February 2023

Kim Taylor brings history to life with needle and thread

Interview by
The author-illustrator of A Flag for Juneteenth, a picture book illustrated with quilted artwork, describes feeling guided by her ancestors as she created her extraordinary first book.
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In A Flag for Juneteenth, Kim Taylor tells the story of Huldah, a Black girl who lives with her enslaved family on a plantation in Texas. It’s June 1865, and tomorrow is Huldah’s 10th birthday—but it’s also the day that Huldah will witness the historic reading of the proclamation that President Abraham Lincoln has freed all enslaved people. A self-taught textile artist, Taylor’s illustrations for the book are exquisitely detailed quilts that fill the story with a spirit of joy and freedom.

Tell us about Huldah and what’s happening in her life at the beginning of your book.
Huldah is a mature, curious, insightful little girl. She has the very grown-up responsibility of caring for her baby sister while her parents work on the plantation. We meet Huldah the day before her 10th birthday, which falls on a Sunday. Sundays during this time were a day for rest and reconnecting with family and community. Huldah’s mom baked Huldah’s favorite, tea cakes, for her upcoming birthday, a luxury she may not have had time for during the week.

What did you research to write this book?
I devoured everything I could read about Juneteenth, but that was only the beginning! I was curious about what life was like for enslaved people when they were not working and how they connected with their immediate and extended families. I was very interested in understanding how they built a sense of community despite such oppressive circumstances. 

I Googled, listened to podcasts and read books about that time. I also looked at pictures of enslaved people, which helped me to imagine their personalities and lives. One picture of a little girl that I found on the Library of Congress website seemed to embody the spirit of my Huldah, and I kept her image in mind as I developed the character.

Many of the characters’ names in the story are symbolic. Will you tell us about some of these names and what they represent?
I wanted my main character’s name to be unusual, a name that would be new to my readers. I envisioned this character to be a prophet, one who could bear witness to the announcement of the end of slavery as a legal institution and could also foretell of a future free of bondage. I Googled biblical female prophets and an image of a beautiful Black woman appeared on my screen. Her name was Huldah. As soon as I saw her, I knew that this would be the name of my main character. 

“I remember telling a friend that I felt as though Huldah had become like a daughter to me. I felt a deep connection to her character.”

Eve, the name of Huldah’s baby sister, is also biblical. It is derived from a Hebrew word meaning “to breathe” or “to live.” In my story, Eve is an infant. She will have the opportunity to live her life without the legal burden of enslavement. 

One other character in my story has a name. Mr. Menard is the oldest man on the plantation. He has the last name of Michel B. Menard, the founder of Galveston, Texas, where my story takes place. I thought that it was important to demonstrate that enslaved people were often given the last names of their enslavers to erase any connection to their own family lineage.  

You’ve said that each of your quilts feels as though it is created “through [you], rather than by [you]” and that you feel a “deep connection with [your] ancestors during the creative process.” What was the journey of writing this book and creating its quilted illustrations like for you?
I felt that I was being guided in some way while writing and creating the illustrations for this book. I saved the pictures that I discovered during my research and looked at them often when writing, trying to connect in some way. 

I fell in love with Huldah very early on. Because the people in this book have no faces, I had to figure out how to give Huldah depth and to showcase her personality in other ways. I also needed to make her consistent and recognizable in every illustration. That is no easy task when working with fabric on such a small scale! I remember telling a friend that I felt as though Huldah had become like a daughter to me. I felt a deep connection to her character. 

The illustrations took a little over a year to create. It was an enormous undertaking and very emotional. When I was finished with all of the illustrations, I was amazed that I had actually achieved it! I don’t think that I could have done it if I did not know on some level that my ancestors were watching over me and guiding me throughout this journey.

