Janice N. Harrington (1956- ) is a professional storyteller and author who writes picture books for children and poetry for adults. Her works are largely autobiographical. Although Harrington left Alabama at the age of eight, most of her publications draw heavily on her memories of her early life in rural Lamar County. She has won an Alabama Author Award from the Alabama Library Association for two of her picture books.
Harrington was born on September 9, 1956, in Vernon, Lamar County. As a child, Harrington lived with her mother while her father served in the military. Her family moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, when she was eight to escape segregation, a journey she would later chronicle in her picture book Going North. Harrington graduated with a degree in education from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln in 1978 and received a master’s degree in library science from the University of Iowa in 1981. She worked as a librarian in several states before becoming head of Children’s Services at the Champaign Public Library in Illinois. After holding this position for 17 years, she became an assistant professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She currently teaches in the university’s creative writing program. Harrington also has performed as a professional storyteller at museums, schools, and festivals across the United States, including the National Storytelling Festival.
Harrington came to the attention of the publishing world in the late 1990s when she began to publish her poetry in literary magazines such as the African American Review. Harrington’s first picture book for young readers, Going North, appeared in 2004. It received several national honors, including the Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award from the New York Public Library. In vibrant, poetic language, the book tells the story of an African American family in the 1960s seeking better jobs and educational opportunities in the non-segregated North. The eldest daughter records her own disappointment in leaving her Alabama home, however, with its red sand, cotton fields, and children jumping rope. The journey north proves difficult, and Harrington depicts the challenges that the family faces in finding the sparsely distributed gas stations and stores open to African Americans. She presents the travelers as “pioneers” seeking new opportunities.
Harrington followed the success of Going North with The Chicken-Chasing Queen of Lamar County (2007), which debuted as one of Time magazine’s top 10 children’s books of the year. The book recalls Harrington’s own childhood delight in chasing her grandmother’s chickens in rural Alabama. Like Going North, the book drew praise for its evocative use of language.
Her 2008 book Roberto Walks Home was based on the stories of Ezra Jack Keats, a white writer and illustrator who was one of the first children’s authors to depict African Americans and other children of color as central characters. Roberto is a Hispanic boy created by Keats and featured in his book Dreams. Keats died in 1983, and Harrington’s book (which cites Keats as a co-author) continues Roberto’s adventures. The picture book tells about a difficult day in which Roberto must confront his older brother after he abandons Roberto to play basketball with his friends. True to Keats’s originals, the book presents multicultural characters in a stark urban setting. Harrington has been praised for skillfully capturing Keats’s writing style in this short homage.
In addition to the praise garnered by her children’s books, Harrington also gained a reputation as a poet with the publication of her collection Even the Hollow My Body Made Is Gone (2007). Many of the poems in this collection are inspired by Harrington’s Alabama childhood, including memories of her segregated elementary school in Lamar County and memories of her grandparents. The poems chronicle struggle, pain, and loss in a community on the brink of the civil rights era. Included in her poetry are superstitions, folk sayings, and children’s songs that Harrington hopes to preserve for future generations. Harrington received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in poetry in 2007. Her 2011 poetry collection The Hands of Strangers: Poems from the Nursing Home commemorates the people and events Harrington encountered during her work as a nurse’s aide in a nursing home. In 2016, she published a biography of self-taught artist Horace H. Pippin. And in 2019, she published a children’s biography of Charles Henry Turner, the first Black entomologist.
Works by Janice Harrington
Going North (2004)
The Chicken-Chasing Queen of Lamar County (2007)
Even the Hollow My Body Made Is Gone: Poems (2007)
Roberto Walks Home (2008)
The Hands of Strangers: Poems from the Nursing Home (2011)
Primitive: The Art and Life of Horace H. Pippin (2016)
Catching a Story Fish (2016)
Buzzing with Questions: The Inquisitive Mind of Charles Henry Turner (2019)
Battiste, Michele. Review of “Even the Hollow My Body Made is Gone by Janice N. Harrington.” RATTLE: Poetry for the 21st Century, November 5, 2008;
Goss, Linda, and Marian E. Barnes. Talk That Talk: An Anthology of African American Storytelling. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989.
Harrington, Janice. “Poet’s Choice: ‘Turning’ By Janice Harrington.'” The Washington Post, May 17, 2009.
Miller, Corki, and Mary Ellen Snodgrass. “Janice N. Harrington.” In Storytellers: A Biographical Directory of 120 English-Speaking Performers Worldwide. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1998.