Tonya Bolden’s work has been recognized with the NCTE Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children and the Carter G. Woodson Book Award, among others. Her book Maritcha: A Nineteenth-Century American Girl was a Coretta Scott King Author Honor title. Eric Velasquez has illustrated numerous children’s books, most recently She Was the First!, which won an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Children’s Literature. He won the Pura Belpré Award for his illustrations in Grandma’s Gift and the Coretta Scott King–John Steptoe New Talent Award for his illustrations in The Piano Man by Debbi Chocolate. Bolden and Velasquez have recently collaborated on Going Places, a nonfiction picture book about the Green Book, a travel guide written and published by a Black postal worker who wanted African Americans to stay safe while traveling around the U.S. during segregation. We asked the duo to discuss the genesis of their new book, the history behind the Green Book, and why it’s still relevant today.
Eric Velasquez: Tonya, I am thrilled to talk with you about our book Going Places. Although we have known other each for a while, and we’ve talked about the fact that we grew up in Spanish Harlem during the same time we went to different schools and therefore never met. I’ve always wanted to ask you if you ever traveled to the South as a child and experienced Jim Crow laws? Did this experience inspire you to write Going Places?
Tonya Bolden: When I was a child in the 1960s—before and after de jure Jim Crow ended—my family often went South by car to visit family, especially Daddy’s people in Charlotte, North Carolina. (By 1962 Mommy’s key kinfolk in Greenwood, South Carolina, had passed away.) Anyway, as I recall we always left New York when it was dark—late at night or early in the morning. My sister and I were told that this was about avoiding traffic. I later learned that this was only partly true. My parents didn’t want us to be in certain parts of the South when it was dark. And, yes, we rode with sandwiches and other food, primarily because ours was a working-class family. As for our journey, if memory serves, after Maryland House, where we stretched our legs and Daddy filled up the tank of our Oldsmobile 98, I don’t think we stopped again unless it was to get gas or use the restroom in a place my parents reckoned to be safe.
Once we reached our destination, we stayed in the homes of relatives. If we went out to eat it was to a Black-owned restaurant. So my sister and I never experienced any Jim Crow. Our parents protected us from that by keeping us within the Black community.
On the inspiration for Going Places, it wasn’t my idea but that of our editor Karen Chaplin. Funny thing, when she contacted me about doing a book on the Green Book my initial thought was, Nah! But then I thought about some misconceptions in the air. People believing that back in the day when it came to lodgings, the only options for Black people were dumps. People believing that before the Green Book, Black people were clueless about safe and welcoming places to eat or lodge, for example—as if traveling while Black wasn’t an issue before the 1930s. With these things buzzing around my brain, I became really jazzed about the project, eager to put the Green Book in context as I paid tribute to Victor Hugo Green for putting so much valuable information in one handy place. Now, about you. When you read my manuscript did you know right away that you wanted to illustrate it? Or did you need to mull it over?
Velasquez: Most of the time I know right away. When I read Going Places the first time, I was blown away by the manuscript. Images were instantly dancing in my head as I read the words. I knew I wanted to illustrate this book. Mostly because I could relate to it in so many ways.
Bolden: What do you mean by you could relate to it in so many ways?
Velasquez: Well, as an African American author-illustrator who travels to various states to attend conferences and school visits, I too have felt the sting of traveling while Black—perhaps better classified as micro-aggressions on behalf of a few hotel clerks and taxi drivers. It never ceases to amaze me that remnants of America’s past are still alive in the souls of some Americans. I truly believe that books such as Going Places can help explain where these practices began and hopefully help to cure these attitudes.
Bolden: I hope so too—and I definitely know what you mean about those micro-aggressions. If I had a hundred bucks for every who-let-you-in look. At a b&b in Boston the gatekeeper practically interrogated me when I arrived and insisted on getting on the phone with my white host before letting me have my room. And, you know, it was a rather shabby place, so much so that I opted out of the breakfast.