Tell us about your quilting journey and how you began to make story quilts.
When I was young, I loved to color, paint and lose myself in arts and crafts projects. I liked to make clothes for my dolls using my mother’s scarves. When I was about 8 or 9 years old, I discovered my mother’s Singer sewing machine, and I wanted to learn to use it. My mom didn’t sew but encouraged me to try it out. I taught myself how to work it and began trying to make clothes for my dolls. Throughout my childhood, I used art as a vehicle to relax or to create something that I needed, such as pillows or simple paintings for a new apartment. 

“I love exploring different colors and texture combinations when I am just beginning a new quilt. There are so many different possibilities!”

It wasn’t until I discovered story quilting that I began to use art as a vehicle to process deep emotion. When Barack Obama was elected to be our 44th president, I had feelings that I found difficult to verbally express. I wanted to create something to mark the historic event but felt it important to use an art form that had some connection to my ancestors. I thought about my West African ancestors and how women there are master weavers and textile artists. I thought about enslaved African and African American women and how they used quilting not only to keep their families warm but also to tell stories about family memories and ancestral history. I decided to try my hand at this art form and fell in love immediately. 

How has your artistic process changed or evolved since you began quilting?
At the beginning of my journey, I worried about making mistakes but quickly came to the realization that art quilting is very forgiving. Many things that I saw as mistakes enhanced my pieces and made them more visually interesting. 

I decided early on that I would teach myself something new for each quilt. I researched techniques online and bought many books about art quilting to help me to learn the basics. I have become a better artist over the years because of this decision. I am more mindful now about fabric color and texture and how they work together to set the mood of a piece. It’s all been trial and error though. I did not go to art school, so it’s been a wondrous learning journey!

What is your favorite part of the process of creating a quilt?
I love exploring different colors and texture combinations when I am just beginning a new quilt. There are so many different possibilities! There is no need to commit to anything in that early planning stage because nothing is sewn down yet. I am free to move fabrics around and discover what feels right for that unique piece.

“I felt it was critical to highlight the beauty and resilience of African and African American people during their enslavement, as well as to showcase the importance of strong family and community ties.”

I would love to hear about how you composed these illustrations. How did you choose the fabrics? Do any of them have special significance?
When planning the illustrations, I tried to keep the text in mind and made decisions about what aspects needed to be enhanced. For example, the first page describes tea cakes, a traditional cookie that enslaved people made using simple pantry ingredients. I thought it was important to help readers visualize a tea cake, so I set out to create them using one of the brown fabrics from my stash that had some color variations. Tea cakes were not fancy, but they were delicious and smelled amazing, so I used hand-embroidered lettering to show the movement of the scent wafting through the air. Embroidery was the new thing I taught myself for this project. 

I chose fabrics that I felt would have matched the period. Nothing flashy or too modern. I did want to depict a difference in how my characters were dressed before and after the announcement about freedom. Some of the clothing was inspired by my love of African fabric and styles. 

What is your favorite illustration in the book?
I love them all for one reason or another, but my favorite is the illustration of Huldah high up in her favorite tree, catching a sunbeam. It is such a visually stunning illustration. I love how big the sun is in comparison to Huldah. She bravely faces the sun head-on, taking some of its strength and wisdom back home with her in her little jar. In my imagination, the sun represents life and freedom, and that jar is her heart. I fell in love with nature at a very young age, camping every summer in New York’s Bear Mountain and the Catskills. Nature always felt so big to me, yet I was never overwhelmed by it. Instead, I always felt at home and peaceful, just like Huldah.

What aspect of A Flag for Juneteenth are you most proud of?
I am very proud to tell the story of Juneteenth in a way that I hope will encourage children to want to learn more about this historic event. I felt it was critical to highlight the beauty and resilience of African and African American people during their enslavement, as well as to showcase the importance of strong family and community ties. I am also incredibly proud to have illustrated this book with an art form that was used by my ancestors to tell their own stories.

Read our starred review of Kim Taylor’s ‘A Flag for Juneteenth.’

Photo of Kim Taylor courtesy of Erskine Isaac for Ivisionphoto.

Get the Book

A Flag for Juneteenth

A Flag for Juneteenth

By Kim Taylor
Neal Porter
ISBN 9780823452248

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