes like Miss Alice's, Sara is hesitant about being with a new babysitter. Her fears are quickly dispelled, however, and a bond is formed when Miss Alice changes into a different pair of shoes for each special activity they do together. "Tucked in the tale is a nice message about being open to new people walking into your life," noted Booklist reviewer Ilene Cooper. In The

Rolling Store, a young black girl tells her white friend a family story about a general store on wheels that used to serve her grandfather's rural community when he was a boy. With help from the visiting grandfather, the girls create their own mobile store out of a small red wagon. "Johnson's family story has a certain nostalgic appeal," noted Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books editor Janice M. Del Negro. Booklist reviewer Stephanie Zvirin deemed The Rolling Store "a sweet, upbeat story."

Several of Johnson's picture books deal with historical people or epochs. In I Dream of Trains Johnson takes a poignant look at engineer Casey Jones through the eyes of a fictional black field worker. A young boy toiling in the heat lives for the moment when the mighty engine roars by and dreams of the day when he will board a train and leave the hard work behind. He is bolstered in his fantasy by the knowledge that some of those who work with the mighty Casey Jones are black men. In Black Issues Book Review Suzanne Rust wrote: "Bold and provocative in prose, picture and content," I Dream of Trains is "a work worthy of any contemporary collection."

The civil rights movement is the focus of A Sweet Smell of Roses, which focuses on the children who became part of the struggle for racial equality led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In a text that pairs with illustrations by Eric Velasquez, two sisters witness the heckling Dr. King receives as he makes a speech in their town and ultimately decide to join the march. According to Booklist contributor Hazel Rochman, the older sister's "clear, first-person narrative draws on the language of the struggle," and in School Library Journal Mary N. Oluonye praised A Sweet Smell of Roses as a "quiet, gentle story" that makes "more real … this chapter of American history." A Kirkus Reviews contributor wrote that Velasquez's "marvelous" artwork provide Johnson's story with "extra punch and impact," dubbing the resulting fact-based picture book "powerful and moving."

In Wind Flyers Johnson pairs what Engberg described as "spare, poetic lines" with realistic artwork by Loren Long to share a boy's memories of his beloved great-great uncle, a pilot with the historic Tuskegee Airmen who flew during World War II. From the uncle's first rides in a barnstormer as a young boy, Johnson's verses move forward in time, focusing on the man's wartime service as part of the black air corps and his piloting following the war. "Long's acrylics beautifully extend the evocative words," concluded Engberg in her review of Wind Flyers, while in School Library Journal John Peters praised the work as a "soaring … tribute to both the … African-American pilots and to the profound longing to fly that impelled them." Johnson's text is "as light and graceful as the air in which the … [airmen] navigated their planes," wrote a Publishers Weekly critic, concluding that author and illustrator work together to "turn a quiet moment in history into a story that will send spirits soaring."

In 1993, Johnson published her first novel for older children. In Toning the Sweep fourteen-year-old Emily participates in the final days of her cancer-stricken grandmother's life by videotaping the ailing woman as she visits with friends, recalling stories of the past. "Full of subtle nuance, the novel is overlaid with meaning about the connections of family and the power of friendship," maintained School Library Journal contributor Ellen Fader. Booklist reviewer Quraysh Ali lauded the work, asserting that, "with ingenuity and grace, Johnson captures the innocence, the vulnerability, and the love of human interaction as well as the melancholy, the self-discovery, and the introspection of adolescence." Mary M. Burns in Horn Book, cited of special note "the skill with which the author moves between times past and times present without sacrificing her main story line or diluting the emotional impact."

Humming Whispers focuses on Sophie, an aspiring dancer who worries that she is developing the schizo- phrenia that now afflicts her older sister. Rochman characterized the novel as "a bleak contemporary story of suffering, lit with the hope of people who take care of each other in the storm." School Library Journal contributor Carol Schene observed that, while "there are no easy answers" for the characters in the book, "the frailty and strength of the human spirit" displayed by each one makes the story memorable. Elizabeth Bush, writing in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, stated that the author "ably demonstrates the pervasive effects of mental illness on an entire family," and a Kirkus Reviews critic praised the way Johnson "carefully and richly fleshes out the characters."

Focusing on another medical condition, A Cool Moonlight tells the story of Lila, a child stricken with xeroderma pigmentosum, a rare over-sensitivity to sunlight. Forced to live a nocturnal lifestyle, Lila takes solace in imaginary friends until her ninth birthday, when she comes to terms with her individuality. In her Horn Book review of A Cool Moonlight, Joanna Rudge Long commended Johnson for her ability to include the "deft touches that make this spare portrait so effective."

The author drew particularly favorable reviews for her novel Heaven. Here fourteen-year-old Marley is the beloved only child in a happy family—until, by accident, she discovers that her parents are actually her uncle and aunt, and her real father is an itinerant "uncle" she hardly knows. This revelation leads Marley to investigate exactly what constitutes a family unit and how her identity is shaped by those who love her. Praising the book for its "plain, lyrical writing," Booklist contributor Rochman concluded that in Heaven the author "makes us see the power of loving kindness."

Readers first meet Bobby, the hero of The First Part Last, in Heaven. In The First Part Last, Johnson spins the story of Bobby's unexpected teenage parenthood, how it compromises his ambitions to be an artist but in return offers him the opportunity to love his infant daughter and connect with his parents. The responsibility for a helpless infant is scary—and at times frustrating—but Bobby is sustained by his fond memories of the past and moments of enjoyment in the present. In a Publishers Weekly review of The First Part Last, a critic praised the way Johnson "skillfully relates the hope in the midst of pain."

