author spotlight, black history, black lives, social-emotional

Author Spotlight: Vanessa Brantley-Newton

Vanessa Brantley-Newton was born in Newark, New Jersey. She learned early on to celebrate being Black and living in a diverse community. One of her earliest reading memories is picking up Ezra Jack Keats’s Snowy Day. Brantley-Newton has said that it was the first time she saw herself in a children’s book, which had been Keats’s goal in making his protagonist Black. That began a life-long love of art, particularly picture book illustration. Although, like many artists before her, Brantley-Newton didn’t go straight to kids’ books and studied fashion at The Fashion Institute of Technology. Later, at the School of the Visual Arts, she took up children’s book illustration, which is now her job. Now she lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her husband & daughter, regularly collaborating with writers on books that continue what the Snowy Day once did for her.

Grandma’s Purse (Knopf Books for Young Readers)
Written & Illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

For ages: 3-5
Grandmama Mimi has come to visit, and her little granddaughter is excitedly buzzing. Her favorite thing to do when Mimi comes over is to carry her grandma’s stylish purse and pretend. The little girl will explore the bag, finding lipstick, sunglasses, and even some candy. The highlights are the illustrations on display here and how they complement the text beautifully. The purse is a luxurious patchwork of colors & patterns matched by the stylish grandma Mimi with a white afro who towers over her granddaughter. Mimi is exactly as larger than life as all grandparents are to their grandkids. Brantley-Newton has made a fantastic book for grandparents to share with their grandchildren about how beautiful these relationships are. 

The King of Kindergarten (Nancy Paulsen Books)
Written by Derrick Barnes
Illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

For ages: 4-8
It’s the first day of school for a little Black boy who couldn’t be more excited about going. He’s very intent on being a “big boy” today, dressing and joining his parents for some breakfast before heading off. Everything about his day is modeled around being the titular “king of kindergarten,” with the school being compared to a fortress and the family car being a “big yellow carriage.” Each aspect of school is new & exciting to our little guy. There are so many new things to learn and friends to make. Lunch & recess are particularly significant as he shares with a friend who he notices didn’t bring much to eat. On the playground, he finds someone who loves to use their imagination too. The illustrations by Brantley-Newton are bound to put an everlasting smile on your face as they are just oozing with pure sweetness. I think this would make a fantastic first-day-of-school book to read to a new class of Kindergarteners. 

The Youngest Marcher ( Atheneum Books for Young Readers)
Written by Cynthia Levinson
Illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

For ages: 4-10
Based on the real-life Audrey Faye Hendricks, a nine-year-old civil rights activist, Brantley-Newton illustrates while Cynthia Levinson writes. Audrey is in the middle of a major movement but doesn’t notice immediately. Her family friend Mike has come over, and she’s helping prepare the meal for him and the family’s many guests. We’ll recognize Mike as Dr. Martin Luther King, but for Audrey, he’s Mike. Hearing his words about marching in Birmingham has even this little child committed to the cause, and she joined with the grown-ups on that fateful day in May 1963. Audrey got arrested and put in juvenile detention with the other children present. Still, they found solidarity with each other and, just like the grown-ups, stuck to the purpose of the cause. The result was that they filled the jails so much that the segregation laws had to be repealed as there was nowhere to put the people violating them. This book is a beautiful lesson that just because something has been made into law doesn’t mean it is right or it should be followed. If a law harms, it is unjust. Even a child can see that.

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