An interview with Jeanne Walker Harvey
The Children’s Book Review
In this episode, I talk with Jeanne Walker Harvey, the author of the stunning picture book biography Ablaze with Color: A Story of Painter Alma Thomas.
Jeanne has been a longtime docent at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Just like Alma Thomas, she believes that art brings us joy. Her other picture books include Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines and My Hands Sing the Blues: Romare Bearden’s Childhood Journey. Jeanne studied literature and psychology at Stanford University. She lives in Northern California.
- All about Ablaze with Color: A Story of Painter Alma Thomas
- Get to know Jeanne Walker Harvey
- Working as a docent at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
- A discussion on painter Alma Thomas
- Researching for picture book biographies
- Jeanne Walker Harvey reads an excerpt from Ablaze with Color: A Story of Painter Alma Thomas
- The modern art of children’s book illustrator Loveis Wise
- Jeanne Walker Harvey’s creative life
- Using Ablaze with Color: A Story of Painter Alma Thomas in the classroom
Listen to the Interview
Read the Interview
Bianca Schulze: Hi, Jean. After so many years of email interaction with you over your wonderful picture books, it is such a pleasure to get to hear your voice and match it to your words. And I just want to say welcome to The Growing Readers Podcast.
Jeanne Walker Harvey: Oh, thank you so much, Bianca. You are such a treasure for the children’s literature world, so I am really honored to be on The Growing Readers Podcast. Thank you so much.
Bianca Schulze: You’re welcome. That’s really kind of you to say.
I have to say that Ablaze with Color is truly an outstanding picture book biography, and it had me write from that stunning cover. But we’ll be talking about the illustrations created by Loveis Wise. Before that, I want our listeners to learn more about who you are how your experience as a longtime docent at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art helped you write this book. This is a super loaded question: what drives you and guides you in creating books for children?
Jeanne Walker Harvey: Oh, that’s such a great question.
You know, I just found that I kept traveling toward picture book biographies. I love writing about creative people. It’s just what fascinates me. I just always want to find out more about them. What makes them tick? What in their lives inspired them? What they overcame because so many have overcome so many challenges to pursue their creative endeavors. And also why? Why being creative is important to them?
So it’s, you know, really a passion of mine to learn more about creativity. And these people who are incredibly creative are such inspirations to me; I hope they will be to children too.
Bianca Schulze: Being a longtime docent at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, I imagine that you’re very drawn to art yourself. And so I’m just curious where that natural pull comes from? A lot of the people that you write biographies for are creative people.
Jeanne Walker Harvey: You know, I grew up in a house with a lot of modern art. My mom loved to take me to art museums, so it was just what we did. And she was an artist too, as was her mother. And I then found I love sharing modern art. I was actually surprised to learn everybody didn’t love modern art, and I thought, well, I should get in early with children and share with them why it’s such an exciting type of art.
Being at the Museum of Modern Art—I specifically toured children, always school groups for a long, long time. And every single tour was different because every group of students is different, and they would bring their impressions and connections to the artwork.
Our way of touring the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is not talking at them. It’s much more asking them questions. What do they love about the art? What type of art would they like to do? We would look at maybe only four or five pieces of art in an hour. We would sit down in front of it and even do an art project right there on the floor in front of the art, which was so much fun.
So that was a perfect segway to my wanting to write about artists, but in general, creative people.
Bianca Schulze: Right. So in telling the true story of black artist Alma Thomas, this really beautiful picture book places emphasis not on fame and success but on serving and supporting others and enjoying life and experience. So what was it specifically about Alma Thomas that drew you to her and her artwork?
Jeanne Walker Harvey: You know, I was amazed to learn that she had been an art teacher in Washington, D.C., in a public school in her neighborhood for decades. She was also doing her own art, participating in art groups, showing a little bit in galleries, and attending classes at various organizations and colleges. But she was so devoted to children and wanted them to experience art because black children at the time were not always allowed in places, maybe even to see marionette shows. That was one of her passions to make marionettes.
And so, she would set up art classes essentially in her home, not even at school, but in her neighborhood, because she wanted kids to have this activity. And then, she would take them on field trips, and then she would set up art galleries for the kids to get to see art.
