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Author Study of Angela Johnson

by Becky Laney, summer 2003

About the author:

  • Angela Johnson was born on June 18, 1961, in Tuskegee, Alabama.
  • She grew up in Alabama and Ohio.
  • She attended Kent State University in Ohio, but did not complete her degree.
  • Her first book, Tell Me A Story, was published in 1989.
  • She has published books for children and young adults. She writes picture books, novels, short stories, and poetry.
  • Most of her works focus on African American families as they experience life in America. Her picture books tend to focus on the happy times a family shares, while her books for older readers presents a more realistic or balanced view of the world.
  • Angela Johnson has received the Coretta Scott King Award two times. In 1994, she won for her novel Toning the Sweep, and in 1999, she won for her novel Heaven. (Her poetry book, The Other Side was a Coretta Scott King Honor Book in 1999.)

All biographical information was taken from the author's biography available in Contemporary Authors through Galenet.


These are a few of the picture books written by Angela Johnson. (There are around twenty picture books written by Angela Johnson.) I was already familiar with a handful of these titles: Do Like Kyla, One of Three, and Tell Me A Story, Mama. The others were selected because they appealed to me when I was at the library checking out the books for this project.

Johnson, Angela. 1990. Do like Kyla. Illustrated by James E. Ransome. New York: Orchard Books. ISBN: 0-531-05852.

Johnson, Angela. 2000. Down the winding road. Illustrated by Shane W. Evans. New York: Dorling Kindersley Publishing, Inc. ISBN: 0-7894-2596-3.

Johnson, Angela. 1991. One of three. Illustrated by David Soman. New York: Orchard Books. ISBN: 0-531-05933-3.

Johnson, Angela. 1995. Shoes like Miss Alice's. Illustrated by Ken Page. New York: Orchard Books. ISBN: 0-531-06814-5.

Johnson, Angela. 1989. Tell me a story, mama. Illustrated by David Soman. New York: Orchard Books. ISBN: 0-531-05794-1.

Johnson, Angela. 1992. The leaving morning. Illustrated by David Soman. New York: Orchard Books. ISBN: 0-531-05992-8.

Johnson, Angela. 1999. The wedding. Illustrated by David Soman. New York: Orchard Books. ISBN: 0-531-30139-7.

Johnson, Angela. 1990. When I am old with you. Illustrated by David Soman. New York: Orchard Books. ISBN: 0-531-05844-0.

These are a few of the books by Angela Johnson for older readers.

Johnson, Angela. 1998. Gone from home. New York: Dorling Kindersley Publishing, Inc. ISBN: 0-7894-2499-1.

Johnson, Angela. 1999. Heaven. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN: 0-689-82229-4.

Johnson, Angela. 1995. Humming whispers. New York: Orchard Books. ISBN: 0-531-06898-6.

Johnson, Angela. 1998. Songs of faith. New York: Orchard Books. ISBN: 0-531-30023-4.

Websites about Angela Johnson:

Analysis of One of Three and Tell Me A Story, Mama:

Angela Johnson is a prolific author of picture books, young adult novels, poetry books, and short story collections. Her works often focus on the daily lives of African American families. Two works which illustrate this are Tell Me A Story, Mama and One of Three. Both are picture books illustrated by David Soman. Both focus on the everyday lives of African American families.

Her first book, Tell Me A Story, Mama, was published in 1989. A young girl asks her mother to tell her stories about when she (the mother) was little. So as she tucks her daughter into bed, she tells her daughter some familiar stories. The book shows the close, loving relationship between mother and daughter—and families in general. The book shares both happy and sad stories, but the overall mood of the book is a happy one.

The text is simple yet charming. The book is the dialogue between a mother and her child at bedtime. The daughters remarks are indicated by normal (regular) font, and the mother's remarks are indicated by italics. The daughter asks a series of questions, and the mother gives her gentle reassurance and confirmation. She loves to hear her mother tell stories. She loves to take part in remembering the past and belonging to the family.

