An Introduction to Mystery, Wonder and the Realms of Possibility with Charles Johnson

Award-winning author Charles Johnson reflects on the power of illustration to inspire learning.

Successful as he is as a writer, Charles Johnson never abandoned his first love — the cartoon.

Sure, accolades came for his National Book Award-winning novel Middle Passage, and for the torrent of fictional and philosophical works before and after it, but Johnson’s first breakthrough in the creative arts was as a political cartoonist and illustrator. As an undergraduate student in his native Illinois, he produced a vast portfolio of work for newspapers, national magazines, and comic book publishers. He hosted a college television program that offered a series of drawing tutorials.

So when the former University of Washington professor and his daughter Elisheba put forth the 2013 kids’ adventure Emery Jones, Boy Science Wonder: Bending Time, with illustrations by the elder Johnson, it wasn’t a deviation from form so much as a return to it. They’re now promoting the book with a series of weekly one-panel comic strips of Emery’s further adventures, Emery’s World.

“I don’t want to be put in a box,” says Johnson. “I can’t live like that. If that doesn’t fit somebody’s program or agenda, I don’t care. Being able to draw, ever since I was a kid, has been a great pleasure. It’s like meditation for me.”

Johnson created Humanities Washington’s Bedtime Stories literary fundraiser. As part of this legacy, he has read a new work created specifically for Bedtime Stories every year since 1998.  He returns to the podium in Seattle on September 12.

Humanities Washington: How did the Emery Jones adventure book branch out into the weekly Emery’s World cartoon?

Charles Johnson
: When my daughter was growing up, she heard me complain for years about how the English department world, the literary world, the publishing world, never allowed me to draw. That was my first life — any opportunity to draw for publications, I would leap at. So when she said to me, “Why don’t you do a weekly cartoon featuring the characters from Emery Jones?” I decided, yeah, this is something I’d love to do — something I did for seven intense years of my life, between the ages of 17 and 23. My feeling of reward after working on a drawing is like nothing else. It’s deeper to me than finishing a piece of writing, actually.

HW: How does your collaboration with your daughter, Elisheba work?

Johnson: We have discussions endlessly about the cartoons. She grew up reading Archie comics, so her model is humor aimed at that age group, fifth or sixth grade. I tend to go more for the science-oriented gags that adults can get something out of. I tend to go for the ideas that are very science-based, mainly because I want to do something with every aspect of science I possibly can in a year.

HW: [Your cartoons] remind me of the Danny Dunn series of books I read when I was a kid.

There are a number of scientific whiz kids in fiction out there, but none of them are kids of color. Less than two percent of children’s books published are produced by black artists and writers. Only three percent of books published last year had black kids as characters in stories.

The late Walter Dean Myers, who published over one hundred children’s books, had a piece published in March just before he died in July at age 76 called “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” Then his son Christopher Myers, in the same New York Times edition, has had piece called “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature.”

The numbers are awful, and this is a serious problem. I think this is a critical, cultural tragedy, because the stories that most influence our lives are the ones we’re exposed to as children. They introduce the child to mystery and wonder and the realms of possibility, and help the kid interpret the world in which they live. For me, the Emery Jones project is a passion. These are gifts for my grandson, who’s two and a half years old, and for other people’s kids as well.

HWIn the project that you did with E. Ethelbert Miller, I learned that you like to start writing late in the day, which runs counter to a lot of writers I’ve read, whose schedules start in the morning. I guess it’s served you well.  

Johnson: I don’t start really getting to it until around midnight, and then I’m usually up until six in the morning. Those are quiet hours, there’s no phone ringing, there are no errands to run — I can just concentrate in the quiet of night. Everybody else is asleep — except for the two dogs.  They’re usually here going in and out of my study while I’m trying to work, and taking me into the backyard.

I’m pretty sure I got into this schedule in two ways. One was when I was an undergraduate and had to stay up all night to study for a test. Another reason is when my children were born, I really didn’t want to get to work until all their needs were taken care of and they were in bed. So those hours were free for me. Now, the irony is when I first came here to the University of Washington, they gave me eight-in-the-morning classes. I finally talked them out of that.

HW: Given your sleep schedule, have you written a Bedtime Stories entry that involves trying to sleep in the daytime?

Johnson: No, although one of the Bedtime Stories I did was “The Queen and the Philosopher,” which was about Descartes and how Queen Christina brought him to Sweden to teach her.

He went to Sweden in the dead of a Swedish winter and she had him up teaching philosophy before five, and he never went to sleep before noon — and it killed him! It’s in my third story collection, called Dr. King’s Refrigerator. So that’s a story about somebody with a night schedule who gets caught in a terminal way.

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