Artist and writer Youme Landowne was standing on a New York City subway platform in 2005 when a black man standing nearby came over to talk to her. Landowne, a white woman, was staring at graffiti on the wall and before long she and the man, Anthony Horton, were talking about a mutual interest in art. As it turned out, Horton was both an artist and homeless and he lived deep down in the maze of tunnels in the New York subway system.
Eventually Landowne would follow Horton down into the pitch black darkness of the subway tunnels to get a close up view of Horton’s life in the underground. They two not only came to know each other as fellow artists and friends but have collaborated on, Pitch Black: Don’t Be Skerd, a children’s book released this past fall by Cincos Puntos Press that tells the story of their friendship and Horton’s life as homeless man living and drawing in the subway. Pitch Black is a hybrid children’s picture book that also uses comics to tell its story.
The book has also been nominated for a series of book awards that will be presented at the American Library Association midwinter meeting held later this week in Denver, Col. The book has been nominated for Best Books for Young Adults, Reluctant Readers’ Quick Picks and Great Graphic Novels. Pitch Black is drawn in a simple almost child-like manner in black and white ink washes. It is both the story of how Landowne and Horton came to be friends, but also a primer on Horton’s life as a homeless man in New York City. Among other things, Horton talks about his friends, fellow homeless folks who live in the tunnels. He even offers tips on how to survive living in the subway (“always keep a light on you; anything you need can be found in the garbage; and never leave food lying around—it brings lots of rats”).
Cinco Puntos co-publisher Bobby Byrd said the press has released 10,000 copies of Pitch Black. This is Landowne’s second book for Cincos Puntos. The first, Selavi!: That is Life A Haitian Story of Hope, is the true story of a group of Haitian street kids who organized their own homeless shelter and even managed to launch a radio station, Radyo Timoun or Children’s Radio, in Port-au-prince. Byrd said the book sold more 30,000 copies.
Landowne created the illustrations for Pitch Black, and her drawings are based on Horton’s sketches. Landowne said that while she stays in touch with Horton, he was recently arrested and jailed. But she was very optimistic that he would eventually be released and continue to make art and tell his story. She points to a sense of “trust” that developed between the two of them that allowed her to follow him down into the subways. But it seems as though helping powerless people to tell their own true stories seems to be Landowne’s specialty. “I try to encourage people to tell their own stories and Tony’s a great storyteller with a great sense of humor.”