I first learned about her art because it was shown at the Obama’s White House. Learning about her and her passion for educating kids really resonated with me because, as you said, of my connection with the Museum of Modern Art being a docent.
Bianca Schulze: Let’s talk about the research you had to do to write about Alma. Do you have a specific writing and research formula that you use for all of your books? Or is it different for this one? Like, how do you go about researching?
Jeanne Walker Harvey: I wish you had a formula. I’m not that organized. I don’t think. I just gather everything I can possibly find about the person. So that will be not only books, obviously, but many galleries for artists will have their own catalogs, which are super helpful because the curators will talk about it. And then interviews—fortunately, she was interviewed often, too. And of course, my favorite source is primary sources. So the artists, if they’re not alive, any interviews or their own words are always my favorite. And so then I just immerse myself in it.
I take a long time researching. Kids are always shocked at how long it takes me before I write a book.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, I imagine that there’s a lot of sort of sitting involved while you’re writing and researching. So I’m wondering, do you have any day-to-day practices that help you stay motivated or help you reset your creativity?
Jeanne Walker Harvey: That’s so spot on. Absolutely. I sit way too much. I did get a standing desk, but somehow I can’t think while standing.
So I love to dance. I’m not particularly great, but it just makes me so happy to move around to some nice peppy music. And, you know, during the pandemic, I couldn’t go to classes, so I’d set it up in my kitchen, on the counter. So if you peeked in my kitchen and sometimes, you know, someone would stop by and say, what are you doing? And I’d be jumping around because I’d have my earbuds on, and then I’d pick up my cat, and she’d be my dance partner.
So yeah, I’ve got to move around more and take hikes. I like that, too.
Bianca Schulze: That’s perfect. That sounds so fun. I feel like we should all dance and move and sing a lot, right?
Jeanne Walker Harvey: Totally.
Bianca Schulze: Well, back to the research again. When you sit down to officially write, when you’re done dancing with your cat, you sit down. Do you create a timeline first, or do you just pull all of that information together? I’m sure when you’re researching, it kind of comes in at different parts of the timeline. So do you just start writing and then check a timeline, or do you jot down the information you learn on a timeline?
Jeanne Walker Harvey: Hmm, that’s really interesting. I don’t use the timeline until afterward. I really am trying to find that theme—that through-line of the story first. And I may not know how—maybe it’ll be just a snippet of someone’s life, maybe not their entire life, maybe it will be some anecdote that I can expand on—so I’m really not thinking that logically. Probably it’s more what story do I think would be compelling?
And then, for example, in this book, mentioning timeline… this was a huge project for me because I’m not great at remembering dates. Specifically, the editor was great at helping me really fine-tune this. The timeline was much longer before we edited it down for this book because there are many important events in history and her life. I’m very pleased with what we came up with.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah. I love all the backmatter included.
I’m so glad to see publishers including more back matter in picture books, you know, in recent times. It’s so helpful, especially if the story, as you said, you’ve picked the story’s theme that you want to present about this person, this human being, Alma, in this book. And so if that connects with a reader, I think it’s so wonderful for them to be able to source more information in the back and just dig in further. So I loved all the information that you guys provided.
And I also want to say that, you know, I feel like maybe in the past, people shied away from reading book biographies with their kids because it was just so factual and the writing was a little uninteresting. And so something that I really admire about your writing Jeanne is that it is factual, but the prose is so descriptive and beautiful. So I was hoping that maybe you could share a highlight from the book that you particularly enjoy, and perhaps you would even read us a short section?
Jeanne Walker Harvey: Oh, that’s so nice of you to say. I’d love to share it. Let’s see. How about from the beginning of the book? So it’s when she’s a girl in Georgia, and I particularly liked writing about this because it shows the roots in her being connected, being so visual and connected to color, and finding joy in her environment. So this is the very beginning.
Alma always felt her best when she was outside, soaking up the sparkling colors of nature in the garden, at her house on a hill. She skipped around circles of flowers, pastel purple violets, and crimson roses crowned by bright green banana leaves. She fell back on the grass beneath poplar trees and gazed at quivering yellow leaves that whistled in the wind. Alma waded in the blue hues of a brook and basked in the warm glow of sunsets.