Difficult family situations inform both Running back to Ludie and Looking for Red. In Running back to Ludie a teen narrator explores the mixed emotions she experienced as she prepares to meet the mother who abandoned her to live in the woods. Long, writing in Horn Book, maintained that the free-verse style of the novel highlights the narrator's feelings of rejection and reconciliation. "Johnson's exploration of the process is subtle and beautifully wrought," the critic concluded. Looking for Red offers a more straightforward narrative with a dark secret at its core. Red's sister Mike is still reeling from grief in the wake of his disappearance, and she receives small solace from Red's equally traumatized friends. Only as the story proceeds does the reader realize that Mike and Red's friends share some of the responsibility for his accidental death. "The strength of this story is the accurate portrayal of the surreal nature of grief laden with guilt," observed Jean Gaffney in School Library Journal. In Horn Book Long praised the "luminous ease" with which Johnson depicts the characters, "both their estrangement from reality and their eventual return toward it."

Described by a Kirkus Reviews writer as a "poignant tale" about "friendship, family, and human limitations," Bird finds Johnson's thirteen-year-old title character on the road as a runaway. Traveling from Ohio down to rural Alabama in the hope that she can convince her stepfather to return to her family, Bird meets interesting new friends along the way, including teens Ethan and Jay and elderly Mrs. Pritchard. As she becomes more receptive to others, the girl learns that even people who seem happy on the outside often carry sadness in their heart. Other narratives include those of Ethan and Jay, and their stories interweave with Bird's tale in surprising ways. Although a Publishers Weekly contributor found Johnson's narrators surprisingly mature for their age, the "overwhelming kindness" of all the characters in Bird allow readers to share in the "compassionate world" that allows Bird to learn and grow. In her "open-ended, interconnected" storylines, Johnson demonstrates "how small kindnesses can ease the grip of grief," Miriam Lang Budin wrote in School Library Journal, concluding that Bird reveals "many truths about human emotion."

Humorous in tone, Maniac Monkeys on Magnolia Street and its sequel, When Mules Flew on Magnolia Street, introduce Charlie, a girl who must adjust to new friends and new surroundings after moving to Magnolia Street. Told from Charlie's point of view, the two chapter books reveal how the youngster adapts to new situations by being "open to the small wonders around her," to quote Helen Rosenberg in Booklist. In her Booklist review of When Mules Flew on Magnolia Street, Denise Wilms likewise praised the "small slices of life" Johnson serves up for early readers.

Johnson once told SATA: "I don't believe the magic of listening to [my grade-school teacher] … read us stories after lunch will ever be repeated for me. Book people came to life. They sat beside me in Maple Grove School. That is when I knew. I asked for a diary that year and have not stopped writing. My family, especially my grandfather and father, are storytellers and those spoken words sit beside me too." In recognition of her work in children's literature, Johnson was honored with a 2003 MacArthur Foundation grant, a half-million-dollar prize awarded to a select few individuals working in the arts and sciences who make unique contributions to the betterment of society.

Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

Children's Literature Review, Volume 33, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1994, pp. 93-96.

Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, 4th edition, St. James (Detroit, MI), 1995, pp. 493-494.

PERIODICALS

Black Issues Book Review, July-August, 2003, Suzanne Rust, review of I Dream of Trains, p. 65.

Booklist, April 1, 1993, Quraysh Ali, review of Toning the Sweep, p. 1432; February 15, 1995, Hazel Rochman, review of Humming Whispers, p. 1072; March 15, 1995, Ilene Cooper, review of Shoes like Miss Alice's, p. 1334; February 15, 1997, Stephanie Zvirin, review of The Rolling Store, p. 1026; September 15, 1998, Hazel Rochman, review of Heaven, p. 219; November 15, 1998, Helen Rosenberg, review of The Other Side: Shorter Poems, p. 579; January 1, 1999, Helen Rosenberg, review of Maniac Monkeys on Magnolia Street, p. 878; February 15, 2000, Michael Cart, review of Down the Winding Road, p. 1118; November 15, 2000, Anna Rich, review of Heaven, p. 657; January 1, 2001, Denise Wilms, review of When Mules Flew on Magnolia Street, p. 960; February 15, 2001, Henrietta M. Smith, review of Rain Feet, p. 1161; January 1, 2002, review of Running back to Ludie, p. 858; September 1, 2003, Hazel Rochman, review of The First Part Last, p. 122; October 1, 2003, Carolyn Phelan, review of A Cool Moonlight, p. 324; October 1, 2003, Gillian Engberg, review of I Dream of Trains, p. 328; February 15, 2004, Gillian Engberg, review of Just like Josh Gibson, p. 1077; March 15, 2004, Gillian Engberg, review of Violet's Music, p. 1308; February 1, 2005, Hazel Rochman, review of A Sweet Smell of Roses, p. 978; February 15, 2005, Brian Wilson, review of The First Part Last, p. 1988; December 1, 2006, Gillian Engberg, review of Wind Flyers, p. 52; February 1, 2007, Gillian Engberg, review of Lily Brown's Paintings, p. 60.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, May, 1993, Betsy Hearne, review of Julius, p. 284; April, 1995, Elizabeth Bush, review of Humming Whispers, p. 278; May, 1997, Janice M. Del Negro, review of The Rolling Store, pp. 325-326; January, 2002, review of Running back to Ludie, p. 176; October, 2003, Karen Coats, review of A Cool Moonlight, p. 65; February, 2004, Janice Del Negro, review of Violet's Music, p. 236; March, 2004, Elizabeth Bush, review of Just like Josh Gibson, p. 280; December, 2004, Karen Coats, review of Bird, p. 172; February, 2005, Elizabeth Bush, review of A Sweet Smell of Roses, p. 254.

