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Find more Top of the List Interview
In Nana Akua Goes to School, Zura takes her beloved grandmother to school for Grandparents Day, but she worries what the other kids might say about the tribal marking on Nana Akua’s face. Tricia Elam Walker’s moving story, illuminated by April Harrison’s gorgeous mixed-media artwork, uses cultural specificity to create universal resonance. We spoke to the two rising kidlit stars about their stunning collaboration, our 2020 Top of the List Picture Book.
KHURI: Tricia, you’ve written in many forms and categories, but Nana Akua Goes to School is your first foray into children’s literature. What drew you to the world of picture books?
WALKER: My mother drew me in! She is no longer here physically, but she lives on inside me and is the reason I am a writer. My mother loved books, especially children’s books, so she became a children’s librarian—ultimately heading the Boston Public Schools Library Program and ensuring that all children had access to excellent and diverse books. She not only made us read when we wanted to watch TV instead but would sit in her favorite chair to read tall stacks of children’s books. We used to tease her that the house could burn down with us in it and she would be sitting there reading because we’d have to yell for her to hear us. She would be completely transported to the world of whatever book she was reading. My mother also gave children’s books to adults as gifts. She believed children’s books could solve the problems of the world. Nana Akua Goes to School is dedicated to both my parents, who always celebrated our heritage and encouraged our creativity. My mother, though, is the reason this book exists. I hope—and think—she’s proud of me and it!
So that’s how I grew up and learned to love reading and books. I always wanted to recreate the feeling books gave me, so I wrote my first children’s book when I was very young—seven or eight maybe—and my mom showed me how to sew the pages together, because I wanted it to open like a real book. Years later, after recovering from a 16-year stint as a lawyer, I figured out I actually was a writer. I went on to write for adults but always wanted to do a children’s picture book. My cousin, Ekua Holmes (a renowned picture book illustrator) and I pretty much grew up together and periodically discussed doing a children’s book together. We finally did one and sold it! That same deal offered me the opportunity to create a separate picture book; thus Nana Akua was born.
KHURI: April, you and Tricia have made such a beautiful pairing in this book. What about her text made you want to take on the project? What about it suited your artistic sensibility?
HARRISON: When presented with the manuscript, I was attracted to the bond between grandmother and granddaughter. I was moved by the special love Zura had for her grandmother, and I was particularly drawn to Nana Akua’s thoughtful character and how she was able to illustrate how being different can be very special. The storyline also complemented my artistic style and focus on familial love and bonding.
KHURI: Zura’s story is very specific—to her and to Ashanti culture—and yet her experience strikes a universal chord. What were the roots of this project, and how did it grow into what it became?
WALKER: As mentioned, I had a book contract, but I didn’t know what I was going to write about. I kept sending my agent ideas, and she’d dismiss them with “That’s boring” or “That’s been done already” or “That’s depressing”—she didn’t mince her words—and I was getting desperate. I’m a Buddhist, and so I was chanting at a friend’s house one day, specifically about an idea for the book—like, I really need a good idea now! As I was chanting, there were two African masks on the wall next to the altar, and somehow the story came to me. Initially, I thought it would be about a little girl with tribal markings, but later, after doing research, I understood that someone that young, in contemporary times, probably wouldn’t have them, so I changed it to her grandmother. I wanted to write about how all of us, children included, want to be liked and accepted and not treated differently no matter what is different about us. I loved the idea of a little girl being concerned and protective about how others might treat the person she cares for the most.
KHURI: Nana Akua strikes me as such a good fit for classrooms, especially considering the activity embedded in the story. Despite the limiting circumstances of 2020, have you had a chance to hear from teachers, librarians, or students about how they’ve used the book?
HARRISON: I’ve received messages and pictures of students either drawing the symbols or reading Nana Akua, via social media from librarians, teachers, and parents. Nana Akua has become a real read-aloud favorite!
WALKER: Yes, despite the lockdown challenges, I’ve had many opportunities to read and discuss the book with young people, teachers, and librarians. Everyone has been enthusiastic about it, and kids love the symbols and trying to recreate them. Teachers have told me they have the students discuss their own related experiences. One classroom I visited happened to have a student from Ghana, and the teacher said she was usually quiet and reticent but had perked up and really paid attention when they began reading and discussing the book. I’m so thankful and moved by knowing that experience. I also recently learned that some dancers who work with school children have created a dance interpretation of the book. I can’t wait to see it!
KHURI: I’m sure I speak for everyone when I say that April’s artwork is absolutely stunning. Tricia, how did her illustrations match up with your original vision for Nana Akua? What are some of your favorite visual elements?
WALKER: April’s work is phenomenal. When my editor told me she had asked April to do the illustrations, I was thrilled and crossed my fingers she would say yes, because I knew of and admired her work. What I didn’t realize until later was that I had a print of hers hanging in my home for almost 20 years. It wasn’t signed and has a different look than much of her work, but once I found out it was by her, I knew we were meant to be! April’s illustrations went beyond what I could have imagined. I didn’t get to see any of it for a long time, but she did ask me if there was anything I felt strongly about, and I said that I wanted Zura to have natural hair and that Nana should be warm and welcoming. April magnificently breathed life into the characters that lived only in my head. I love everything she created, but what stands out is her depiction of Nana’s face that takes up a whole page. The beauty and warmth in her eyes leave me speechless. April’s illustrations are an author’s dream come true.
KHURI: April, your figures often have exaggerated limbs or extremities, and it’s a really powerful effect. How did this style of yours evolve? Why does it pull at my heart like this?
HARRISON: It is my intent to show how important those body parts are as a whole. The hands show love through holding and hugging; therefore, I elongate them for emphasis. I also exaggerate certain facial and body features to show their true beauty and their role as sources of pride and acceptance. My goal is to acknowledge that our features are extreme gifts given to us by our creator. We are all diversely different and uniquely original.
KHURI: This past year you also won a John Steptoe New Talent Award—congratulations, by the way!—though you’ve been a professional artist for a number of years now. Do you feel like a beginner when it comes to picture books? How have your work and process had to adapt to book illustration work?
HARRISON: Thank you very much! Yes, I have found that illustrating picture books involves not only myself but a whole community of visionaries. It’s more of a team effort, and everyone plays a key part in its development and completion. In contrast, my fine art is a solitary journey where I commune with the inner spirit. No other voices required!
KHURI: Finally, I of course have to ask: What Adinkra symbol would you each choose for yourself?
WALKER: I learned about Adinkra symbols when my children were small and in African-centered schools, and many of the symbols resonated with me for a myriad of reasons. At this present moment, the sankofa symbol is a favorite because it means “learn from the past to build the future.” I also am drawn to the wawa aba symbol, which was used throughout the Black Panther movie and means “toughness and perseverance.” Got to have it in these days and times!
HARRISON: Gye nyame: “faith in and devotion to a supreme being.”
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