Bianca Schulze: Oh, if you hadn’t have read that part, I was going to read that part. I am so glad you picked it because it just sets the scene right away. Even if Loveis Wise’s artwork wasn’t there, you could visualize that. You could see the colors and you can feel the wind anyway. You’re so talented. So beautiful are your words. And then they get elevated incredibly by the artwork of Loveis Wise.
So you just read the words, will you describe, since they can’t see inside the book right now, will you describe the artwork that goes with those words?
Jeanne Walker Harvey: Oh, my Loveis’ illustrations. First of all, I am just blown away by the beauty, the colors, the patterns, their interpretation of the words. So those two pages, the girl is running through this glorious field of just iridescent flowers with huge leaves above her. And then, when she falls back on the grass and looks up at the tree, you just can feel the warm breeze and Loveis’ illustrations just are stunning. That’s all I can say. Just absolutely stunning.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah. So do you know what I’m going to do? For all of our listeners, I am going to share those images on our site on The Children’s Book Review. And so, in the show notes, there’ll be a link that will take you directly to that so that you can now visualize just how stunning the artwork is.
I think for me, one of the most fun parts of being an author of picture books, especially an author who doesn’t illustrate, is waiting to see how the illustrator chooses to bring your story to life. Do you agree that that’s one of the most fun parts, or does it make you nervous?
Jeanne Walker Harvey: Oh, absolutely, I agree with you. It’s so exciting. I’ve been just thrilled by the choices of the art director and the editor for the illustrator. As you know, people are always surprised that we aren’t choosing. We aren’t dictating. Instead, we are lucky that these incredibly talented editors, art directors, choose these amazing illustrators. And I think that’s why I like to write picture books because I also cannot draw. It would all be stick figures. And so, to see this amazing art that just takes the story way beyond what I envisioned at best in my mind is always just incredible.
Bianca Schulze: I can’t imagine for Loveis the weight that must have been on their shoulders to create artwork representing such an incredible artist as Alma. And yet it’s honestly just the most perfect pairing, and I know that many authors don’t get the opportunity to connect with the illustrators on the artwork.
I’m curious, have you heard anything at all—even though the editor—on how they felt about being tasked with creating this artwork?
Jeanne Walker Harvey: Such an interesting question. I agree. Creating art illustrations about an artist must be the most intimidating project, but I think Loveis took this challenge and created their own interpretation of Alma’s art. And I saw the sketches along the way, and I feel they knew how to do this. I don’t know, just intuitively, so I don’t know more specifically, but it couldn’t be better.
Bianca Schulze: Absolutely.
Ok, so you specifically, while you don’t create the illustrations, you are a lover of art. So I’m just curious, do you dabble in any kind of art-making? I know you said if you drew, it would be stick figures, but do you do any sort of artistic thing?
Jeanne Walker Harvey: I love to do art projects with kids, so I think with my own, you know, nieces and nephews and then the children at the art museums. So I love to just get in there with paste and glue and paper and cutting. And I think my gardening might be my creative artistic outlet. I love redesigning, probably way too much digging up and starting over, but I think that might be my art. I think I’m intimidated by my mother and grandmother being painters, so I think in words, trying to create.
Bianca Schulze: I was wondering, though, as a creative person and a lover of fine art, have you ever done something creative that maybe didn’t work out too well?
Jeanne Walker Harvey: Oh yes. Oh, creative, I can be. Oh, that’s so funny, because I was just talking to someone about this. I definitely came from a family with a mother who always had funny, creative solutions to do things. And so I just took that on.
Independently, when I was in sixth grade, I was in The Wizard of Oz. I was the Wicked Witch, mainly because I couldn’t sing, but I could cackle. So for the rehearsal, for the performance, I needed to have a green face. So I took Jergens lotion and added probably a whole container of green food coloring, mixed it up, put it on my face. I looked great for the performance, but it didn’t come off for weeks.
Bianca Schulze: My gosh, do you have a photograph of that?