Horn Book, September-October, 1992, Rudine Sims Bishop, "Books from Parallel Cultures: New African-American Voices," p. 620; March-April, 1993, Ellen Fader, review of Julius, pp. 196-197; September-October, 1993, Mary M. Burns, review of Toning the Sweep, p. 603; March-April, 1995, Maria Salvadore, review of Tell Me a Story, Mama, p. 229; November, 1998, Nancy Vasilakis, review of The Other Side, p. 750; November-December, 2001, Joanna Rudge Long, review of Running back to Ludie, p. 766; July-August, 2002, Joanna Rudge Long, review of Looking for Red, p. 463; September-October, 2003, Joanna Rudge Long, review of A Cool Moonlight, p. 611; September-October, 2004, Christine M. Heppermann, review of Bird, p. 587; January-February, 2005, Martha V. Parravano, review of A Sweet Smell of Roses, p. 79.

Kirkus Reviews, April 1, 1995, review of Humming Whispers, p. 470; September 1, 2001, review of Running back to Ludie, p. 1292; September 1, 2003, review of A Cool Moonlight, p. 1125; December 15, 2003, reviews of Just like Josh Gibson and Violet's Music, p. 1450; July 15, 2004, review of Bird, p. 688; January 1, 2005, review of A Sweet Smell of Roses, p. 53; December 1, 2006, review of Lily Brown's Paintings, p. 1221; December 15, 2006, review of Wind Flyers, p. 1269.

New York Times Book Review, November 16, 2003, Marsha Wilson Chall, "One-Track Minds," p. 24.

Publishers Weekly, August 9, 1991, review of One of Three, p. 56; August 3, 1998, review of Heaven, p. 86; November 16, 1998, review of The Other Side, p. 76; November 23, 1998, review of Maniac Monkeys on Magnolia Street, p. 67; March 22, 1999, review of The Wedding, p. 91; March 6, 2000, review of Down the Winding Road, p. 109; May 27, 2002, review of Looking for Red, p. 60; June 16, 2003, review of The First Part Last, p. 73; October 20, 2003, review of I Dream of Trains, p. 53 and A Cool Moonlight, p. 55; January 12, 2004, reviews of Violet's Music and Just like Josh Gibson, p. 53; October 18, 2004, review of Bird, p. 65; January 3, 2005, review of A Sweet Smell of Roses, p. 55; November 20, 2006, review of Wind Flyers, p. 57; January 1, 2007, review of Lily Brown's Paintings, p. 49.

School Library Journal, October, 1991, Karen James, review of One of Three, p. 98; April, 1993, Ellen Fader, review of Toning the Sweep, p. 140; April, 1995, Carol Schene, review of Humming Whispers, p. 154; January, 2001, Maria B. Salvadore, review of When Mules Flew on Magnolia Street, p. 101; March, 2001, Susan Helper, review of Those Building Men, p. 236; December, 2001, Nina Lindsay, review of Running back to Ludie, p. 164; July, 2002, Jean Gaffney, review of Looking for Red, p. 120; September, 2003, Maria B. Salvadore, review of A Cool Moonlight, p. 215; October, 2003, Catherine Threadgill, review of I Dream of Trains, p. 126; February, 2004, Jane Marino, review of Violet's Music, p. 114; March, 2004, Susan Scheps, review of Just like Josh Gibson, p. 172; September, 2004, Miriam Lang Budin, review of Bird, p. 209; March, 2004, Mary N. Oluonye, review of A Sweet Smell of Roses, p. 174; January, 2007, John Peters, review of Wind Flyers, p. 98; February, 2007, Marianne Saccardi, review of Lily Brown's Paintings, p. 88.

ONLINE

African American Literature Book Club Web site,http://aalbc.com (March 28, 2008), "Angela Johnson."

Ohioana Authors Web site,http://www.ohioana-authors.org/ (March 28, 2008), "Angela Johnson."

Visiting Authors Web site,http://www.visitingauthors.com/ (March 28, 2008), "Angela Johnson."

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Johnson, Angela 1961-

JOHNSON, Angela 1961-

Personal

Born June 18, 1961, in Tuskegee, AL; daughter of Arthur (an autoworker) and Truzetta (an accountant; maiden name, Hall) Johnson. Education: Attended Kent State University. Politics: Democrat.

Addresses

Home Kent, OH. Agent c/o Author Correspondence, Orchard Books, 387 Park Ave. S., New York, NY 10016.

Career

Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), Ravenna, OH, child development worker, 1981-82; freelance writer of children's books, 1989.

Member

Authors Guild, Authors League of America.

Awards, Honors

Best Books, School Library Journal, 1989, for Tell Me a Story, Mama; Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award, United States Board on Books for Young People, 1991;

Coretta Scott King Honor Book, American Library Association Social Responsibilities Round Table, 1991, for When I Am Old with You; Editor's Choice, Booklist, Best Books, School Library Journal, and Coretta Scott King Author Award, all for Toning the Sweep; Coretta Scott King Author Award, 1998, for Heaven; Coretta Scott King Honor Book citation, 1998, for The Other Side: Shorter Poems; MacArthur Foundation genius grant, 2003.

Writings

Tell Me a Story, Mama, illustrated by David Soman, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1989.

Do Like Kyla, illustrated by James Ransome, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1990.

When I Am Old with You, illustrated by David Soman, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1990.

