Angela Johnson

Angela Johnson Angela Johnson (1961- ) is an acclaimed author of children’s picture books, young adult novels, poetry, and short stories. Although she left her birthplace of Tuskegee, Macon County, at a very young age, Alabama serves as a setting in many of her works, which concern the everyday lives and struggles of young African Americans.

Angela Johnson was born in Macon County on June 18, 1961, the first child of Arthur and Truzetta Johnson. When Johnson was 15 months old, her family moved to Diamond, Ohio. After the birth of Johnson’s two brothers, the family moved to Windham, Ohio, in 1966. Johnson’s parents still reside there, where Truzetta Johnson works for a social services agency and Arthur Johnson is a retired employee of General Motors.

Johnson’s love of language and literature began early in life, inspired by both her grandfather’s vibrant stories and her grade-school teachers’ readings of children’s books such as Harriet the Spy. When she was eight, she began to keep a journal in which she could express herself secretly. Johnson always thought of herself as a poet, writing what she describes as angry “punk poetry” in high school.

After studying for three years to be a special education teacher at Kent State University and spending a year as a child-development worker, in 1982 Johnson chose to give up aspirations for a teaching career and devote more time to her poetry. She decided to change her focus to children’s literature, however, while working as a nanny for children’s author Cynthia Rylant. Rylant’s interest in Johnson’s work led to Johnson’s first published picture book, Tell Me a Story, Mama (1986), in which a young girl has heard her mother’s childhood memories recounted so often as bedtime stories that she becomes the storyteller herself. Rylant also encouraged Johnson to read young adult fiction, with which she quickly became enamored.

To date, Johnson’s publications include numerous picture books, several chapter books, numerous young adult novels, a book of poetry, and a collection of short stories. She has received many literary awards and is a three-time recipient of the Coretta Scott King Award for her young adult novels Toning the Sweep, Heaven, and The First Part Last. She has been honored with the Alabama Author Award, first in 1993 for her picture book When I Am Old With You and again in 2005 for The First Part Last. Her most prestigious award is a five-year MacArthur Foundation fellowship, received in 2003. In 2018, she won the American Library Association’s Margaret A. Edwards Award, and in 2021, she was the recipient of the Harper Lee Award from the Alabama Writers Forum.

Johnson’s work, filled with vivid imagery and poetic prose, taps into the feelings and experiences of young people, and reviewers often praise her works for their vibrant, original, and memorable characters and their engagement with difficult issues such as family estrangements, illness, and teen pregnancy. Johnson believes that children are drawn to stories that speak to their own experiences and understandings of the world, and her teen novels do not shy away from issues of sexuality. Recently, her picture books have become more historically focused, including Just Like Josh Gibson (2004) about 1930s black baseball player Josh Gibson, and one on the Tuskegee Airmen entitled Wind Flyers (2007).

Johnson often draws her ideas from visiting new places or remembering familiar ones, and Alabama figures most prominently in her work as a place remembered. In The Other Side: Shorter Poems (1998), the speaker recalls incidents of her childhood in Shorter, Macon County. In Johnson’s picture book The Rolling Store (1997), a young entrepreneur repeats her grandfather’s story about a mobile store in rural Alabama. In Bird (2004), a young person searches for his stepfather in Acorn, and A Sweet Smell of Roses (2005) takes place in Selma during the civil rights movement. The picture book was inspired by an incident recounted in the documentary series Eyes on the Prize in which two young girls, without parental consent, joined one of the Selma to Montgomery marches led by Martin Luther King Jr. in March 1965.

Johnson’s most complex use of Alabama as a setting occurs in her highly acclaimed young adult novel Toning the Sweep (1993). The main character, Emily, chronicles important aspects of the life of her terminally ill grandmother, and through her storytelling the reader learns her family’s past, specifically that her grandmother and mother left Alabama in 1964 after Emily’s grandfather was the victim of a racially motivated murder. Having fled to California and Ohio, the family members retain complex ties to their former state, including the grandmother, Ola, who brings Alabama kudzu to California to remind her of where she used to live and the mother, who never forgives Ola for leaving what she felt to be their true home. Through Emily, the three generations of women learn to remember, forgive, and ultimately let go in time to celebrate their lives together.

Johnson explores issues of belonging and coming of age in Heaven, Ohio, in her celebrated Heaven trilogy. In the first novel, Heaven (1998), Marley discovers that she is not really the daughter of the parents who have raised her, and in the prequel novel, The First Part Last (2003), teenage father Bobby struggles to raise his baby daughter. In 2010, she completed the trilogy with the publication of Sweet, Hereafter, published in 2010, which focuses on the costs of war in a community and finding ones place in the world, centered on teenager Sweet. Consistently tackling difficult issues of growing up, including feelings of displacement and struggles with identity, Johnson’s works resonate across races and genders, speaking to children, teens, and adults. Her most recent young adult “coming of age” novel, A Certain October (2013), explores the consequences and trauma of unexpected death. In 2020, she published an illustrated book of poetry, A Girl Like Me, with the theme of empowering young readers to live the lives they choose. In 2023, Johnson was inducted into the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame.

Selected Works by Angela Johnson

Tell Me a Story, Mama (1989)

When I Am Old With You (1990)

One of Three (1992)

Toning the Sweep (1993)

The Leaving Morning (1993)

Joshua by the Sea (1994)

Joshua’s Night Whispers (1994)

Humming Whispers (1995)

The Rolling Store (1997)

Heaven (1998)

The Other Side: Shorter Poems (1998)

When Mules Flew on Magnolia Street (2000)

Down the Winding Road (2000)

Those Building Men (2001)

Looking for Red (2002)

Violet’s Music (2004)

Bird (2004)

Just Like Josh Gibson (2004)

Wind Flyers (2007)

Sweet, Hereafter (2010)

A Certain October (2013)

Lottie Paris and the Best Place (2013)

A Girl Like Me (2020)

Additional Resources

Hinton, KaaVonia. Angela Johnson: Poetic Prose. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2006.

Johnson, Angela. “Family Is What You Have.” Horn Book Magazine 73 (March/April 1997): 179-80.

“Johnson, Angela.” In Contemporary Authors: A Bibliographical Guide to Current Writers in Fiction, General Non-Fiction, Poetry, Journalism, Drama, Motion Pictures, Television, and Other Fields, New Revision Series 92, edited by Scott Peacock, pp. 210-15 (Boston: Gale Group, 2000).

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