One of the highlights of the book—for me personally—was when the daughter asked if her grandma would always be there. As adults, we all know the answer to that one. But the mother's answer is so loving, so gentle, and so true that it stood out to me. She won't be here forever, baby, but long enough for you never to forget how much she loves you (9). The book reaffirms the positive emotions and experiences of being a family. Another thing that I noticed was the relationship between the sisters (the mother and Aunt Jessie). The child loves to hear about her as well. That reminded me of how much I love to hear my mom tell stories on my aunt! (who was also the baby of the family.)

Tell Me A Story, Mama does feature an African American family—a loving, caring, positive portrait. But there are no cultural markers within the text that make this family distinctly African American. The illustrations are the only indication of the culture. The characters within the text are wonderfully drawn and are universal in nature. They show that families are the same across cultures. Every child (and I'm making that assumption based on my experiences) loves to hear their parents talk about when they were young. They want to hear about when they were young themselves. They want to learn the stories of their own families and be part of that legacy. This book illustrates that well.

The illustrations by David Soman are wonderfully charming. They complement the text well. They are very expressive and convey a variety of emotions. One of my favorite illustrations is on page six and seven. The picture shows the mother (as a child) hugging her mother and eating a sweet roll. The text points out that she was being rewarded (and/or comforted) after a neighbor was mean to her and she stood up for herself. Anyway, the picture illustrates the love, comfort, and coziness of the environment in which she grew up.

Ilene Cooper of Booklist described Johnson's story as a warm feeling that should not be missed and Soman's artwork as realistic portraits of a close-knit, loving family (1385). For her first published work, the book is outstanding. It has definitely laid the foundation for her later successes both in children's books and into the newly entered territory of young adult literature.

The second book that I have chosen is One of Three which was published in 1991. It also portrays an African American family. The heroine is the baby of the family. She has two older sisters, Eva and Nikki. The three sisters share a lot of experiences together as a group. She is one of three sisters that walk to school together. One of the three in the sun and the rain (2). The text continues showing them playing together, shopping together, etc. I'm one of the three that looks just like our mama, smiles just like our daddy, and holds hands with my sisters in the store, looking like triplets—almost (11). However, sometimes these older sisters decide that she is too young to be included. Those times make her sad, but she realizes that even then she is not alone because she is then one of three with her mom and dad.

The book is an incredible portrait of sisterhood. It shows the ups and downs of what being a sister means in everyday life. It is authentic. Again the text is universal in nature. If a reader has a sibling—either younger or older—then this book will be easy to relate to his/her own life. I know that as the baby of the family I could definitely relate to this book!

The illustrations are by David Soman. Like the illustrations in Tell Me A Story, Mama they are perfect with this text. He has a way of capturing the emotions felt by the characters in just the right way. He brings the characters to life by his drawings. On page seven, he shows our heroine very joyously sitting outside the bakery looking and smelling at what's inside. I know that expression. I know that joy. It makes the book and the characters authentic.

Leone McDermott of Booklist described One of Three as an irresistible celebration of the joys of being a sister. Later McDermott comments on Soman's work describing it as having a strong focus on the sisters' reactions which conveys the pleasure they take in each other's company (2049).

Both books capture and reveal authentic family life. Both would make excellent additions to a classroom's unit on families. Both books belong in every library. They are of the highest quality. Both are excellent examples of Johnson's skill and style. I would definitely recommend both titles.

Works Cited

Cooper, Ilene. 1989. Review of Tell me a story, mama, by Angela Johnson. Booklist 85 (April) : 1385.

Johnson, Angela. 1991. One of three. Illustrated by David Soman. New York: Orchard Books. ISBN: 0-531-05933-3.

---. 1989. Tell me a story, mama. Illustrated by David Soman. New York: Orchard Books. ISBN: 0-531-05794-1.

McDermott, Leone. 1991. Review of One of three, by Angela Johnson. Booklist 87 (July) : 2049.

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