I’m Erin Dealey, and I write books for kids. I’m a teacher, presenter, rhymer, blogger, and proud Drama Mama.

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8 Qs with Jeanne Walker Harvey about her new #NF #PB ABLAZE WITH COLOR: A Story of Painter Alma Thomas = Happy Book Birthday!

February 22, 2022

2.22.22 feels like a lucky day, doesn’t it?

And we have the excellent good fortune of celebrating

#BlackHistoryMonth with the Book Birthday of

ABLAZE WITH COLOR: A Story of Painter Alma Thomas

by Jeanne Walker Harvey,

Illus. Loveis Wise, Harper Collins.

Check out these STARRED reviews

“This charming biography’s title describes not only Alma Thomas’ signature paintings but the book’s radiant artwork, which emphasizes how the colors of the natural world inspired her unusual, iconic works. Neatly encapsulating a long life that saw social and personal upheaval, as well as gorgeously showcasing the art produced along the way and the natural world that inspired it, this title is a must for art and biography shelves.” — Booklist (starred review)

“In clear language and straightforward presentation, the author [Jeanne Walker Harvey] (Maya Lin) focuses on Thomas’s family’s intellectual ambitions and support of her aspirations, her love of nature and education, and her determination and persistence in the face of societal obstacles. Wise celebrates Thomas’s work with saturated, page-filling, vibrant color; the rich, flat, atmospheric compositions fit Thomas’s tessellated style and high-key colors. An inspiring introduction for artists and appreciators, as individuals or shared in groups.” — School Library Journal (starred review)

“This superb picture-book biography profiles Alma Thomas. Harvey’s (Maya Lin, rev. 7/17) poetic text is imagistic and deftly paced; Wise’s (The People Remember, rev. 11/21) digital artwork is boldly, fittingly colorful.”-Horn Book (starred review)

Welcome to the blog, Jeanne.

We have questions!

Q 1. How and when did you first become aware of Alma Thomas and her art? 

Jeanne Walker Harvey: In 2015, I read about First Lady Michelle Obama surprising visitors touring the White House by opening up the Old Family Dining Room, a room established in 1825, for the first time to the public.  She and President Barack Obama worked with the Curator of the White House, William Allman, to fill this historic room with contemporary art and design, another first for the White House. They wanted to show that life in the White House could be forward thinking without losing any of its established history and tradition.

And one of the paintings chosen was Alma Thomas’s 1966 abstract painting titled “Resurrection” (which is featured in ABLAZE WITH COLOR) which was the first artwork by a Black woman to be added to the White House permanent collection.  I immediately loved this vivid painting, truly ablaze with color, and began finding out all I could about Alma Thomas so that I could share her amazing life story and art with children.

Q 2.     ABLAZE WITH COLOR is your third picture book biography, after My Hands Sing the Blues: Romare Bearden’s Childhood Journey (Illus. Elizabeth Zunon/ Two Lions), and Maya Lin–Architect of Light and Lines: Designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (Illus. Dow Phumiruk/ Henry Holt), to be followed this fall by Dressing Up the Stars – The Story of Movie Costume Designer Edith Head (Illus. Diana Toledano / Beach Lane/ S&S). What a line up! All of these books highlight fabulously creative people. Have you always been drawn to the arts and creative expression? 

Jeanne Walker Harvey: Yes! And I love your term, “fabulously creative people”. I’ve always been fascinated by what inspires creative people and what challenges they have overcome in pursuing their creative endeavors. My mother took me regularly to modern art museums and exhibits which ignited my interest in art. I then became a long-time docent for school groups at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.  I find it so gratifying to share my passion for modern art with children, and a great way to get children excited about the art is to share stories about the artist and their creative process.

Interior art by Loveis Wise from ABLAZE WITH COLOR: The Story of Painter Alma Thomas (Harper Collins)

Persistence, Patience, Perseverance = PIVOT

Q 3.   I read (via Mr. Schu’s interview.) that, due to the onset of crippling arthritis during her 70’s, Alma Thomas changed her painting style and… OK no spoilers from me… To the  question: Is there a key moment or take-away from Alma Thomas’s work and life that inspires Jeanne Walker Harvey, the author?   