Jeanne Walker Harvey: No. I wish I did. Actually, my parents were appalled.
Bianca Schulze: You know, I would have wanted to share that.
Jeanne Walker Harvey: I wish you could.
Bianca Schulze: Oh, that’s so funny. Oh gosh.
Well, I think it’s really important to share too, and you could elaborate a little more, is that there’s been a really wonderful educators guide made to be paired with your book. And there’s also an activity kit which kind of goes back to what you were saying before about how you love cutting and pasting. So do you want to talk a little bit about that and maybe how you imagine that teachers could use your book in a classroom?
Jeanne Walker Harvey: Sure. I taught fifth through seventh grade for a couple of years, so I used picture books with those grades. So I do want to emphasize that I don’t think picture books are just for the younger age, especially a biography because it introduces them to people easier than reading a longer biography, which they might then pursue.
This educator’s packet is terrific because it has very thoughtful, critical questions that students of different ages can use. It has ‘how to read the book’ to younger children because there are some challenging topics. The art activity one—both are downloadable for free on my website—they can create a collage using strips of paper and very colorful patterns from the book illustrations. And there’s also a puzzle and a make your own Alma Thomas-inspired art.
So as you kindly said about the writing, I try to write the books in a narrative fashion so teachers can also use it in the sense of ‘what is the beginning, middle end of this book’— the arc? What is the conflict? The challenges that have to be overcome. Then looking at specific word choices for alliteration, abstinence, or internal rhymes? You know, the different literary devices. So I think the book can be used at younger ages to read aloud to them, learn about this person, and in older grades because of the timeline, the social studies aspect, history, and the literature.
Bianca Schulze: I feel like this is a great book for the classroom, but it’s just a great story for any home library, any library at all. And I really do hope that a lot of readers get their hands on it. I’m curious, what impact do you hope that your book has on readers?
Jeanne Walker Harvey: So I think I am always hoping that my books will inspire children. Maybe inspire them on their creative journeys, maybe inspire them to overcome difficulties or challenges, to pursue whatever their passions are. I feel these people in my biographies are such incredible role models that I hope there’s some connection.
And sometimes kids, I miss this so much doing in-person book talks, but you know, there will always be some children that will come up to me afterward and say, I really want to grow up and be a writer. Or I really want to grow up and be an illustrator. And I mean, that’s incredible to hear that. So I feel so lucky to have this job I get to do.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, that’s beautiful. I feel like maybe a really special thing about creating a biography because not only are you getting to introduce people to an incredible person— in this book, Alma Thomas—they’re also getting to know you and you as a writer. So I feel like that’s super special.
Since we’re talking about readers and this is my go-to question. They say to be a writer, you should be a reader first. Is that something that you agree with? And if so, is there a specific moment in your life where you considered yourself a reader?
Jeanne Walker Harvey: I agree 100 percent. It’s just the more—and I also said this when I taught—the more one reads, the more one is exposed to writing and vocabulary ideas—the writing will be better.
I have always been a reader. It was growing up with my mom, who was a big reader. She would get huge, heavy art books from the library. And then I would get my stack of novels from the library. And then I’d come immediately home and sit on the couch and read it with my Collie curled up next to me.
So I mean, I can’t really remember when I wasn’t reading. So I saw those books with the names on the front, and I knew those were the authors, and I really, really wanted my name on the front of a book. So this is a dream come true.
Bianca Schulze: Oh, that is so fun.
It wouldn’t be right for us to end our conversation without mentioning that you have another picture book releasing later this year. Do you want to share the news about that today?
Jeanne Walker Harvey: Sure. It’s very exciting to have another book in the fall—September 2022. It is, yes, another creative person. But in a somewhat different area, she is Edith Head, a costume designer for Hollywood movies. It’s titled Dressing Up the Stars. And it has these really sweet, wonderful, whimsical, creative illustrations by Diana Toledano. It’ll be published by Beach Lane, Simon and Schuster—with the incredible Andrea Welch editing it. So it’s amazing to have two books in the same year for me.
Bianca Schulze: Before we wrap up, is there anything else you think we need to know about Ablaze with Color?