Now back to those images dancing in your head... Did you know in a flash basically how you wanted to illustrate the story? Did you know at the outset that some of the pages would be as if out of a scrapbook? And before you answer, let me repeat something I know I’ve told you before: I was absolutely over the moon when I learned that you said yes to illustrating Going Places. Your work is wondrous and you are such a master at atmosphere/mood.
Velasquez: Wow! Thank you, Tonya. I have been such a fan of your work over the years. To have someone of your stature say that about my work means the world to me.
No, I did not know in a flash how I was going to illustrate the story. Although I knew what I wanted to illustrate, I had not settled on the how. After doing my first set of rough thumbnails I started looking at Victor Hugo Green’s designs for the Green Book on the New York Public Library’s website. I began to see the issues as beautiful in the way they were put together as a mix and match of collage scrap art and everything in between. Furthermore, I was also inspired by a line in the text that referenced postcards from different cities being delivered by Victor Hugo Green when he was a postman.
I shared all that in an email to my art director, Rachel Zegar, who then helped me get started by sending me one of my sketches with the postcards incorporated into the composition. After that I could see the whole book. I experimented with different compositions and the rest is history.
I loved that [in the book] you mentioned Langston Hughes, Augusta Savage, and several other famous and talented Harlem residents. It helped set the tone for the book. Were you always aware of all the talented people that lived in Harlem?
Bolden: No, I wasn’t always aware of all the amazing people who lived in Harlem back in the day. It’s knowledge picked up while researching previous books. The one exception is Langston Hughes. When I was a kid— a kid who had absolutely no interest in history—a history-loving uncle took me to Hughes’s house. Not to go inside, just to behold it as he went on and on about the importance of Langston Hughes. If that uncle could see me now—someone who just can’t get enough of history!
Velasquez: You also mention Oak Bluffs on Martha Vineyard and “Black Eden” among other vacation destinations for African Americans. Did your family travel to these places?
Bolden: Oh, no! We couldn’t afford the likes of that and didn’t know anyone who had a summer home anywhere.
When you talked about your process, I was reminded that I envy people like you who are both author and illustrator. When you hit upon an idea that you want to both write and illustrate, what comes first, the images or the words?
Velasquez: Great question. I always write the words first and pretend someone else is going to illustrate the story. That way I can tell the story without regard for my artistic limitations. Then I illustrate the story and pretend someone else wrote it. Therefore, I am not tempted to go back in and change the story. Which explains how I wrote a story about an octopus that has grown to enormous proportions without ever drawing or painting an octopus before.
Bolden: That takes a lot of discipline, something I don’t always have—or maybe I’m being unfair to myself. What I’m thinking of here is that when writing I tend to jump around. I don’t write in a straight line. I might write scene or chapter A, scene or chapter B, then skip to scene or chapter D, because what I know needs to be in scene or chapter C just isn’t happening, either because I’m stumped on an engaging way to say what needs to be said or because there’s research I need to do that I’m simply not in the mood to do. When you’re working on sketches and later on the final art, do you work in a straight line?
Velasquez: I find that fascinating. When I am doing the initial rough storyboard sketches, I must go in chronological order so that I can control the pace of the book. I may go back and redo a spread or two, but I’m moving in a straight line. Now, when I’m working on the finishes, I mostly bounce around the book based on the degree of difficulty and the deadline.
Because Going Places is made up of so many pieces like the art, did you write Going Places in a straight line or did you bounce around?
Bolden: I didn’t bounce around that much. After the research—and after I had the “going places” hook early on—the story pretty much flowed. Then it was a matter of paring it down, refining. I probably did three or four drafts before our editor saw the “first draft.” That’s the way it was with our book Beautiful Moon. And here’s hoping we get to collaborate on many more books.
Going Places: Victor Hugo Green and His Glorious Book by Tonya Bolden, illus. by Eric Velasquez. Quill Tree, $17.99 Oct. 4 ISBN 978-0-06-296740-4