One of Three, illustrated by David Soman, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1991.

The Leaving Morning, illustrated by David Soman, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1992.

The Girl Who Wore Snakes, illustrated by James Ransome, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1993.

Julius, illustrated by Dav Pilkey, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1993.

Toning the Sweep: A Novel, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1993, reprinted, 2000.

Joshua by the Sea, illustrated by Rhonda Mitchell, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1994.

Joshua's Night Whispers, illustrated by Rhonda Mitchell, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1994.

Mama Bird, Baby Birds, illustrated by Rhonda Mitchell, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1994.

Rain Feet, illustrated by Rhonda Mitchell, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1994.

Humming Whispers, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1995.

Shoes Like Miss Alice's, illustrated by Ken Page, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1995.

The Aunt in Our House, illustrated by David Soman, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1996.

The Rolling Store, illustrated by Peter Catalanotto, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1997.

Daddy Calls Me Man, illustrated by Rhonda Mitchell, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1997.

Songs of Faith, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1998.

Heaven, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1998.

The Other Side: Shorter Poems, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1998.

Maniac Monkeys on Magnolia Street, illustrated by John Ward, Random House (New York, NY), 1999.

The Wedding, illustrated by David Soman, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1999.

Those Building Men, illustrated by Mike Benny, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1999.

Down the Winding Road, illustrated by Shane W. Evans, DK Ink, 2000.

Gone from Home: Short Takes (stories), Dell (New York, NY), 2001.

When Mules Flew on Magnolia Street, Alfred A. Knopf (New York, NY), 2001.

Rain Feet, illustrated by Rhonda Mitchell, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 2001.

Running Back to Ludie, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 2002.

Looking for Red, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2002.

I Dream of Trains, illustrated by Loren Long, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2003.

The First Part Last, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2003.

A Cool Moonlight, Dial Books (New York, NY), 2003.

Just Like Josh Gibson, illustrated by Beth Peck, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2003.

Violet's Music, illustrated by Laura Huliska-Beith, Dial Books (New York, NY), 2004.

Bird, Dial Books (New York, NY), 2004.

Contributor to several anthologies, including Gone from Home: Short Takes, DK Publishing, 1998, and In Daddy's Arms I Am Tall, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2003.

Adaptations

Humming Whispers was recorded on audio cassette and released by Recorded Books, 1997.

Sidelights

Angela Johnson is the winner of a 2003 MacArthur Foundation genius grant, a half-million-dollar prize awarded to a select few individuals in the arts and sciences who are thought to be making unique contributions to the betterment of society. In Johnson's case the award recognizes her ability to craft sensitive children's books about African-American family life and the wider issues of growing up in the modern world.

Johnson first drew the attention of critics through her picture books presenting warm portraits of African-American children and their relationship to parents, grandparents, siblings, and friends. Many reviewers have pointed out, however, that Johnson's stories capture emotions and experiences that are familiar to young readers of all cultures. Her books for and about older children tackle difficult issues such as divorce, the death of a sibling, and chronic illness with emphasis on learning to survive and thrive such devastating events. "Johnson is a master at representing human nature in various guises at different levels," asserted Twentieth-Century Children's Writers contributor Lucille H. Gregory. Gregory also noted a "high consistency" in Johnson's books, a commendation underscored by Rudine Sims Bishop in Horn Book, who maintained that all of Johnson's works "feature charming first-person narrators. The characters are distinct individuals, but their emotions are ones shared across cultures."

Reaching a wide audience is exactly what Johnson strives for in her writing. As she once told SATA: "In high school I wrote punk poetry that went with my razor blade necklace. At that point in my life my writing was personal and angry. I didn't want anyone to like it. I didn't want to be in the school literary magazine, or to be praised for something that I really didn't want understood. Of course, ten years later, I hope that my writing is universal and speaks to everyone who reads it. I still have the necklace, though."

Many of Johnson's books for children feature young black protagonists narrating events that are common to children their age. In Tell Me a Story, Mama, which Rudine Sims Bishop called an "impressive debut" in Horn Book, a little girl asks her mother for a familiar bedtime story and ends up doing most of the storytelling herself as she reminds her mother of each favorite part. Horn Book reviewer Maria Salvadore, one of a number of commentators offering a favorable assessment of Johnson's first book, observed: "By providing a glimpse of one African-American family, Johnson has validated other families' experiences, regardless of racial or ethnic background."

In subsequent works Johnson has continued to feature characters whose lives are enriched by familial affection and reassurance. In Do Like Kyla, a young narrator describes how she imitates her older sister all day long. But when it's time for bed, the young girl revels in the fact that "Kyla does like me." When I Am Old with You spotlights a boy who describes to his grandfather the things they will do together when the boy catches up to him in age. The young narrator of One of Three relates the fun she has being one of three sisters, as well as the frustration of not being able to join in some of the things her older siblings do. Reviewing One of Three, a Publishers Weekly critic praised Johnson for her "perceptive and understated text," while Karen James, writing in School Library Journal, admired the way Johnson captured "the underlying love and strength of positive family relationships."

Unusual pets join the young protagonists in The Girl Who Wore Snakes and Julius. In the former, Ali's strong interest in snakes, which she wears as jewelry, surprises everyone in her family except her snake-loving aunt. Julius, illustrated by Dav Pilkey, features a young girl named Maya who receives Julius, an Alaskan pig, from her grandfather. Together, Maya and Julius teach each other new tricks and enjoy a variety of adventures. Betsy Hearne, writing in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, called Julius a "gleeful celebration of silliness."

