Tricia Elam Walker and Ekua Holmes’s forthcoming picture book about a joyful Black neighborhood, Dream Street (Random House/Schwartz, Sept. 7), began long ago with two first-grader cousins making books together on a living room floor in their hometown of Boston.
Holmes recounted her first solid memory of making books with Walker, which is illustrated in the book. “I remember sitting on the floor in Tricia’s living room. Tricia is writing about a dancer or dance and I’m writing about this little girl who was in my class.” The cousins did everything together growing up. “We would do plays, we would go to nursing homes and read poems and sing Christmas carols. We were doing stuff through our church. We were in young people's fellowship together,” Holmes said.
Both Walker and Holmes’s parents were very involved with community service and engagement and encouraged their children to participate through art. [“I remember those things so well because they had such a deep impact on me. So from an early age we worked on stuff together,” Holmes remarks.
Fast forward a few decades later, when Holmes was approached about becoming an illustrator. “The collection of collages that I sent to Tricia were works of art that I was exhibiting locally. As a matter of fact, they’re part of the reason that I ended up becoming an illustrator. They were up in an ice cream shop and somebody from a publishing house came in and contacted me.” The cousins had discussed writing a children’s book together for quite some time, but it was these images that truly began the process.
“This was a different process for me because the art came first,” Walker said about writing the text for their book. “I wasn’t just creating the story out of my own head. Rather, I was finding the story in Ekua’s work. She uses so many different kinds of mediums and I love that. I think in all art, there’s a story. That’s how it began.”
Holmes reflected on her cousin’s reading of her art. “It was so cool to see Tricia take these pieces and weave them into this wonderful narrative that somehow ended up having the spirit of our childhood, and our neighborhood, and our lives as young girls.”
To foster creativity, Walker sets a permanent mood in her home. “I like to surround myself with really beautiful art, with flowers,” she said. “If you look in here there's like a million flowers, lots of other books, lots of color. I have my little Black Barbie dolls and my Susie Carmichael doll. I need all those things around me [and to be] in a beautiful environment so I can just get to the work.” She also designates time for her writing. As a professor, she doesn’t have the luxury of being able to write all day, so when she can find the time she dives right in.
Holmes, however, starts outside. “I draw a lot of my inspiration from this neighborhood of mine,” she explained. “Romare Bearden said that he didn’t have to go looking for beautiful, or strange, or unusual things; all he had to do was look out of his window. I feel the same way. The magic is right around you. There are gems in your own backyard. This neighborhood has given me everything that I’ve ever needed.”
The art and the story of Dream Street make it clear just how much the cousins revere their childhood neighborhood and the people in it. Many of the characters in the book are archetypes of people who made lasting impressions on them. “They are composites and reminders of people who were part of our neighborhood growing up. Like, who doesn’t have a Miss Sarah in their life?” exclaimed Holmes, referring to one of the illustrations in the book. “If you go to a Black church or Black Caribbean church you sit next to Miss Sarah. You’re hearing her raise her hands and say, ‘Amen! Thank the Lord!’ That's a woman that I actually met and after I did the collage I wished I had asked for her phone number, but I felt it was too intrusive. I just took a picture of her and, for years, I felt bad that she would never see this collage. One day, I walked into our local museum here and she was sitting there. I got a chance to meet her and pull up the picture on my phone to show her, and she was just so gracious and wonderful about it.”
Walker said of another illustration, “I think about Mr. Sydney, who’s the man with the newspaper. I love that collage so much. He’s sitting on the stoop, but he’s got this Fedora on—he’s dressed up. That story just came out of me thinking about my grandfather, who was a really brilliant man. His job was cleaning the homes of white people. He would take the train to work [wearing] a suit and carry his work clothes in his briefcase. He looked very dapper as he went to do this job that wasn’t so dapper. That made me think of Mr. Sydney. The story I saw is he’s retired from somewhere you had to wear a uniform. But now he could dress up and be that man with that swag.”
Holmes originally sent Walker 10 images, followed by another five or six a year later. Even though stories were created for each one, they didn’t all make it into the book.
In 2013, the duo began hunting for agents. It wasn’t until 2017 that they landed a contract. “I met Regina Brooks [founder of Serendipity Literary Agency], who ultimately turned out to be our agent for this, at an event at Howard University where I teach,” Walker recalled. “I just kind of said to her, ‘Can I send you something to have a look at because we've been trying to shop this around?’ and she loved it. It took a while, but then one day she called me and was like, ‘Got a big surprise for you! It’s a big publisher too!’ It was on after that!”
Even once they had found an agent and publisher, it took a while for the book to be scheduled as they didn’t want competition with their other books. Holmes had several other projects she was working on and Walker ended up with a separate book deal (Nana Akua Goes to School, illustrated by April Harrison, came out last June from Schwartz & Wade). Holmes also had to redo some of the illustrations for the book based on editorial feedback.
In the end, their dream came true. “I think one of the special things about this story is, if we think about our own lives as little girls sitting on the floor making books and writing these stories, [it’s] like we're the first graduates from Dream Street,” Holmes remarked. “We had this idea as kids that we could be artists, that we could be writers, and here we are sitting in those lives looking back.”
“The dreaming part is big,” Walker added. “Even now, I always sign my books with, ‘Believe in your dreams.’ I feel like every kid should have that and not every kid does. [It’s important] to really encourage kids who maybe can’t see it for themselves, but hopefully they’ll pick up a book and be like, ‘Wow, yes! I could do this! I could be this!’ ” She continued, “There was this article in the New York Times talking about how we need to really value picture books. It reminded me of my mother because she read them like they were novels and she gave them as gifts to adults because she thought children's books could solve the problems of the world and they really can.”
Walker’s mother played a huge part in fostering the cousins’ love of literacy. Holmes remembers her aunt fondly as someone full of love, support, and education. “Being taught to love books, it’s like a gift. It’s like a precious thing that we own. We’ll always have companionship, and company, and new worlds to explore because we were taught to love books, love literature, and love poetry. It’s not just about getting a passing grade in English. It’s about this gift that the adults in our lives—Tricia’s mom, certain teachers, my mom—made sure that we had, and now it feels like gold.”
While both of the artists want all children to be able to relate to the book, they specifically hope for Black children to see themselves and their neighborhoods represented. “I think Black kids need to see just their regular self being celebrated. It’s beautiful. It’s wonderful what they do every day. Ordinary is extraordinary.” Walker hopes Dream Street will “raise their self-image to the highest place it can go.”
The cousins mentioned that more books may be something to look forward to in the future. “We keep talking about how maybe there’ll be a sequel!” Walker jokes.
Holmes exclaimed, “A whole series: a Dream Street series! Why not?”
Dream Street by Tricia Elam Walker, illus. by Ekua Holmes. Random/Schwartz, $17.99, Sept. ISBN 978-0-525-58110-9