Emmett Till was 14 when he was visiting family in Mississippi in 1955 when a white woman accused him of snapping at her. Two of the woman’s relatives brutally beat the youth before shooting him dead and throwing him into a river. After being found not guilty by a jury, the men publicly admitted to the torture and murder. After Till’s tragic death, his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, dedicated the rest of her life to education and civil rights activism. Till’s assassination served as a catalyst for the civil rights movement.
In 1999, seven decades later, a Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts graduate illustrated a new children’s book that pays tribute to Till-Mobley’s work. Janelle Washington collaborated with author Angela Joy on Choosing Brave: How Mamie Till-Mobley and Emmett Till Sparked the Civil Rights Movement.
It is Washington’s first attempt at illustrating books. As the founder of WashingtonCuts LLC, a paper cutting and silhouette company that celebrates and explores Black culture, Washington uses multiple blades to hand-cut designs from paper.
While the designs for “Choosing Brave” were being drawn up, global protests against police brutality and racism were taking place, Washington said, adding another difficulty to the processing of Mamie and Emmett Till’s story.
“Black people are still struggling with the same problems,” Washington said.
Washington spoke to VCU News about working on Choosing Brave, which will be released August 9 and is available for pre-order where books are sold.
How did you come to this project?
I was brought into the project in early 2020 while in lockdown during the pandemic. Connie Hsu, the editorial director of Roaring Brook Press, a subsidiary of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group, emailed me to say that she had come across my website and imagined that my beautiful illustrations would make this story of would bring Mamie to life. After reading the manuscript I visualized the art for the book and knew this was a project I wanted to be a part of. I absolutely loved how Angela Joy wrote about Mamie Till-Mobley’s life and was honored that they thought my paper cutting art would be a great fit.
What made you decide to work on a picture book?
I love the beauty and detail of picture books and have always admired children’s illustrators. I never thought I would one day illustrate a book myself as I don’t have an illustrator background, but I jumped on board when the opportunity presented itself.
How did you research this project? How did you decide what style to use for these illustrations?
I used my paper cutting style for the illustrations. Each page is hand cut and backed with tissue paper and kraft paper. After reading the manuscript, I researched every part of Mamie’s life by watching PBS and YouTube documentaries and reading articles and books about her, her family, and the trial.
This is challenging content. How did you keep the images appropriate for younger readers?
The book is for everyone [including] younger age groups. I illustrated and focused on what I felt younger readers might understand, such as moving to a new city, being with family, feeling abandoned by a parent, a mother’s love and devotion, academic achievements, illness and feelings of joy and sadness. I kept the graphics simple but effective and didn’t add a lot of background detail to make each page easy to digest.
Were there any images that were particularly difficult to create?
Several pages were extremely difficult to illustrate. I had to do a lot of brainstorming with the editor and sketch out several designs before coming up with a solid and impactful design for these pages. I am grateful that I was given the time and grace to get the best illustrations for the book. The hardest pages to illustrate dealt with death – there are about five pages devoted to it – the Jim Crow Laws and the murder trial. I wanted the art to complement the text and suggest to the reader what happened – not to fully illustrate the text.
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