In 1993, Johnson published her first work for older children, Toning the Sweep. In this novel, fourteen-year-old Emily participates in the final days of her cancer-stricken grandmother's life by videotaping the ailing woman as she visits with friends, recalling stories of the past. "Full of subtle nuance, the novel is overlaid with meaning about the connections of family and the power of friendship," maintained School Library Journal contributor Ellen Fader. Booklist reviewer Quraysh Ali lauded the work, asserting: "With ingenuity and grace, Johnson captures the innocence, the vulnerability, and the love of human interaction as well as the melancholy, the self-discovery, and the introspection of adolescence." Mary M. Burns in Horn Book cited for special note "the skill with which the author moves between times past and times present without sacrificing her main story line or diluting the emotional impact."

Humming Whispers, another young adult work, tells the story of Sophie, an aspiring dancer who becomes worried that she is developing the schizophrenia that afflicts her older sister. Hazel Rochman characterized the novel in Booklist as "a bleak contemporary story of suffering, lit with the hope of people who take care of each other in the storm." School Library Journal contributor Carol Schene observed that while "there are no easy answers" for the characters in the book, "the frailty and strength of the human spirit" displayed by each one makes the story memorable. Elizabeth Bush, writing in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, stated that the author "ably demonstrates the pervasive effects of mental illness on an entire family," and a Kirkus Reviews critic praised the way Johnson "carefully and richly fleshes out the characters."

Johnson returned to picture books with Shoes Like Miss Alice's and The Rolling Store. In the former work, Sara is hesitant about being with a new babysitter. Her fears are quickly dispelled, however, and a bond is formed when Miss Alice changes into a different pair of shoes for each special activity they do together. "Tucked in the tale is a nice message about being open to new people walking into your life," noted Booklist reviewer Ilene Cooper. In The Rolling Store, a young black girl tells her white friend a family story about a general store on wheels that used to serve her grandfather's rural community when he was a boy. With help from the visiting grandfather, the girls create their own mobile store out of a small red wagon. "Johnson's family story has a certain nostalgic appeal," noted Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books editor Janice M. Del Negro. Booklist reviewer Stephanie Zvirin deemed The Rolling Store "a sweet, upbeat story."

The author drew particularly favorable reviews for her novel Heaven. Fourteen-year-old Marley is the beloved only child in a happy familyuntil, by accident, she discovers that her parents are actually her uncle and

aunt, and her real father is an itinerant "uncle" she hardly knows. This revelation leads Marley to investigate exactly what constitutes a family unit and how her identity is shaped by those who love her. Praising the book for its "plain, lyrical writing," Booklist contributor Hazel Rochman concluded that the author "makes us see the power of loving kindness."

Johnson has also written collections of poems and has contributed to poetry anthologies. One of her best known poetry books is The Other Side: Shorter Poems. This work was inspired by the fact that her grandmother's hometown of Shorter, Alabama, was razed for redevelopment. During a nostalgic trip to the small town, Johnson wrote about her memories of growing up there. Nancy Vasilakis in Horn Book called The Other Side an "intriguing collection" and a "captivating narrative," while a Publishers Weekly critic noted that the book offers "an unforgettable view of an insightful young woman growing up in the South."

Not all of Johnson's novels are so serious in tone. Maniac Monkeys on Magnolia Street and its sequel When Mules Flew on Magnolia Street introduce Charlie, a youngster who must adjust to new friends and new surroundings after moving to Magnolia Street. Told from Charlie's point of view, the two stories reveal how the youngster adapts to new situations by being "open to the small wonders around her," to quote Helen Rosenberg in Booklist. In her Booklist review of When Mules Flew on Magnolia Street, Denise Wilms likewise praised the "small slices of life" that Johnson serves to early readers.

Difficult family situations inform the novels Running Back to Ludie and Looking for Red. In Running Back to Ludie, a teenaged narrator explores her mixed emotions as she prepares to meet the mother who abandoned her to live in the woods. Joanna Rudge Long in Horn Book felt that the free verse style of the work helps to highlight the young person's feelings of rejection and reconciliation. "Johnson's exploration of the process is subtle and beautifully wrought," the critic concluded. Looking for Red offers a more straightforward narrative with a dark secret at its core. Red's sister Mike is still reeling from grief in the wake of his disappearance, and she receives small solace from Red's equally traumatized friends. Only as the story proceeds does the reader realize that Mike and Red's friends share some of the responsibility for his accidental death. "The strength of this story is the accurate portrayal of the surreal nature of grief laden with guilt," observed Jean Gaffney in School Library Journal. In Horn Book, Joanna Rudge Long praised the "luminous ease" with which Johnson depicts the characters, "both their estrangement from reality and their eventual return toward it."

A Cool Moonlight tells the story of Lila, a child stricken with xeroderma pigmentosum, a rare over-sensitivity to sunlight. Forced to live a nocturnal lifestyle, Lila takes solace in imaginary friends until her ninth birthday, when she comes to terms with her individuality. Once again in Horn Book Joanna Rudge Long commended the novel, particularly for Johnson's "deft touches that make this spare portrait so effective."

Readers first met Bobby, the hero of The First Part Last, in Heaven. In The First Part Last, Johnson spins the story of Bobby's unexpected teenage parenthood, how it compromises his ambitions to be an artist but in return offers him the opportunity to love his infant daughter and connect with his parents. The responsibility for a helpless infant is scaryand at times frustratingbut Bobby is sustained by his fond memories of the past and moments of enjoyment in the present. A Publishers Weekly critic of The First Part Last liked the way Johnson "skillfully relates the hope in the midst of pain."

