A 2021 MacArthur Fellow, Ibram X. Kendi is the author of Stamped from the Beginning, which received the National Book Award, and How to Be an Antiracist and Antiracist Baby. Loveis Wise is the illustrator of Ibi Zoboi’s picture book debut, The People Remember, and Ablaze with Color. Their new book, Magnolia Flower, adapted from a story by African American author and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, launches a six-book publishing program in which Kendi will adapt Hurston’s work in the form of two picture books, two board books, and two middle grade novels. We asked Kendi and Wise to discuss their personal connections to Hurston’s writing, their collaboration, and their hopes for the book.
Ibram X. Kendi: So how did you first discover Zora’s work?
Loveis Wise: I first discovered it in elementary school. We were all reading Their Eyes Were Watching God. And more recently I read her memoir, Dust Tracks on a Road. I fell in love, and then was like, “Oh, I need to learn so much more.” I’m also really into folklore and hoodoo and understanding those practices as it relates to my own personal journey with spirituality and ancestor veneration. So, I just fell in love with her work and then the opportunity to illustrate Magnolia Flower came. How about you?
Kendi: For me, I can still remember when I took English 101 at FAMU, my freshman year in college. I was introduced to Zora because Their Eyes Were Watching God was on the syllabus, and I was introduced to a whole host of other legendary Black writers. I felt overwhelmed; there were so many writers who I just did not know, and I read all these classic books for the first time. I walked away from the class really appreciating African American literature.
It wasn’t really until graduate school, when I read Mules and Men, Zora’s collection of folklore, that I discovered the breadth of Zora’s work. I consider her collection to be one of the most important collections of folklore in American history. Her genius was to be able to not only collect the folklore but share it, in story form, which then opened me up to rereading Their Eyes Were Watching God and the rest of her books and stories.
Wise: Love it! So, on that note, what brought you to wanting to tackle this series of books and how did everything come together? How did you know that you wanted to adapt these stories?
Kendi: Amistad has been republishing Hurston’s writing for years. Every time they come out with a new book, I’m one of the first people in line buying it. I also became a father and started reading children’s books to my daughter. Having a daughter, particularly a Black girl, and wanting her to read Zora and Black folklore is what initially propelled me to want to do this. I want to bring Zora’s work to children everywhere. But of course, I can’t do this alone. I needed to work very closely with an illustrator like you. Why did you say yes to becoming a part of this project?
Wise: Well, honestly, it’s a dream opportunity to work with both of you. To work with Zora and to illustrate her stories was an absolute yes for me. It was something I had been thinking about for a while as I was in the process of rediscovering her work.
Kendi: And how did you get the inspiration for the beauty in your art?
Wise: Lots of life around me inspired the work. At the time when I got the opportunity, I was also doing a lot of traveling. I was spending a lot of time with nature by way of New Orleans, road tripping up the coast of California, and then I was in Cairo. So, I was in all these different spaces that weren’t like Florida at all, where the book is set. But my relationship to nature and spending time with trees near rivers really informed the way that I wanted to tackle what the imagery should feel like. I wanted to listen in and take time to sit with so many of these nature elements that informed the beauty and magic of what the work should be.
Kendi: It’s so fascinating, because “Magnolia Flowers” is a short story of almost two parts. You have this incredible imagery and beauty and tenderness at the beginning and the end, and the love story of Magnolia and John, but then you have the drama in the middle!
Kendi: Which we had to make child-friendly.
Kendi: But the drama and conflict between Magnolia and her father, what was driving it, was this connection between Magnolia and John. Trying to maintain that essence was challenging, but at the same time Zora provided it.
Wise: Exactly, and I bet it was such an interesting process to maneuver within. I remember I re-read the original story post-process because I wanted to let our adaptation inform the images and characters as I worked. I remember thinking that you did such a great job with leaving out those harsher conflict details and made it very suitable for all readers, especially our younger readers. How was that process for you, with bringing forth all the important bits?
Kendi: It was similar for me as it was for you. I tried to sit with the pulse and the tone and almost the movement of the narrative and really tried to think through the underbelly of what Zora was trying to convey. That’s where my focus was. How do I maintain the heart while making it accessible to kids?
When you really adore a writer, as I do, it’s hard to change a word. But I kept telling myself, this is for the kids. I just wanted to do right by her.
Wise: You did. You absolutely did.
Kendi: When you finished the illustrations and took a step back and looked at them and the text, how did that make you feel? Because you were really the first person to see this book.
Wise: It was really interesting. I didn’t look at all of the works together at all throughout the process. I wanted to be surprised in seeing it come together in the end. The process forced me into a different path, a different way of seeing creatively, and a different way of experiencing character. There are so many characters and identities that we get to witness and understand, from super young folks and their upbringings, to elders and their values and mixed cultures/community.
Kendi: The other side of it for me was to ensure that I conveyed the powerful Indigenous elements to the story, particularly Swift Deer’s story and her experiences, and Magnolia as she is Afro-Indigenous. How was it for you, trying to convey Magnolia and Swift Deer and other Indigenous folks in the book?
Wise: It was so special to get to understand this part of history a bit further, and it felt important for me too. I’m happy that I was able to dive into researching how to accurately depict this community that we get to meet in the book. It is very easy to represent folks as they are, if you’re really paying attention to them.
Kendi: That’s true, yes. I’m excited that this book is not only a romantic love story, but it’s a love story of Afro-Indigenous resistance, which is so much a part of the history of this country, particularly in the southeast and certainly in the southwest.
Kendi: I’m hoping that Afro-Indigenous children will see themselves, Indigenous children will see themselves, Black children will see themselves, and non-Black and non-Indigenous children will see Afro-Indigenous children.
Wise: I was fully imagining just how special that moment will be for Afro-Indigenous folks to read this to their children, or for a child to read this book and see themselves in Magnolia and Swift Deer and so many of the other characters in the book.
Kendi: Yes, exactly. So after Magnolia Flower, next we’re publishing a board book entitled The Making of Butterflies. It is coming in March.
Wise: What!? Amazing. What is it about?
Kendi: It is based on folklore that Zora collected in Mules and Men. It is a very beautiful folktale about how butterflies came to be. I’m excited about that next book, and the other four books after that one.
Wise: That’s so special. I really love this, and I can't wait to read The Making of Butterflies. That will be so brilliant, so fun, so light.
Magnolia Flower by Zora Neale Hurston, adapted by Ibram X. Kendi, illus. by Loveis Wise. Amistad, $19.99 Sept. 6 ISBN 978-0-06-309831-2