Jeanne Walker Harvey: Great question and hah! Thanks for letting me give away the spoiler. Yes, I think Alma Thomas demonstrated persistence, patience, and perseverance during her lifetime which I find very inspiring. She endured and overcame racial injustices as a child in Georgia and as an adult in Washington, D.C., but she sought to bring joy to others through her teaching (up until she retired at age 70) and her artwork. And, as you mentioned, she changed her painting style to accommodate her painful arthritis which led to unexpected successes. She was able to pivot and try something new.  Not only was her art chosen for the White House, but she was also the first Black woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York City.

Q 4.   We picture book authors know that every word counts. And it’s often difficult to focus on only certain areas of your subject’s journey. Is there a scene or section in earlier drafts of ABLAZE WITH COLOR that was hard to cut?  

Jeanne Walker Harvey: You are spot on, Erin! Every word is carefully chosen and many words need to be deleted to honor the throughline of the story. When I talk to children, they are often amazed how long it takes me to write my books. “How can it take you years to write something that doesn’t have that many words?” Of course, I explain to them that the writing also involves researching the subject in every way I can discover. And just as you are saying, there are always parts of the story that I need to delete in later revisions.

I found this section about Frank Borman, USAF astronaut, difficult to delete because I was drawn to the idea of Alma listening to inspiring music and words while she created her Space paintings:

While Alma painted,

she listened to music about space

and a recording of an astronaut

saying “Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful”  

while he gazed at the glowing blues and white

of the earth rising

over the moon’s horizon

as the spacecraft floated in darkness.

Interior art by Loveis Wise from ABLAZE WITH COLOR: The Story of Painter Alma Thomas (Harper Collins)

Jeanne Walker Harvey: I also liked this deleted passage about her Nature paintings:

Alma often said the words

Wind, Sunshine and Flowers

should be the book title

of her life.

Interior art by Loveis Wise from ABLAZE WITH COLOR: The Story of Painter Alma Thomas (Harper Collins)

Q 5.  How does your experience as a blogger/reviewer of over 170+ picture book biographies fluence your own writing? 

Jeanne Walker Harvey: I learn so much every time I study the way different authors choose to tell the stories of others. Sometimes I type up the words of a book (including the page breaks) that particularly drew me in so that I can get a sense of the pacing and choices in the storytelling.

Q 6.  What surprises did illustrator Loveis Wise bring to the book?

Jeanne Walker Harvey: I was truly amazed by how stunning Loveis Wise’s illustrations are. They not only evoke the essence of Alma Thomas’ work, but convey in their own style the joy and exhilaration of the colors bursting forth from the paintings.  I think I was surprised by the myriad of details included in each of Loveis’ illustrations that capture Alma’s life beginning as a girl in Georgia through to her adult life in Washington, D.C. I couldn’t be more thrilled with the book we’ve all created, and that team includes Loveis, the whole team at Harper Collins, including our wonderful editor, Megan Ilnitzki, and my amazing agent (and yours too, Erin!), Deborah Warren at East West Literary Agency, who found a home for this story.

Q 7. What do you hope young readers will take away from ABLAZE WITH COLOR? I hope our book inspires children to seek joy on their own creative paths and overcome their own challenges.


Q 8. I am definitely feeling inspired! What ideas do you have for artists, students, illustrators, and readers young and old to create our own Alma Thomas inspired artwork?

Jeanne Walker Harvey: Check out these fun activities which you can download on my website at https://www.jeanneharvey.com/projects.  Not only is there a terrific comprehensive Guide for Educators, Librarians and Parents, there’s also an Alma Thomas Activity Kit with a Create Your Own Collage and a Colorful Paper Puzzle. And I’d love for anyone to share what they create and I can post it on my website. Or send me a photo of any of your pets working along with you. My cat adores stretching out on these project pages when I’m creating.

Jeanne Walker Harvey: Heartfelt thanks, Erin, for hosting today’s Book Birthday interview for ABLAZE WITH COLOR – A Story of Painter Alma Thomas. I so enjoy reading all the kidlit interviews on your blog, and I’m very honored to be included.

To learn more about Jeanne Walker Harvey and her work, check our her website: jeanneharvey.com

and follow her on Twitter: @JeanneWHarvey

and Pinterest: JeanneWalkerHarvey

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