Johnson is still creating at least one new picture book per year. One successful title is I Dream of Trains, a poignant look at engineer Casey Jones through the eyes of a fictional black field worker. A young boy toiling in the heat lives for the moment when the mighty engine roars by and dreams of the day when he will board a train and leave the hard work behind. He is bolstered in his fantasy by the knowledge that some of those who work with the mighty Casey Jones are black men. In Black Issues Book Review Suzanne Rust wrote: "Bold and provocative in prose, picture and content," I Dream of Trains is "a work worthy of any contemporary collection."

Since 1989, Johnson has published one or more books per year and continues to write at a steady pace. The author once told SATA: "I don't believe the magic of listening to Wilma Mitchell read us stories after lunch will ever be repeated for me. Book people came to life. They sat beside me in Maple Grove School. That is when I knew. I asked for a diary that year and have not stopped writing. My family, especially my grandfather and father, are storytellers and those spoken words sit beside me too." As a genius grant recipient, Johnson will be awarded one-hundred-thousand dollars each year through 2008.

Biographical and Critical Sources

books

Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 32, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2000.

Children's Literature Review, Volume 33, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1994, pp. 93-96.

Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, 4th edition, St. James (Detroit, MI), 1995, pp. 493-494.

periodicals

Black Issues Book Review, July-August, 2003, Suzanne Rust, review of I Dream of Trains, p. 65.

Booklist, April 1, 1993, Quraysh Ali, review of Toning the Sweep, p. 1432; February 15, 1995, Hazel Rochman, review of Humming Whispers, p. 1072; March 15, 1995, Ilene Cooper, review of Shoes Like Miss Alice's, p. 1334; February 15, 1997, Stephanie Zvirin, review of The Rolling Store, p. 1026; September 15, 1998, Hazel Rochman, review of Heaven, p. 219; November 15, 1998, Helen Rosenberg, review of The Other Side: Shorter Poems, p. 579; January 1, 1999, Helen Rosenberg, review of Maniac Monkeys on Magnolia Street, p. 878; February 15, 2000, Michael Cart, review of Down the Winding Road, p. 1118; November 15, 2000, Anna Rich, review of Heaven, p. 657; January 1, 2001, Denise Wilms, review of When Mules Flew on Magnolia Street, p. 960; February 15, 2001, Henrietta M. Smith, review of Rain Feet, p. 1161; January 1, 2002, review of Running Back to Ludie, p. 858; September 1, 2003, Hazel Rochman, review of The First Part Last, p. 122; October 1, 2003, Carolyn Phelan, review of A Cool Moonlight, p. 324; October 1, 2003, Gillian Engberg, review of I Dream of Trains, p. 328.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, May, 1993, Betsy Hearne, review of Julius, p. 284; April, 1995, Elizabeth Bush, review of Humming Whispers, p. 278; May, 1997, Janice M. Del Negro, review of The Rolling Store, pp. 325-326.

Horn Book, September-October, 1992, Rudine Sims Bishop, "Books from Parallel Cultures: New African-American Voices," p. 620; March-April, 1993, Ellen Fader, review of Julius, pp. 196-197; September-October, 1993, Mary M. Burns, review of Toning the Sweep, p. 603; March-April, 1995, Maria Salvadore, "Making Sense of Our World," p. 229; November, 1998, Nancy Vasilakis, review of The Other Side: Shorter Poems, p. 750; November-December, 2001, Joanna Rudge Long, review of Running Back to Ludie, p. 766; July-August, 2002, Joanna Rudge Long, review of Looking for Red, p. 463; September-October, 2003, Joanna Rudge Long, review of A Cool Moonlight, p. 611.

Kirkus Reviews, April 1, 1995, review of Humming Whispers, p. 470.

New York Times Book Review, November 16, 2003, Marsha Wilson Chall, "One-Track Minds," p. 24.

Publishers Weekly, August 9, 1991, review of One of Three, p. 56; August 3, 1998, review of Heaven, p. 86; November 16, 1998, review of The Other Side: Shorter Poems, p. 76; November 23, 1998, review of Maniac Monkeys on Magnolia Street, p. 67; March 22, 1999, review of The Wedding, p. 91; March 6, 2000, review of Down the Winding Road, p. 109; May 27, 2002, review of Looking for Red, p. 60; June 16, 2003, review of The First Part Last, p. 73; October 20, 2003, review of I Dream of Trains, p. 53 and A Cool Moonlight, p. 55.

School Library Journal, October, 1991, Karen James, review of One of Three, p. 98; April, 1993, Ellen Fader, review of Toning the Sweep, p. 140; April, 1995, Carol Schene, review of Humming Whispers, p. 154; January, 2001, Maria B. Salvadore, review of When Mules Flew on Magnolia Street, p. 101; March, 2001, Susan Helper, review of Those Building Men, p. 236; October 22, 2001, review of Running Back to Ludie, p. 77; December, 2001, Nina Lindsay, review of Running Back to Ludie, p. 164; July, 2002, Jean Gaffney, review of Looking for Red, p. 120; September, 2003, Maria B. Salvadore, review of A Cool Moonlight, p. 215; October, 2003, Catherine Threadgill, review of I Dream of Trains, p. 126.*

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Johnson, Angela

Johnson, Angela

June 18, 1961 Tuskegee, Alabama

Writer

Since 1989 Angela Johnson has been steadily producing exceptional books for young people, ranging from picture books for children to novels, poetry, and short stories for young adults. Her works have earned her the adoration of fans and the admiration of reviewers, many of whom have commented on her exceptional ability to create memorable, real characters who stay in readers' minds long after the book cover has been closed. In most of her books Johnson addresses personal, everyday subjects: family relationships, the difficulties of growing up, seeking comfort from loved ones during times of struggle. A number of reviewers have noted that, while many of Johnson's characters are African American, the circumstances they confront and the emotions they express are so true to life that they can be appreciated by all readers. Johnson's editor, Kevin Lewis, stated in an article for the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, "A reader might begin thinking that they have nothing in common with [Johnson's characters], but by the end they realize that the list of things people sharethings like family, friends, struggle, change, love, loss, dreams, and so onis much more profound [or, meaningful] than the list of our differences."

