Highlights of a Life
Angela Johnson was born June 18, 1961, in Tuskegee, Alabama, the only girl of three children born to Arthur and Truzetta Johnson. Her father was an autoworker and her mother worked as comptroller at a social service agency when the family settled in the hamlet of Windham, Ohio, where Johnson grew up.
Books and reading were major influences in Johnson’s childhood. Johnson and her two younger brothers spent much of their time reading. Reading became such a habitual activity that her father eventually banned reading during meals, when one night everyone at the dinner table was reading a book.
Johnson’s inspiration to write, however, came in elementary school. Maple Grove Elementary teacher Wilma Mitchell read “Harriet the Spy” to her class. Shortly afterward, Johnson asked her parents for a diary and has continued writing ever since.
“In high school, I wrote punk poetry that went with my razor blade necklace,” she writes in an essay on the Simon & Schuster Web site. “I didn’t want anyone to like it. … [Now] I hope that my writing is universal and speaks to everyone who reads it. I still have the necklace, though.”
Upon graduating from high school, Johnson attended Kent State University with the goal of getting a degree in education to become a special education teacher. In the early 1980s, however, Johnson decided that she needed to choose between teaching and writing.
“I felt that, if I had stayed and gotten my degree, more than likely I wouldn’t write,” she said in an interview with the “Toledo Blade.” To make a living, however, she was as a child development worker with Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) in Ravenna, Ohio, and as a nanny. Among the children she cared for was the son of Newberry Medal-winning author Cynthia Rylant, who also lived in Kent, Ohio. It was Rylant who gave Johnson an important boost in her career as a writer.
Rylant, already an established figure in the children’s book world, learned that Johnson was interested in writing for children. She asked to see some of Johnson’s work. At first, Johnson hesitated, considering Rylant’s reputation.
Two years later, Rylant reviewed Johnson’s work and sent it on to her publisher. In 1989, Johnson published her first children’s book, “Tell Me a Story Mama.” Johnson was thrilled by the lucky break she got via her connection to Rylant, but she also felt a responsibility to succeed.
“It’s not always wonderful to do the ‘Cinderella’ thing. She put herself out for me, and I had to make it work.”
Johnson never specifically chose to become a children’s writer, but said that was the “voice” in which she naturally wrote. While she doesn’t have any children of her own, Johnson said she’s never forgotten the emotions of being a child or young adult, and that helps keep her work fresh.
Critics recognized in Johnson’s early works an ability to craft sensitive stories about African-American family life and the wider issues of growing up in the modern world.
Though Johnson’s earliest works were picture books, she continued to write children’s books while moving to young adult novels, where she explored a broader variety of topics. Many times her books revolve around family relationships, those between brothers and sisters or with grandparents and parents. But Johnson’s biggest achievement has been using these common relationships to tell uncommon stories. Her characters have dealt with mental illness, teen pregnancy (from a male point of view), and death; they have also talked about familiar situations, like moving to a new town, introspection, and trying to survive high school.
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.
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 and recalling stories of the past. “Humming Whispers,” another young adult work, tells the story of Sophie, an aspiring dancer who worries that she is developing the schizophrenia that afflicts her older sister.
Many of Johnson’s books for children feature young black protagonists narrating events that are common to children their age. Reviewer Maria Salvadore wrote: “By providing a glimpse of one African-American family, Johnson has validated other families’ experiences, regardless of racial or ethnic background.”
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 her grandmother’s hometown of Shorter, Alabama, being razed for redevelopment. During a nostalgic trip to the small town, Johnson recalls subjects such as racism and the Vietnam War, as well as dirt roads, boom boxes, and skinny-dipping.
In a 2004 “Booklist” interview, Johnson said, “I’ve always wanted to be a poet. I actually got my first book of poetry–The Other Side–out of writings from high school! I had a fantastic childhood, and my parents encouraged me, but I was also such a bitter teenager. I lived in this little farm town in northeastern Ohio, near Youngstown, and 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. I had on my razor-blade necklace and my leather boots, and I was moody. I was a scary chick. But I was also a cheerleader, for goodness’ sake! It was this bizarre mix–all I can say is, it was the ’70s. All of us were a little dark and strange.”
Since 1989, Johnson has published one or more books per year and continues to write at a steady pace. Three of her books have won the Coretta Scott King Author Award, and one of them (her children’s book “When I Am Old with You”) was named an American Library Association Notable Book.
Johnson’s success as a children’s writer continues to be recognized. In October 2003, she received a “genius” fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The award is given to individuals who “have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits” and grants $500,000 over five years.