In her first picture book, I Am My Ancestors’ Wildest Dreams, author Tanisia Moore introduces young readers to heroic Black men in hopes of inspiring children to dream and live big. Moore lives in Birmingham, Ala., with her husband and three children. Robert Paul Jr. is an illustrator, character designer, and animator. He lives in Houston with his wife and daughter. We asked Moore and Paul Jr. to discuss the genesis of their forthcoming picture book collaboration, their personal role models, and connecting with Black history on an emotional level.
Tanisia Moore: Let’s jump right into it. What drew you to illustrating I Am My Ancestors’ Wildest Dreams?
Robert Paul Jr.: This project is beautiful. It’s a marriage of ancestral heritage and contemporary icons. Even though the men featured are deceased, I love seeing historical and contemporary figures grouped together, because they all had a profound impact on society in different ways. It’s great to see a story where someone like Tupac or Biggie is alongside someone like Martin Luther King Jr. or Muhammad Ali. I could envision the illustrations right away. There’s a poetic cadence to everything you wrote, and usually when I read a manuscript like that, my mind starts to play with illustrations, to play with ideas. This story inspired a lot of sub-stories told within my illustrations. You know, at the time Scholastic asked me to illustrate the text, I was very busy, and I almost passed on it. But I really loved the story, and I couldn’t pass it up.
Moore: Well, thank you. I feel so privileged.
Paul Jr.: How about you? What was your inspiration for the book?
Moore: Honestly, this was not a book I had ever planned to write. But 2020 was a trash year, right? Kobe Bryant died a week after my birthday. I was sad about that—and then March came. And you’re like, okay, we’re on lockdown because of Covid, and you think you’re good, this is only going to last, what, two or three weeks? But then two or three weeks turned into the rest of the year, and I was home with my kids. During this same time, there were also so many acts of racism with the cases of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. All of this horrible stuff was happening in the world. I could hardly think about writing. But then in August, when I learned of Chadwick Boseman’s death, I felt this immense grief. I remember sitting in my room and crying. Death has a way of reminding me we all have a date that will come.
I went to my kitchen and sat at the table, and I just literally kept hearing I am my ancestor’s wildest dreams. In about 30 minutes, I had the first draft. Despite the draft’s roughness, the final book is pretty much true to the original version I wrote. It was a near perfect draft, which never happens!
Paul Jr.: A lot of the writing is very emotional. One thing that struck me is how free-flowing it is but still controlled, almost like spoken word. And you use the chorus of “I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams” to build momentum. I took inspiration from that to create a visual climax that brings everything together. All these great men gather to lift up this boy, the story’s hero, as the fruits of everyone’s hard work. And he is also paying homage to the men.
Moore: What was your approach in laying out the visual story?
Paul Jr.: I tend to see things cinematically. Before I started illustrating books, my career was in animation. So I’m all about seeing a story play out in my mind. I like to pull snippets from the video playing in my mind and use it to start framing a story. So for instance, in the beginning of Ancestors we have our main character, who you call Dwayne, walking with his family. From there, I wondered where they were going next. Then, there’s the spread with Kobe and Dwayne. In my mind I saw a whole basketball game happening. So when Dwayne takes the game-winning shot, he has the spirit of Kobe behind him. I’m not just drawing a drawing. I’m drawing a part. I’m drawing a frame in time. Does that make sense?
Moore: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I love seeing Dwyane picking up trash, volunteering at a soup kitchen, and even walking an elderly lady across the street. What about those particular actions do you consider living out our ancestors’ wildest dreams?
Paul Jr.: All of it. You know, at a certain point, we weren’t able to do any of these things, like walk freely across the street. That was a huge thing back in the day. If you saw a white person walking on the same side, you had to cross the street first or hold your head down when passing them. And this was during the ’60s in America and the ’90s in South Africa. I made sure to include a white child to show that everyone is a part of the community. Plus, it’s showing community building. By cleaning up your community, you’re making it better and you’re improving society.
Moore: Which of the men in the book inspires you most as a creator?
Paul Jr.: All of them inspire me, but Kobe Bryant stands out. I am a huge basketball fan, so I know a lot about Kobe, from his stats to him leaving basketball to become a creator. I loved his Oscar-winning animated film called Dear Basketball. Then he had a podcast for kids. I have an artist friend who was talking to Kobe about creating a visual component for the show before he passed away. It was his mamba mentality that really inspired me as he moved from basketball into something so different from sports. But aside from all that stuff, he was also a family man, and so am I.
Moore: Good answer. The more I learned about Kobe, the more I respected him, too, and what he stood for as it concerned his discipline.
Paul Jr.: What about you? Which one of the men holds the highest level of significance to you?
Moore: Probably Tupac. I grew up in Cali, and he was a big deal for my little pre-teen self. Right before he died in 1996, he had branched out into acting. It was dope to see him move into that space and still be able to create music. He was such a great actor! It would be cool to see where he would be now. And also, Chadwick. His artistry as an actor was beautiful. You couldn’t tell me that man was not African! But he was a country boy from South Carolina. Talk about range. And since I’m an attorney, Justice Thurgood Marshall is special to me because he was the first Black man to take the bench as a Supreme Court justice. But each of them holds some type of significance to me. The men in here were intentional, but the reality is we could have a laundry list of prolific Black men.
Paul Jr.: I imagine Ralph Ellison had a huge impact on you as a writer. Your writing is real, and at the same time inspiring and uplifting. I know Ralph Ellison wrote some sad stuff, but he still gave hope.
Moore: Because real life happens, right? And kids are going through real life. But there is still hope even in sadness.
Paul Jr.: Yeah, I feel you on that. A few men featured in the book certainly had a rough past. Why include them? What was your intent?
Moore: I think it’s important to show men who have a “troubled past or history” because we all do. We are all human and no one is above making mistakes. I think there’s beauty in the complexity of us as people. For example, including Tupac and Biggie, despite their portrayed lifestyles and music, felt important to me because they both died so young—24 and 25 respectively. We will never know who they would have become 25 years later. I’m almost sure they would have grown up and matured. To me, that is the beauty of life. We get to redeem ourselves if given the chance to do so. To stop at someone’s negative history and relegate them to that is a disservice because we all mess up along the way. But that does not tell our whole story. It doesn’t mean someone can’t be a history maker. Kids—especially those in the inner city—need to know that a mistake does not define them. I don’t care how many they make. Make them and learn from them because you can still do great things in this life.
Paul Jr.: Totally agree. Tupac and Biggie both have a history of being very community oriented. They spent a lot of time with kids—especially Tupac. If he saw a kid on the street, he’d play and be silly with them. I mean obviously the way that they passed away wasn’t great. But we sometimes don’t think of people as a whole—with a beginning, middle, and end. If someone has a rough beginning, people forget what happens in the middle of someone’s life. That’s probably because the beginning and end tend to be the most profound. It’s like when you start a story or create something, there’s still a middle in between. What if the beginning is good, the middle not so much, and the end is amazing?
Moore: Right, exactly.
Paul Jr.: Let’s do one last question without giving anything away. You know we have a companion book to I Am My Ancestors’ Wildest Dreams. What is one thing you would say that describes this book?
Moore: The book is magical! In fact, it is aptly titled I Am Black Girl Magic. This book features some dynamic and powerful Black women. This is the book I needed when I was a little girl, and I can’t wait to share it with young readers next year.
I Am My Ancestors’ Wildest Dreams by Tanisia Moore, illus. by Robert Paul Jr. Scholastic Press, $19.99 Sept. 19 ISBN 978-1-338-77617-1