The origins of a writer

Born in 1961 in Tuskegee, Alabama, Johnson grew up in Alabama and Ohio. Reading and listening to stories was a significant part of her childhood. Her father and grandfather were natural storytellers, and Johnson can pinpoint the moment when she realized that her own fondness for stories was more than a passing interest. As described on the African American Literature Book Club (AALBC) Web site, Johnson recalled hearing a particularly compelling storyteller during her early school years. She realized that the characters of her favorite books had come alive in her mind, becoming as real as the children sitting next to her in school. "That is when I knew," she remembered. "I asked for a diary that year and have not stopped writing."

"Kids and teens are so much more interesting than adults. Life is happening when you are a teenager. One minute you're a child, the next you're allowed to go out in the world by yourself. Who knows what will happen?"

One of the ideas that has occupied Johnson as a writer is a child's search for truth or, rather, the quest to uncover what she calls "the big lie"the feeling that one's parents might not be who they seem, or that the things a child has always accepted as reality might not be true. In an interview in the magazine Booklist, Johnson stated: "There's always that point when kids rifle through their parents' papers to make sure they weren't adopted. I was probably about nine or ten when I picked my dad's lockbox with a bobby pin. And it's really interesting because I didn't have that big lie in my life! But I had so many friends who did." She went on to say that once she became a writer she realized that "you can get a great story from the big lie."

Major Works for Young Adults

Toning the Sweep (novel), Orchard, 1993.

Humming Whispers (novel), Orchard, 1995.

Songs of Faith (novel), Orchard, 1998.

Heaven (novel), Simon & Schuster, 1998.

Gone from Home: Short Takes (short stories), DK Publishing, 1998.

The Other Side: Shorter Poems (poems), Orchard, 1998.

Maniac Monkeys on Magnolia Street (short stories), Random House, 1999.

When Mules Flew on Magnolia Street (short stories), Knopf, 2000.

Running Back to Ludie (poems), Orchard, 2001.

Looking for Red (novel), Simon & Schuster, 2002.

A Cool Moonlight (novel), Dial, 2003.

The First Part Last (novel), Simon & Schuster, 2003.

In the Booklist interview Johnson recalled her "fantastic childhood." She acknowledged that she became moody and angry as a teenager, and that during high school her writing was extremely personal. She wrote only for herself, as a way of expressing feelings of frustration and alienation. On the AALBC Web site, she described her writing from that period as "punk poetry that went with my razor blade necklace." She recalled in Booklist, "I wrote the darkest poetry about cityscapes and disintegration and rats. The literary guild at school wouldn't accept any of my work, which I think nurtured me because it made me even angrier." While she had been writing since early childhood, Johnson was not very interested in reading until a high school English teacher showed her the works of some of the Beat poets, writers who, during the 1950s, wrote experimental, nontraditional verse to challenge mainstream, middle-class ideas about art and life. In addition to such poetry, Johnson enjoyed reading factual works about real people. She explained in Booklist: "When I was a teenager, I only read nonfiction. I didn't want to read anything that wasn't true. I was immersed in people's livesJanis Joplin, Malcolm X. I wanted to know the real story."

Finding her path

After graduating from high school, Johnson attended Kent State University in Ohio, studying special education. She left college without earning a degree, and from 1981 to 1982 she worked in childhood development as a participant in the program known as Volunteers in Service to America, or VISTA. Although she had been writing poetry and stories for many years, Johnson did not think of writing as a realistic career goal. During her college years, though, she met a writer who encouraged Johnson to re-define herself. Working part-time as a babysitter for acclaimed children's author Cynthia Rylant, Johnson was eventually persuaded to show Rylant some of her writing. Recognizing Johnson's gifts, Rylant urged her to focus on writing for young people. A few years later, in 1989, Johnson published her first work, a picture book called Tell Me a Story, Mama.

Over the next several years Johnson produced a number of well-received picture books for young children, including Do Like Kyla, The Leaving Morning, The Girl Who Wore Snakes, and Julius. While she would continue to create picture books for many more years, in 1993 Johnson began to create works with an entirely different focus, releasing her first novel aimed at young adults. Toning the Sweep tells the story of fourteen-year-old Emmie, who journeys with her mother to the home of her Grandmama Ola in the California desert. Ola is dying of cancer, and Emmie and her mother have come to help her make the move to Cleveland, Ohio, where she will spend her final months surrounded by family. While in California, Emmie tags along on her grandmother's visits with friends, videotaping their conversations and recording the friends' good-bye messages to Ola. In so doing, she discovers a great deal about her grandmother and about tragic events in her family's past. Reviewers praised Johnson's understated, realistic style of storytelling, noting that rather than spelling out every detail, the author encouraged readers to use their imaginations. In 1994 Toning the Sweep won the Coretta Scott King award, an annual honor given by the American Library Association to outstanding works for young people by an African American author.

