WEST JEFFERSON — On Nov. 4, Ashe County Public Library virtually hosted award-winning author and illustrator Vanessa Brantley-Newton. Over 20 participants, both children and adults, tuned into the Zoom call with Newton to hear her speak about diversity and share her journey as an artist.
The event was recorded and can be accessed at any time by visiting the library’s Facebook page @Ashe County Public Library.
“I am here to talk about something that’s been really hard for a lot of people to talk about, and that is diversity,” Newton said. “Diversity is so very, very important in the day and age that we live in, we live in a society where we don’t always get to see people that look like us.”
According to Newton, she knew she wanted to be an artist since she was 4 years old.
During the meet, Newton shared her experience of working in a hospital for 25 years prior to becoming an artist. She worked as a phlebotomist, primarily for infants and children.
“In working with these children, I worked with every child of every color you could possibly imagine,” Newton said.
Through this career, she said the one thing she learned was that racism is not born in children, but taught to them.
“Unfortunately, we as adults teach that kind of brokenness called hatred,” Newton. “That’s taught to you.”
Newton also worked as a makeup artist and had clients of every skin tone.
“Everybody is not one color, we are all different colors in the rainbow and that is what makes us so beautiful,” Newton said.
When drawing the characters for her children’s books, Newton often studies children and everything about them from their appearance to their clothing and behavior.
During the meet, Newton showed viewers one of her sketchbook containing her personal artwork. Included in her sketchbook were characters of all ages and skin tones.
“I practice Tai chi, so I draw children doing Tai chi and old ladies with bags going shopping,” Newton said. “And I draw them in every color because everybody deserves to see themselves beautifully, illustrated in a picture book.”
While she was growing up, Newton did not get to see herself as a child picture books. The first book that contained a character she related to was “The Snowy Day” by Ezra Jack Keats. To this day, it is still one of her favorite books.
Newton is dyslexic and sometimes struggles while reading and she also has a stutter. In order to overcome her stutter, she sings in her mind while she is talking to get words out without stuttering. She also has Synesthesia, which is described by researchers as colored hearing, meaning that sounds, music and voices are seen as color.
According to Newton, her favorite color is yellow and she said it makes her feel happy and tastes like pickles. Other colors, such as army green do not make her feel good and she avoids wearing clothing of that color or using army green in her illustrations.
While she was in school, her teacher understood that she learned differently form the other students and experienced difficulty while reading. One day, she placed Newton on her lap and together they read “The Snowy Day.”
“I am 57 years old and I can still remember every single picture,” Newton said.
The day her teacher, Ms. Russell, read that book to her was the day that Newton said inspired her to be an illustrator. This was because she wanted to make other children feel the way that Keats made her feel as a reader.
“He made me feel so proud to be me, because I didn’t see brown children” Newton said. “I didn’t see brown children on television, I didn’t see brown children in commercials or magazines. I didn’t see brown mannequins, I didn’t see brown at all. So I felt like I was invisible.”
Newton shared one of her books, “Just Like Me” with viewers. It is her first book of poetry for children and all its illustrations were done in collage. She read six of her poems that are featured in the book to the audience.
One of the poems, entitled “All in Together Girls” was inspired by a jump rope game Newton used to play as a child. The illustration is of a group of girls, of every color, jump roping together.
Newton said it was important to her for every child reading the book to be able to compare the characters to themselves or somebody that they know.
The virtual event ended with Newton urging viewer participation by inviting them to create a photo album of their own out of paper.
“I want you to make the kind of diversity that you want to see,” Newton told the audience.
The simple supplies needed to complete the craft include small pieces of paper, a pair of scissors, colored pencils, a piece of white printer paper and glue.
Newton led the audience through the steps of creating the photo album by switching the camera to focus on her hands as she created a paper album of her own.
At the end of the virtual visit, Newton invited the audience to share their creations with her and everybody else who was watching. She thanked the audience for their participation and performed songs from the musical “South Pacific” including “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” and “Children Will Listen.”
Youth Services Librarian Ashlin Edmisten invited those who were interested in reserving a free copy of “Just Like Me” to email her. The copies of the books were limited, with only 15 available.
The library has free collage kits to give to children who are interested in creating their own photo album inspired by Newton’s visit.