Author Derrick Barnes’ and illustrator Gordon C. James’ first collaboration, the picture book Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut, won a Caldecott Honor, a Newbery Honor, Coretta Scott King Author and Illustrator Honors, the Kirkus Prize for Young Readers and more. Needless to say, the expectations for their next project together were high. I Am Every Good Thing, which pairs James’ lush illustrations with Barnes’ lyrical ode to Black boyhood, is sure to satisfy even the most exacting of readers. BookPage spoke to Barnes and James about the new book, what it was like to work together again and the good things in their lives right now.
This is your first time working on a project together since the success of Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut. What was different about that process this time? What was the same?
Barnes: The major difference was, when I wrote Crown, I didn’t even have a book deal, let alone an illustrator for the project. We went through at least three or four illustrators, who all turned it down. Gordon was meant to bring this story to life. There are no accidents in the universe. Our chemistry was still the same. We both agree on the message, the target audience and how much these affirming illustrations and words mean to Black and Brown boys.
James: After Crown, people were waiting to see what we’d do together next. How would it stack up? I was excited about the challenge to meet or even exceed those expectations. We still have the same personalities. We both want everything we create, together and separately, to be our best work. We want to leave a positive mark on our world.
Derrick, the text of this new book is a set of affirmations that strike a balance between the tangible (“I am skateboard tricks”) and the intangible (“I am hilarious”). How did you balance these as you wrote?
Barnes: I made a running list of everything that embodies the emotions, actions, goals, desires, strengths and weaknesses of my own sons. Every tangible and intangible quality covers a broad spectrum of what it means to be a little boy—maybe riding his bike without training wheels for the first time, or a teenager who somebody prays for at night. I wanted for young readers reader to see themselves in all of these emotions and scenes, and for parents to see these boys the way they see their own children.
Gordon, when Derrick’s text wasn’t immediately suggestive of an image, what was your creative process like to figure out what image to create and pair with his words?
James: Those are the fun ones. I just start doing tiny drawings called thumbnails in a sketchbook, or sometimes right on a printout of the manuscript. I go wild and just come up with as many solutions as I can, so I have a lot to choose from.
Derrick, which affirmation was the most challenging to write?
Barnes: It wasn’t a challenge exactly, but the line that says, "I am a brother, a son, a nephew, a favorite cousin . . . ” is simple in its structure but it took me there emotionally. I thought about all of the people who care about those young men that I dedicated the book to, and all of the Black and Brown boys who just want to grow up and be somebody, who just want to live in a world where they are not criminalized or seen as an adult as soon as they gain some size and height, around ages 11 and 12.
Gordon, which illustration in the book was the most challenging to conceptualize?
James: I agonized over the image of the young man in the red shirt. It wasn’t the concept but how graphic to make the image. This calm, confident young man is surrounded by the negative voices of society, telling him who they think he is. It was a challenge to decide just how strong to make those voices appear.
Derrick, do you have a favorite affirmation from the book? Did you write any affirmations you loved that ultimately didn’t end up in the book?
Barnes: My favorite affirmation is probably, "I am Saturday mornings in the summertime. I am two bounces and a front flip off the diving board. I am hilarious. I am the life of the party!”
Among my list of descriptors and every 'good thing' that's universal, I remember originally having a line similar to "I'm the center of a cinnamon roll,” which is in the final version. It said, "I'm the fry at the bottom of the bag.” Everyone loves to scoop up those French fries that fall to the bottom of the bag. They just taste better.
Gordon, do you have a favorite illustration in the book?
James: I absolutely love the swimming pool scene. I love the light, energy and joy. It’s a strong counternarrative to all of the negative attitudes, stereotypes and all-out racism surrounding us and swimming.
How collaborative was your work together on this book? Did you ever influence each other’s work during the process?
Barnes: We collaborated, conversed and disagreed about a few minor things this time around. But we're old friends so you know, we don’t worry about hurting each other’s feelings or biting our tongues. His style of illustrating and painting may have influenced what I wrote because I could envision how he would create the scenes.
James: We are friends so I talk to Derrick more during the process than I normally do with other authors, but I really do enjoy my space when I’m working. I live in this visual mode and I like to bring something additional to the book that may not have been thought of during the writing process.
Gordon, I read that you originally wanted to be a fine artist and create paintings that would hang in galleries. What’s different about creating paintings that serve as illustrations in a picture book? What’s not different?
James: I do my best to keep the process the same. Kids don’t need to be talked down to artistically. Also, I keep in mind that some of the kids that read this book may have never been to an art museum so I give them academic oil painting, a fine art experience, 12 to 24 paintings at a time in children’s book form. The only difference is that the subject matter didn’t originate with me and that there’s a team giving feedback and input. The fine art is all me.
I love your use of color in this book. What’s your favorite color to paint with? What color is the most challenging to paint with?
James: My favorite color to paint with is a warm pink. You can see it in the lights on the "boom bap" page. That’s my fave. The most challenging are the dark values. For books, they need to be a little softer and more colorful so that they reproduce well.
Who or what are your good things right now?
Barnes: My youngest son, Nnamdi. He's such a sweet boy with a great sense of humor. He's 9, so he still has a smidge of innocence and wonder about him left. I'm going to miss that in a couple of years.
James: One good thing right now is that my wife and my kids are healthy and safe. I’m especially proud that my son Gabe is on the cover of I Am Every Good Thing. He’s autistic and seeing him shine on the cover and through the book is a very, very good thing.
Derrick Barnes photo courtesy of Derrick Barnes. Gordon C. James photo courtesy of CHDWCK. Illustrations from I Am Every Good Thing used with permission from Nancy Paulsen Books.