Johnson's next young-adult novel, Humming Whispers, published in 1995, tackled the difficult subject of mental illness. Sophy, fourteen years old and training to be a dancer, worries about her older sister, Nikki, who suffers from schizophrenia, a serious mental disorder that dramatically affects feelings, thoughts, and behavior. Nikki first developed symptoms of her illness at age fourteen, and Sophy's anxieties for her sister also extend to herself: she is concerned that she too will begin to show signs of schizophrenia. Johnson was able to balance the serious and painful subject matter with a strong sense of the strength the characters were able to derive from their family members and friends. A reviewer for Publisher's Weekly described Humming Whispers as "a story of subtle but real hope, in the form of strong, abiding human connections ... and moments of understanding and acceptance."

Family connections also played an important role in Johnson's 1998 novel Songs of Faith. Set in a small Ohio town in 1976, this book explores the impact of their parents' divorce on Doreen and her younger brother, Robert. Johnson does not shy away from difficult subjects in her writing, and she portrayed these topics in an honest, realistic light, showing that the love and support of family and friends, while not removing the pain altogether, can help make it bearable.

Johnson has applied her considerable talent for relating memorable characters and interesting situations to other genres as well, including short stories and poems. In 1998 she published Gone from Home: Short Takes, a collection of short stories. The following year, she released The Other Side: Shorter Poems, a book of verse written in plain, everyday language. The loosely connected poems, based on recollections of her childhood, capture details of life in the small town of Shorter, Alabama. Yet another book, made up of poems that link together to tell a story, Running Back to Ludie examines a teenage girl's reunion with the mother from whom she was separated.

Heaven and beyond

In her 1999 novel Heaven, another winner of the Coretta Scott King award, Johnson reexamines the meaning of family connections. Fourteen-year-old Marley enjoys a contented, secure life with her parents and brother in a town called Heaven. She goes to school, plays with her friends, and looks forward to the engaging letters she occasionally receives from her traveling uncle. One day she learns that things are not what they seem: her "parents" are actually her aunt and uncle, while her "Uncle Jack" is really her father. Furious that she has been deceived by the people she loves the most, Marley must come to terms with her feelings of anger and betrayal, and she must redefine her notion of family.

In 2003 Johnson set a second novel in the town of Heaven. In The First Part Last, she depicts the life of Bobby, a teenage boy who is single-handedly raising his baby daughter. The First Part Last is a prequel to Heaven, telling a story that takes place before the events that unfold in the 1999 novel. Just sixteen years old, Bobby must abruptly enter adulthood when he takes responsibility for raising his daughter, Feather. The chapters alternate from the past to the present, switching back and forth from the months before his daughter was born to his early struggles as a single father.

Kevin Lewis, Johnson's editor, told the author that a group of sixth graders had said that Bobby was their favorite character from Heaven. When he asked her if she thought Bobby could be the subject of a new novel, Johnson initially said no. Johnson recalled in Booklist, "At first I thought, absolutely not. Usually, when I finish a book, it's done. The characters have folded up their bags and walked on home." But one day on the subway in New York, she saw a teenage boy with a baby. Her first thought was that the baby was the boy's sister, but then it occurred to her that she could be his daughter. She explained in U.S. News & World Report, "I kept thinking about what life would be like for him. Mostly, boys are portrayed as clueless, and they desert their girlfriends. But what about the boy who does the right thing?" From these imaginings, Johnson spun the story of Bobby and Feather, a novel that earned high praise from critics. A Publisher's Weekly reviewer wrote: "Each nuanced chapter feels like a poem in its economy and imagery; yet the characters ... emerge fully formed." In 2004 The First Part Last earned Johnson her third Coretta Scott King award, as well as the Michael L. Printz Award, given for excellence in young adult literature. In early 2004 Johnson announced that she was at work on a third novel set in the town of Heaven.

Recognition beyond expectation

After years of writing books in a variety of forms for a variety of age groupsand earning prestigious awards and high praise from both readers and reviewersJohnson learned in late 2003 that she was the recipient of an extraordinary honor. She had been named a MacArthur fellow, receiving a $500,000 grant known as the "genius" grant. The prize came from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, a private organization that, among other things, awards grants to exceptionally talented people in a variety of creative fields. Described by many as humble, shy, and unassuming, Johnson was quite surprised by the news of having won the grant. She explained in Booklist, "I'm still shockedthe award is still not real to me. I've been so busy that I haven't actually had time to think about how this will change my life. And I guess it won't. I'll still be the person who wears her PJs all day long." She went on to say that, while the publicity and recognition stemming from the MacArthur grant were exciting, she looked forward to getting back to her normal writing routine. "It may not be mountain climbing, but sitting in front of the computer does it for me. It's easy for me to be thrilled."

For More Information

Periodicals

Corbett, Sue. "'Genius' Label Doesn't Erase Author Angela Johnson's Shyness." Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service (February 25, 2004): p. K4506.

Engberg, Gillian. "The Booklist Interview: Angela Johnson." Booklist (February 15, 2004): p. 1074.

"The First Part Last. " Publishers Weekly (June 16, 2003): p. 73.

Hallett, Vicky. "When Mr. Mom Is a Teenager." U.S. News & World Report (January 26, 2004): p. 16.

"Humming Whispers. " Publishers Weekly (January 23, 1995): p. 71.

Web Sites

"Angela Johnson." African American Literature Book Club. http://authors.aalbc.com/angela.htm (accessed on March 25, 2004).

"Angela Johnson's Biography." Visitingauthors.com. http://www.visitingauthors.com/printable_pages/johnson_angela_print_info.html (accessed on March 25, 2004).

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