Jeanne Walker Harvey: I think the only thing is… I would love for people to know children and, well, any readers that a book is really a collaborative effort. It’s a group effort.
I mean, my name and the illustrator’s name are on the covers. But there is a whole team for every book, beginning with my agent, Deborah Warren, from East West Literary Agency. Then there’s Megan Ilnitzki, who was the editor. And then there’s the marketing team at Harper, publicists, art directors. You know, everyone. I always feel, well, actually, I did put the names in this book of many of those people as a thank you because books wouldn’t be here without a whole team. So I really appreciate all their effort.
Bianca Schulze: Oh, that’s so true, and I can only imagine that they are grateful for the opportunity to work with you, Jeanne because you’re such a kind person.
So, listeners, I cannot say this enough, but you really do have to go and feast your eyes on Ablaze with Color because it is so beautiful. It’s thought-provoking, and it’s going to appeal to readers of all ages, and it’s really going to appeal to budding young artists, for sure.
So, Jeanne, this has been an absolute blast, and I’m so grateful that you were able to join me today.
Jeanne Walker Harvey: You are incredible. Thank you so much, Bianca. This is just such a treat. So, you’re amazing.
Bianca Schulze: Back at you.
About the Book
Ablaze with Color: A Story of Painter Alma Thomas
Written by Jeanne Walker Harvey
Illustrated by Loveis Wise
Ages 4-8 | 40 Pages
Publisher: HarperCollins | ISBN-13: 9780063021891
Publisher’s Synopsis: Celebrate the life-changing power of art in this inspiring and stunningly illustrated picture book biography of American artist Alma Thomas.
Meet an incredible woman who broke down barriers throughout her whole life and is now known as one of the most preeminent painters of the 20th century. Told from the point of view of young Alma Thomas, readers can follow along as she grows into her discovery of the life-changing power of art.
As a child in Georgia, Alma Thomas loved to spend time outside, soaking up the colors around her. And her parents filled their home with color and creativity despite the racial injustices they faced. After the family moved to Washington DC, Alma shared her passion for art by teaching children. When she was almost seventy years old, she focused on her own artwork, inspired by nature and space travel.
n this celebration of art and the power of imagination, Jeanne Walker Harvey and Loveis Wise tell the incredible true story of Alma Thomas, the first Black woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York City and to have her work chosen for the White House collection. With her bold and vibrant abstract paintings, Alma set the world ablaze with color.
Ablaze with Color includes extensive backmatter with photos, an author’s and illustrator’s note, a timeline, and a list of sources and resources, which will be a great tool for parents, educators, and librarians. Perfect for Women’s History Month and Black History Month units alongside such favorites as Malala’s Magic Pencil, Hidden Figures, and Mae Among the Stars.
Buy the Book
About the Author
Jeanne Walker Harvey has been a longtime docent at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Just like Alma Thomas, Jeanne believes that art brings us joy. Her other picture books include Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines and My Hands Sing the Blues: Romare Bearden’s Childhood Journey. Jeanne studied literature and psychology at Stanford University. She lives in Northern California.
Visit her online at www.jeanneharvey.com.
About the Illustrator
Loveis Wise is an illustrator and designer from Washington, DC. They are currently based in Los Angeles and their work often speaks to themes of joy and liberation. Their work can be found through the New Yorker, Google, Adobe, and the New York Times.
You can find them online at www.loveiswise.com.
Educators Guide and Art Activity Projects: https://www.jeanneharvey.com/projects.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: https://www.sfmoma.org/.
Loveis Wise: https://loveiswise.com/.
See some interior artwork from Ablaze with Color: A Story of Painter Alma Thomas here: https://www.jeanneharvey.com/ablaze-with-color.
East West Literary Agency: https://eastwestliteraryagency.com/
Thank you for listening to the Growing Readers Podcast episode: Jeanne Walker Harvey Discusses Ablaze with Color: A Story of Painter Alma Thomas. For the latest episodes from The Growing Readers Podcast, Follow Now on Spotify. For similar books and articles, you can check out all of our content tagged with Art History Books, Biographies, Black History Month, Jeanne Walker Harvey, Loveis Wise, and Women’s History.