Author Ibi Zoboi (Punching the Air) and illustrator Loveis Wise (Say Her Name) came together to create the forthcoming picture book The People Remember, a tribute to the history of Africa that does not “sanitize the continent as being noble and humble,” Zoboi says. The book also presents the pillars of Kwanzaa as a potential blueprint for social justice and liberation within the Black diaspora. Zoboi and Wise spoke with PW about the importance of remembering history, elevating joy despite pain, and the true meaning of Kwanzaa.
What drew you both to this project?
Ibi Zoboi: I first learned about and started celebrating Kwanzaa in college. When I became a mother, I bought every Kwanzaa book out there, and there are few. I wanted something that captured the celebratory aspects of Kwanzaa while connecting the history, trials, and tribulations of Black people in America. Kwanzaa is not meant to be a Black Christmas. It is a cultural celebration that allows us to remember and honor who we are and how far we’ve come.
Loveis Wise: I was initially drawn to this project when I read Ibi’s manuscript for the book and the poetic beauty of it resonated with my heart and I knew it was necessary for me to illustrate.
How did the two of you approach composing the verse and illustrations for The People Remember?
Zoboi: I had to have a rhythm first—a cadence. I know that in other parts of the world where schoolchildren do not have access to textbooks, they learn their history through song and spoken word that can be memorized and repeated. I was born in Haiti and this is how children learn their history and the names of their country's heroes. I wanted to bring that same oral tradition to the page. And I had to start from the beginning, while this is not the beginning of our story by far. Wartime is how we got here—the division, chaos, betrayal, greed, pain, and violence is how we were scattered throughout the world.
Wise: I spent lots of time researching by listening to music from my favorite Black musicians (both present and past) to inspire flow. I spoke with the elders in my family to connect their history in the process, and spent time with lots of art/historical photographs/books to help me with grounding ideas. My work and style is usually inspired by joy and playfulness and I wanted to stay authentic to that while also using color shifts to help illustrate the heavy as well as the lighter emotions and tone of the book.
What historical figures or events were you especially excited to include in The People Remember?
Zoboi: I had to include the moments when the people were thriving and being joyous, and innovating in ways that changed the world: Black Wall Street, the Harlem Renaissance, Motown, the hip-hop movement. I love those spreads illustrated by Loveis Wise the most.
Wise: I loved creating the spread where I was able to include portraits of some of my favorite writers: Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, Alice Walker, and James Baldwin.
What do you want readers to take away from this book?
Zoboi: I want readers to be able to see the full trajectory of Black people in America in just 2,500 words and 64 pages of illustration. It’s a lot to take in. But that's what we’ve always done. We've been able to express the fullness of ourselves and our stories through a dance move, a song, a single dish, or a painting. There are so many ways to tell our story.
Wise: I would want readers to feel encouraged to do some further historical diving and even connect more with the principles of Kwanzaa. I am proud that I was able to work with the energy throughout the book that reminds us of how much our creativity and love thrives no matter how much anguish and pain we experience and have experienced.
Are you working on any upcoming projects you can talk about?
Zoboi: I have a biography of Octavia E. Butler for middle grade readers, out January 25, 2022. My YA novel with Marvel, about a teen Okoye who travels to Brooklyn for the first time, will be out on March 1, 2022.
Wise: Currently I am working on three picture books, which will be shared over the next two years!
The People Remember by Ibi Zoboi, illus. by Loveis Wise. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, $19.99 Sept. 28 ISBN 978-0-06-291564-1